Biografi [Lloyd Jones] or: How do we feel about putting a book down unfinished?

ImageTwo of my maxims for giving a book a really fair chance are: 1) Only have one book on the go at a time, and 2) Always finish a book, even if you’re not enjoying it. The first of these rules I don’t think I have ever broken when reading for pleasure; obviously when you’re studying Literature you have no choice. And I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve cheated on the latter. Which is why, when I made the decision to give up on Lloyd Jones’ ‘Biografi’ last week, it felt like a really big deal.

As I barely scraped past the first third of the book, it would be wholly unfair of me to try and give any kind of criticism further than telling you that I found it as dry as a dead dingo’s donger. The bit I did read felt like a compilation of the first sentences of eastern European politicians’ Wikipedia profiles – and I found it tiresome to keep tying back together the broken narrative thread (which was hard enough to spot in the first place). It wasn’t really helped along by the fact that the bulk of my reading was done on an afternoon on which I was locked out of my house and had to entertain myself (ooh err) in the shed for two hours while being battered by 60mph winds and driving rain, and cowering in fear of a sudden collapse of the whole structure. But, unfavourable circumstances aside, I really knew that I wasn’t going to get any gratification whatsoever from persevering with ‘Biografi’, and decided to move on.

This got me thinking about how easy others find it to abandon a book half way through, as I know a heck of a lot of people who proclaim that they never start a book and then don’t finish it. I once read something by a critic who felt entirely happy to put down a book as soon as they felt they had taken away enough from it (whatever that vague explanation means), and they would break of at such a point still having a complete sense of closure on the book. That strikes me as odd, though. If you’re reading with the express intention of finding out what lessons or outlook-altering points the author has to offer, then surely leaving half way through would be like abandoning an hour’s lecture after thirty minutes. Sure, you might have learned something but the class was planned out over an hour for a reason and you’d leave without fleshing your new ideas out thoroughly or setting them in a complete context.

One of the strongest arguments you hear for giving up on a book is that reading for pleasure should be just that – pleasurable. Obstinate me would argue that even if something doesn’t instantly hit the spot, ten pages away may be the epiphany which illuminates what has come before – in which case you may finish the book completely fulfilled and having forgotten that you ever had to force yourself to pick it up instead of reaching for ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’.

On balance, though, I reckon that the best approach is a compromise – like most good solutions. Somewhere between giving up on a book after the first page because there were too many adjectives, or whatever, or torturing yourself with the thought that you still have 300 laborious pages looming over you but you must finish because ‘it’s the right thing to do’, lies the sweet spot. I think your gut instincts tell you when it’s time to break up with a book – and in the past I have certainly been guilty of ignoring said feeling because I just wasn’t a person who gave up on books. But even if that feeling only comes once in your life, you shouldn’t disregard it just because you’ve written rules for yourself in thick black indelible ink. There are no prizes here, people. And that is a lesson I finally learned from reading Lloyd Jones ‘Biografi’.  Hey, I did learn something, though! Maybe that’s what Mr. Critic who takes what he wants and then leaves before dawn without so much as a goodbye was talking about, only wrapped up in critic speak.

I’ve finished this and want something similar:

Well then I’m afraid you’ll have to snuffle for advice elsewhere, old bean. I would just feel too much of a fraud trying to make recommendations when there was more than half of this book that I have no experience of.

What do you think?

This week more than ever before I would really love to know your thoughts on leaving books unfinished. Are you devoted to the turn of the final page? Or are you quite happy to hop from book to book with wild abandon? Let me know in the comments. (Your commenting or following also gives me a chance to come and have a snoop around your blogs, too, which I love doing. So get to it!)

Artwork credit: Mark Demsteader

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