Finishing books

Tim Parks has an interesting and provocative blog post at NYRB on whether or not it’s necessary to finish good books. It’s obvious, of course, that he is going to suggest that leaving books unfinished is okay, otherwise he would never have written the piece in the first place (“And to conclude, I declare it absolutely essential that you read every last word …”).

But his conclusion goes against my own experience, which is that reading a book I like – and like a lot – I always begin to dread reaching the end, even as I become increasingly anxious to see how everything ends up (and so read faster).

I can’t imagine, for example, putting down The Master and Margarita before the end. It’s not only that I wouldn’t see the resolution of the Master’s insomnia-filled anguish and watch Satan and his gang ride off into the darkness. I’ve read the book many times and always regret that it has to end because it’s a universe that I enjoy inhabiting.

When Parks gives examples of what he calls a “catharsis of exhaustion” in the works of D H Lawrence, Elfriede Jelinek, Thomas Bernhard, Samuel Beckett, and Christina Stead, I see what he means. But to me it underlines the fact that a writer like Beckett and a writer like Bulgakov are doing entirely different things, and that the fact that we group them under the blanket categories of literature, novels or fiction obscures their differences more than it reveals any similarities, and that in a way those differences are as profound as those between a Bernhard novel and a well-written mystery, which it would be absurd to stop reading before the end.

I don’t think it is only or even primarily about plot, nor is it related to the issue he brings up of having open or multiple endings. And I agree that often the actual need to have an ending is arbitrary, most of all for the writer, who because of its arbitrary nature, doesn’t do a great job of tying things up. Besides, just as the notion of a novel’s ending as something artificial can lead to happily unfinished books for readers it can also lead the Robert Musils of the world to write endless novels that only end with the author’s death.

I assume that everyone has a list of books they couldn’t imagine leaving unfinished, just as they have a list of books they prefer to wait till an unspecified future date to pick up and read. Maybe even some of these “have to finish” lists include the books of Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Bernhard (because I’m sure that a lot of the “wait to read at an unspecified future date” lists include them).

And what about re-reading? There are many books that require and even deserve to be read a second or third time to fully appreciate their worth. But how can you re-read a book you didn’t bother finishing?

Photo – Master and Margarita illustration by Peter Suart (for more of his work click here).


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Categories: Essays


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