November 18, 2014

Reading Shouldn’t Be Work

We’ve all been there.

Deep in the bowels of a book – fiction or non, it doesn’t matter – getting through that vast middle between the beginning where you get hooked and the end where everything (hopefully) pays off, and it happens.  Something in the back of your mind, or maybe the front, says, “what the hell are we doing wasting our time with this shit?”

OK, so that’s what my mind says.  Your mileage may vary, as they say.  But everybody who reads is eventually faced with the question of whether a book is worth finishing.  Whether it’s the slimmest of novellas or a door stopper like the later volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire, you start to wonder if your time might be better spent elsewhere.  Like, say, reading a better book.

Writing at The Atlantic, Juliet Lapidos argues that you should stick it out to the bitter end, regardless of how much of a slog things become.  This isn’t just a matter of trying to ensure you don’t miss out on something that comes good at the end, it’s a question of morality:
This behavior, common though it may be, seems lazy to me. Wrong, even. Once you start a book, you should finish it.
That being said, she begins her case for always finishing a book with the most obvious utilitarian one – it might get better.  She gives examples (classics, naturally) of books that aggravated her to no end, but finally got around to a “transcendentally good scene” that made it all worthwhile.  This is true of anything, of course, and doesn’t really support the charge that bailing at some earlier stage is “wrong.”  Short sighted, maybe, but not wrong.

Her other reasons don’t fare any better.  The first is “fortitude,” which is essentially the intellectual version of being made to eat your vegetables.  Slogging through a boring book (to be fair, she names names – hello Ian McEwan fans!) steels ones resolve to deal with real life.  Which, conveniently enough in Lapidos’s case, involves . . . slogging through lots of poorly written verbiage.  I suppose there’s something to admire in that, but I don’t think anyone would begrudge her some editorial control over the reading she does on her own time.  I sometimes read court cases for fun (pathetic, I know), but only so long as they’re actually interesting.  I save the slogs for the office.

The last reason, is, I have to say, one that gets a little closer to why it’s “wrong” to step away from a book early – respect:
it is one thing to start writing a novel and another thing entirely to finish one. Many would-be authors simply cannot bring a work of fiction to completion, which is part of why publishing houses, as a rule, won’t enter into contract until they see an ending. The difference between being able to write 50 pages and being able to write a whole novel is the difference—at least, one major difference—between a professional and a dilettante.
To drop a novel after a few chapters is, then, to disregard what makes it a formal work of art rather than a heap of papers that reside in a desk drawer. Today, books and authors need all the help they can get; if you care about literature as an artistic endeavor and the people who create it, then you should do so fully.
As someone who has gone the full nine yards and finished a couple of manuscripts, I appreciate the sentiment.  But, ultimately, it pains me to think somebody would someday buy one of my books, start it, think “this really sucks,” but decide to finish it out just so they can support the cause.  OK, maybe I expect my wife to do that, but not strangers!  It’s less a sign of respect than a symbol of your own better nature as a human being – “hey, this novel really sucked, but at least I’m such a good person that I read all of this shit!”

Where any argument that a book, once begun, requires the reader to finish it fails is in what economists call opportunity costs.  Opportunity costs are, basically,, the things you could otherwise do with your time while you were doing something else.  Some people read entire novels in a day.  For others it takes weeks.  If you’re in the latter camp, aren’t you going to lose large chunks of your life reading stuff you don’t like just to say you could?  Reading other books in the time you would have spent slogging through (insert favorite horrific tome here) just makes sense.  We’re all gonna die at some point – life’s too short to read stuff you don’t like.

Which is why books are different than other forms of entertainments.  I’ve never walked out on a movie, although I’ve bailed on a couple while watching at home.  Regardless of how bad a movie is, it’s over in a few hours.  And, for the first reason Lapidos lays out, I tend to want to see if it gets better.  But a few hours is quite different than a few days or a few weeks.  Like I said, life’s just too short.

I am, perhaps, the ultimate subjectivist when it comes to art.  There is no bad or good, only what people like or don't like.  A slog that is redeemed for Lapidos by a single transcendent scene will be, for others, merely a slog.  Nobody should be guilted into consuming art because it's "good" for them.  They should be encouraged to develop their own tastes and interests.  If those don't include seeing every book through to the end, regardless of how much enjoyment the reader gets from it, so be it.

No comments:

Post a Comment