Yes, you should feel bad for not finishing (insert classic novel here)
Donald Clarke: Guilt is an important aspect of life and a vital part of the reading experience
So rewarding: a marathon reading of Ulysses at UCLA in 2002. Photograph: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty
“I’ve never finished Proust or Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities or even The Brothers Karamazov,” Zadie Smith told the Guardian last week. I’m not having a go. But that “even” is doing a lot of humble-bragging there. She hasn’t “even” finished that 900-page novel about (among much other cool stuff) the role of religion in 19th-century Russia. I didn’t finish Force 10 From Navarone by Alistair MacLean. Now there’s a sentence that could do with an “even” or two.
To be fair to Smith, context matters. À la Recherche du Temps Perdu is a lot longer than Karamazov, and The Man without Qualities is significantly more impenetrable. Set beside those books, The Brothers Karamazov may well read like Tom Clancy’s The Cardinal of the Kremlin (which I didn’t finish either).
At any rate, the point is that Smith went on to express guilt about not finishing these three Himalayas of world literature. “I hate not finishing books. I always blame myself,” she said.
Columns on this subject come along every few months. Don’t beat yourself up for not completing that colossal literary masterpiece. Life is too short to read a book that bores you to death. Heck, there was one in the Guardian last year headlined: “The joy of not finishing books.” And so on.
Baloney to that. Guilt is an important aspect of life and a vital part of the reading experience. Do you think I’d have got through Gravity’s Rainbow if I had listened to the incessant voice telling me I really wasn’t enjoying the psychosexual meander along the contours of a differential equation? No chance. I suspended reading of Thomas Pynchon’s classic several times over two years, but pangs of guilt struck whenever I spotted the bookmark poking from the weighty doorstop. Obviously, it’s now one of my favourite novels. You know how this bit works. Nobody who completes anything that long and that difficult is going to admit they’ve been wasting their time. Guilt pays.
“I suspect that the energy expended in reading Gravity’s Rainbow is, for anyone, rather greater than that expended by Pynchon in the actual writing,” Gore Vidal wrote. That’s the whole point. It’s worth reading because it’s hard to read (there are other reasons too, but we’ll save those).
There are different ways of giving up on a book. The most forgivable is suggested by a literary putdown insecurely attributed to Dorothy Parker. “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force,” she may not have said. It’s probably as well to give any book 100 pages, but, if the prose is genuinely abysmal and the attitudes beyond appalling, then one shouldn’t fret too much about allowing it to clatter into a dusty corner. Martin Amis remembers Kingsley Amis, his salty father, reading relatively merrily through the younger man’s Money until he encountered a character called “Martin Amis”. The book then went “windmilling over his shoulder”. Kingsley was no fan of the post-modern impulse.
Fair enough. That sort of rejection is akin to spitting out a piece of rancid meat in an unsatisfactory stew. I make no apologies for hefting The Da Vinci Code at the wall before I had endured more than five pages of Dan Brown’s vile prose-like goo.
Guilt is more likely to attach itself to the long, slow withdrawal from a novel that – though not actively repulsive – fails to entirely hold the attention. The book is placed down. It takes a few days for you to pick it up again. The gap between reads gets longer and longer. You grab another novel for a bit of light distraction. One day, hitherto in denial, you realise that you really have given up on Ulysses or The Luminaries or Mary Barton. You really should be ashamed of yourself. James Joyce, Eleanor Catton and Elizabeth Gaskell bothered to write those weighty tomes. The least you could do is devote a few days to reading the blasted things. Feel bad about losing interest in books that you suspect are worth reading. Feel weak and unworthy.
Never too late
There is some good news. Your sins can be absolved. One lesser upside to growing older is the ability to pick up volumes abandoned years ago and discover fresh winds at your back. Younger people often feel an unfinished book is unfinished for ever (not least because a fug of shame attaches to the paperback’s half-broken spine). Middle-age changes a fellow sufficiently to allow new perspectives on stories that once puzzled. After decades, I returned triumphantly to Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, John Cowper Powys’s Wolf Solent and – most shameful of all abandoned texts – George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I never returned to Force 10 from Navarone. Life probably is too short for that.