Do You Always Finish Books You Start?

Do you always finish every book you start? I used to have kind of a compulsion to finish books, but at some point, probably around 200 pages into Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Gravedigger’s Daughter,” I realized that I had not purchased the book, nor was I reading it for a class, and therefore, really I was under no obligation to finish it. That was a fairly freeing revelation! Although sometimes I feel guilty for not finishing a book that is supposed to be excellent or a classic, I generally feel like life is too short to waste on a book I’m not enjoying. This week in particular seems to be a week of unfinished books. I don’t know if that’s due to the family being under the weather, or just poor selections.

I started “Pudd’n’head Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins” by Mark Twain, and while I appreciate the book as a critique of the decayed morals of chattel slavery, I found myself unimpressed with the story line in general and unable to summon much sympathy for the characters involved. I decided after about 50 pages that if the kids have to read this for school at some point I’ll read it with them, but if not, I won’t.

Next I started Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien. The book won the National Book Award and is supposed to be one of the best books about the Vietnam War, plus it’s supposed to be groundbreaking in it’s use of the surreal to explain reality. I read 36 pages and wondered if I was ever going to start caring about the story or the people involved. I was not wowed by the writing, and I wonder if my lack of engagement with the book has to do with the fact that Vietnam was not my generation – maybe this book really resonated with people in the 1970s because of what those readers brought with them to the book. I think it’s interesting how some books are perfect for their particular moment in history, while others transcend time and grab readers regardless of historical situation.

I also briefly started On Moral Fiction by John Gardner (the guy who wrote “Grendel”), because it’s part of a trilogy that is supposed to be really great for aspiring writers. From the introduction I gathered that Gardner’s main point was admirable, but I just don’t know if I want to devote the time to his discovering an ethics of writing. I might skip to the rest of the trilogy. Or I might skip the whole thing altogether. Unless any of you has any objection, in which case you should speak now or forever hold your peace.

So how about you? Do you always finish books you start?

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