WHEN TO SAY WHEN: ON NOT FINISHING BOOKS

Posted: July 31, 2013 by mwerntz in Book Reviews, Myles

Over text message this weekend, I confessed that–in the face of staggering commendations–I just wasn’t getting into John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars . And so, I quit reading it.
I have no idea how it ends, but I can guess with reasonable certainty (no spoilers here).

It’s nobody’s fault here, and certainly not the author. As far as the characters went, I found them really charming, and as far as YA literature that deals with heavy material like death and dying, it was well done. And it’s not the fault of the other Hands: I trust their literary sensibilities and their artistic tastes. And it’s not my fault: I’ve slogged my way through more unreadable books than I can count, so I can genuinely say that I don’t like to quit a book. So: why quit the book? Why not plow through the last 130 pages and see where the rabbit hole goes? Why doom myself to the fate of the characters of the book and not know what happens to characters who speak well and whose lives are somewhat interesting? DID THE MOTHER MARRY A CON ARTIST????? THE QUESTIONS!!!!!

The short answer is two-fold. First, I didn’t connect with the characters. Yes, the dialogue was well-written, and yes, I felt empathy for the characters, but I genuinely didn’t care about them. It didn’t help that I was reading East of Eden at the same time, and couldn’t stop thinking about the unwritten fates of so many of Steinbeck’s masterpiece. For the record, I’m glad that sequels to books are not the norm–some characters deserve the gift of fading out beyond the reader’s gaze. But the characters in Fault in Our Stars, for me, were like watching a movie that I was marginally invested in, but could go one way or another with when it’s bedtime.

Secondly–and more broadly–I don’t feel guilt anymore about not finishing a book or a movie. There was a time in my life not so long ago that I hated not finishing a work, that not knowing the ending was like a open mosquito bite, burning away at my attention. But then, it dawned on me that the world is full of books and brimming with movies, books that I want to read more than once and movies that I know I’ll love. And it’s okay to spend time with those more than ones I don’t. As a scholar, I’ll submit myself to work that I don’t particularly think useful for the sake of being fair to an argument; it’s my job and, I think, the mark of charity–to be willing to listen to something that you disagree with and see it through under most circumstances. But when it comes to art, I’m okay with stopping halfway.

Does this mean that I think art is somehow worth being uncharitable to, that art doesn’t get the same pass as scholarly material? In a sense, yes, and I can’t yet defend that. But all I know is that while I may think Oliver O’Donovan’s The Ways of Judgment isn’t a good argument (but one I need to read), Rainn Wilson’s The Super was’t particularly good and I shut it off after fifteen minutes. And I’m okay with it, but can’t yet say why.

What are the books/movies you quit? Do you regret them?

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Comments
  1. Tiffani P says:

    I’ve tried to read Don Quixote a few times, and the Hobbit – both of them, I just couldn’t get into. Even after really slogging a good amount into them. I remember the first time I read a book that wasn’t holding my attention – which is not many, actually – and thinking “What is the harm in just walking away? Am I even going to ever wonder what happened?” Since then, if I feel that way after reading 1/3 of the book (and in the case of DQ, even less), I don’t feel one bit bad about leaving them behind. Its not like I’m saying that Cervantes or Tolkien aren’t good authors/artists. And I don’t feel like its something about my intelligence – I’ve stuck with hard books before. But I think that just like how some people you connect with and want to be around, and some others are fine but you don’t care if you ever see them again – I feel that way about books. Am I supposed to feel bad because I don’t want to hang out with every person I meet? Its not a slight against them – maybe we’re just not a good “fit.” And thus I feel OK about leaving a book behind, the way I might leave an undeveloped friendship with a loose acquaintance behind. Sorry, pal, but I have a limited amount of time and people I know better and want to know better. Its not you, its me. Since I have often thought of my favorite books as dear friends, it all makes logical sense to me. đŸ™‚

  2. kelly says:

    The first movie I walked out on was VERY BAD THINGS. It was a free screening, so that probably helped. It was in college for this media thing for the newspaper in Kansas City. I just couldn’t handle the violence and sex and drugs. It seemed gratuitous and there was nothing else about the movie of value to balance that out.

    I am sad about TFIOS, though. But just because I connect so deeply with a character (or several) doesn’t mean everyone else does. And if a book doesn’t grab me in the first 50 pages, I have no problem walking away. But I blame kindle and books being cheaper and easier to replace.

  3. Bo says:

    I started reading Philip Roth’s AMERICAN PASTORAL, a PP winner and highly lauded work, but after slogging through the part one, I had no desire to read any further. While Roth has an incredible grasp of the language, the sheer amount of it all – the swaggering length of his sentences and the narrator’s carelessness for brevity in any description or assumption – just got to be too much. As excited as I was to pick it up for a buck in a thrift store, I’m fine putting it back on the shelf. There’s plenty more thrift-store gems up there that I haven’t read yet.

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