Although I was kind of a goody-two-shoes teenager (and by “kind of” I mean very) I promise there are rules I break. I drive five miles above the speed limit a lot of the time. I swear. Sometimes I even pay the Verizon bill a couple of days late (living on the edge, that’s me). But I am a book finisher.
And by that I mean I’ve finished nearly every book I’ve started in my entire life. Really. I can actually name every book I’ve started and not finished in my lifetime, and there aren’t more than ten. I know what you’re thinking: a) I bet that’s an excellent quality in a book reviewer and b) you clearly waste some serious time reading entire books you hate. You’d be right on both counts. I’ve never failed to finish a review book I started, never said “this isn’t for me…does someone else want it?” If it isn’t for me, I finish, review it, and tell you why it wasn’t for me. But yes, I’ve read more than my share of godawful books.
I recently finished one of them, and it got me thinking about why I must finish books. The book in question was the critically acclaimed Cutting for Stoneby Abraham Verghese. It’s a poignant tale of two twin brothers of Indian and English ancestry who grow up in Ethiopia. I hated it. Hated nearly all the main characters, hated the graphic violence, hated the plot. And I especially hated the protagonist’s “love interest” – a piece of work from start to finish who taunts him, pees on him, causes him to leave the country, and then gives him near-fatal hepatitis. It’s the type of smug, dreary work that reminds me why I love romance novels. But I never considered not finishing it. I was reading it for book club, and by God, I was going to get through that thing if it killed me (so I could tell everyone in my book club how much I hated it).
Maybe it’s the same left-brain tendency that drives me to maintain a meticulously organized sock drawer. Maybe I’m afraid the book police will pop by and haul me in for questioning. Mostly, I think I just need the closure I get from finishing what I start. And very few books have prompted the “life’s too short for this” response – even some who probably deserved it.
You may wonder, with all the clunkers I’ve read over the years, what didn’t I finish? Well, for years (like, until I was thirty), the only book I hadn’t finished was Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle. I started it when I was eight or nine, and was just bored to tears. I chalked it up to a basic lack of interest in animal stories. My kindergarten teacher used to read these bland, boring tales about woodchucks, mice, and squirrels. All the other kids sat on their mats, apparently riveted by all the “action”. I’d just sit there and think, “Why can’t she read something interesting?” I tried The Mouse and the Motorcycle because I liked everything else I’d read by Beverly Cleary. But it made me think of Miss Metcalf and her boring squirrel books. So I never did find out what happened to that mouse (and by the way, I don’t care).
I also confess to reading only a third of Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man by Fannie Flagg. It gave me that same sort of feeling of terminal boredom. This was a book club book as well, and though I didn’t hate it, I just couldn’t summon up enough energy to care about the plot or the characters. I liked Fried Green Tomatoes, but Daisy Fay was a dud.
I also bowed out of – and this was a shocker for me, as many consider it a classic – The Three Musketeers. I think I managed to get about a quarter of the way through before I had to face it: This was a book about grown men who acted like eight year olds. Why people have been reading it since 1844 is beyond me. I had no problem deciding I would not be one of those people.
But by and large, book after book, I finish them. Whether I race through, slog through, or force myself through. I write them down in my journal, proudly mark them as “read” on Goodreads, and (sometimes) tell people what I thought. What about you? Do you have to finish what you start? Or is life just too short for that?
– Blythe Barnhill