On the face of it, there’s no good reason to persist with a book that one doesn’t take to. The writer’s style may grate; the plot may be ho-hum; the proceedings impenetrable. In addition, there is the sheer number of books lying unread and promising more interesting fare.
“I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Those are the famous last words of the character in Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, a blend of recollections and existential musings. Until quite recently, it was also what I used to say to myself when in the middle of reading a book I wanted to abandon.
On the face of it, there’s no good reason to persist with a book that one doesn’t take to. The writer’s style may grate; the plot may be ho-hum; the proceedings impenetrable. In addition, there is the sheer number of books lying unread and promising more interesting fare. (At least according to the blurbs.) Not to mention the seductions of Netflix or social media, which have laid down irresistible pathways in our brains.
All of this makes it odd – some would say admirable -- that so many of us persist in grimly hanging on until the last page. There are those, of course, who sense time’s winged chariot more keenly than others and feel fewer qualms in setting aside a book that is not to their liking.
Whether we persist or not, there’s a residual sense of guilt at abandonment. This seems to arise because we’re products of a culture that places value in completing things: from homework to food on the plate to work projects. We’re exhorted to “just do it”, but this soon becomes a stern “just finish it”.
Clinical psychologist Matthew Willhelm has linked those who finish and those who don’t to Type A and Type B personalities, respectively. While that can be debated, he makes another interesting point: “There is a tendency for us to perceive objects as 'finished' or 'whole' even though they may not be. This motivation is very powerful and helps to explain anxiety around unfinished activities.” The book in question isn’t incomplete on its own; it’s the sense that our actions create closure which causes anxiety. Not to mention a sense of defeat.
So strong is the urge to overcome this that some have come up with theorems to make us feel better. Author and librarian Nancy Pearl has proposed the Rule of Fifty. “If you’re fifty years of age or younger,” she writes, “give a book fifty pages before you decide to commit to reading it or give it up. If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100.” Pass the calculator, please.
While this rule may provide succour to some, it can’t possibly apply to all books. There are volumes that are trying something new, that are unlike those one has read before, that are messy and complicated and ultimately rewarding. Joyce’s Ulysses is the obvious example, but there are many others such as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. (I’ve completed the former.) Here, one has to trust one’s own sense of discernment as a reader and add a dash of doggedness.
It may seem from such examples that the thicker a book, the more the chances of it remaining unfinished, but that isn’t true, as anyone who’s read lengthy fantasy sagas will tell you. Anecdotal data has long suggested that one of the most unfinished books ever is Stephen Hawking’s 250-odd page A Brief History of Time. That didn’t stop it from becoming a bestseller, with a reported 10 million copies sold in 20 years.
This led mathematics professor Jordan Ellenberg to come up with “the Hawking Index” in 2014: a ranking of abandoned books compiled by using the highlights feature on the Kindle. Ellenberg’s modus operandi, self-admittedly unscientific and for “entertainment purposes only”, was to take Amazon bestsellers and calculate the way in which publicly highlighted passages were spread throughout popular books. His hypothesis was that when people stopped highlighting, they had likely stopped reading.
The survey showed that the most unread book was Thomas Piketty’s Capital, in which the last of the highlights ended on page 26. (Perhaps that’s why enterprising author Jesper Roines came out with his Pocket Piketty: A Handy Guide to Capital in the Twenty-First Century.) According to Dr Ellenburg, the most completed book was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, with all of the top highlights in the last 20 pages.
Rival e-bookseller Kobo, however, in a survey of its own claimed that Tartt’s book was completed by just 44.4 percent of its British readers, speculating that it “likely proved daunting for some due to the length of the novel”. (This is a novel I’ve only just started myself, so I’ll reserve judgment for now.)
So much for hypotheses and statistics. It’s clear, though, that if a book simply doesn’t grip after giving it a good, honest try, there’s no harm in giving it up, be it on page 5 or page 50. Author David Mitchell once sadly said that “a half-read book is a half-finished love affair,” but there are times when we readers have to harden our hearts.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.