In preparation for a recent trip to Spain, I purchased Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain. It was by all accounts the leader in its impossible category, the tell-me-everything-about-a-country-in-one-sitting kind. I am admittedly uninformed about world geography, culture, and politics. In short, I am American. But given a long plane ride and a 400-page book, I figured I could arrive in Spain with at least a basic level of cultural awareness.
Of course, what actually happened is that I landed bleary-eyed and having read only thirty pages. I didn’t know the current time, let alone anything significant about my destination. I spent the next five days chipping away at the book and wandering idly through the touristic parts of Barcelona, and when I returned to America the book was only a quarter done.
I was in no rush to finish it. Any effort to squeeze a country’s history and zeitgeist into a mass-appeal paperback will inevitably result in density. Ghosts of Spain is brick-like. Tremlett, a British journalist who has lived in Spain for the past twenty years, loves his adopted country and writes about it enthusiastically. Sometimes, though, he forgets to share that excitment with his reader. His primary concern seems to be leaving nothing out, essential for a journalist but destructive for a novelist. For unlike a novelist, who must continually convince his reader to keep going, Tremlett seems to take his reader’s attention for granted. I wonder how many others have picked up his book only to set it down unfinished.
There were times when I, too, wanted to quit early. Reading Ghosts of Spain felt like work, in large part due to Tremlett’s clunky, comma-laden style. He loves to interrupt himself for a quick aside, as is apparent in this paragraph:
Spain is a country of small tightly packed towns, cities and villages. Spaniards like to live piled up on top of one another. Their natural meeting place is the crowded street, the busy bar or the plaza. It is a life of close physical contact, of loud sociable bustle. Benidorm, at least, has that. But here the only place people can be seen, tanned and blonde, is in their cars, as they head for the tennis club, the golf course or the out-of-town shopping centre, the new Spanish malls. Even the narrow beach, although busy, seems to be a minority interest. Its role has been replaced by tens of thousands of swimming pools — adding to growing problems with water.
To me, these commas read like speed bumps. Was Tremlett worried that his reader would fly through all of Spanish history too quickly? Also, how does a man graduate from Oxford without learning its comma?
Sometimes comma usage is so clumsy that a sentence seems destined for multiple readings:
Costa corruption is as much the result of those who come here, enjoy the Spanish weather and hospitality but refuse to accept any responsibility for the place they live in, as it is of crooked politicians and construction companies.
OK, so Tremlett needs a new editor. I’m done bashing his style. Grammatical gripes aside, he is a patient, thorough, and dedicated guide to Spain. Others will get much more out of his book than I did, but at least I finished it. This, after all, is the point I am trying to make: even if a book is boring or slow, you should finish it.
I have always felt this way. But this opinion of mine came into question about a month ago, when I encountered the following quote by John Irving:
If I get a book to review and I don’t like it, I return it; I only review the book if I love it. […] Another thing about not writing negative reviews: grown-ups shouldn’t finish books they’re not enjoying. When you’re no longer a child, and you no longer live at home, you don’t have to finish everything on your plate. One reward of leaving school is that you don’t have to finish books you don’t like. You know, if I were a critic, I’d be angry and vicious, too; it makes poor critics angry and vicious — to have to finish all those books they’re not enjoying. What a silly job criticism is! What unnatural work it is! It is certainly not work for a grown-up.
Irving’s opinion caught me by surprise because I didn’t realize that there was room for debate here. Doesn’t everyone believe in finishing books? How is this even a question?
I have been grappling with Irving’s inflammatory viewpoint for the past month, for there are convincing points on both sides. My gut reaction is that he is wrong. Irving argues that a reader who has left school has the right to quit a book at any time, and that this reader should therefore continually asses the book for its read-worthiness. Irving entrusts this decision to the grown-up reader, whereas I don’t think the decision should exist at all. In my view, the only decision a reader should make is whether to pick up the book in the first place. To begin a book is to promise its completion.
Why do I believe in such a rigid contract between reader and book? For starters, I do not think anyone has the ability to correctly judge a book before finishing it. In any case, I find little merit in Irving’s framework for making this judgement. He oversimplifies the decision of whether to continue reading, stating that we should only finish books that we’re “enjoying.” But is enjoyment the only axis along which a book can be evaluated? This definition seems to buckle at the simplest prodding. I immediately think of the classics that would cease to be read altogether if their readers were optimizing for enjoyment. How many of us would get through the works of Shakespeare and Faulkner if we stopped reading the moment we stopped enjoying?
I have a problem with this concept of enjoyment, for it is totally subjective and means very little. But even if we allow for this nebulous definition, there is still the issue of continuousness. Irving explains that a reader should stop reading a book when she is no longer enjoying it, but how continuous must this enjoyment be? If the reader enjoys the book for a hundred pages and then reaches a dull passage, should she quit? What if she reaches a dull passage on the first page? The last page? How continuous must the enjoyment be? Is it a moving average, and if so how wide is the window? Is it measured in minutes or pages? If these questions seem absurd, it is only because Irving has left the reader with advice that she cannot possibly follow.
And then there’s the comparison to a child cleaning his plate. To the child the broccoli on his plate is unwanted excess, but the parent has a better understanding of what is good for him. Thus, if there is food on the plate it should be eaten. Irving seems to celebrate the freedom from broccoli that adulthood offers, but just because you are old enough to turn down vegetables does not mean that you should. Irving presumes that we adults always do what’s best for ourselves when this is obviously not the case. We should all finish our broccoli and we should all finish the books we start, for some books are an acquired taste just like broccoli is. A book, an author, a genre, or the act of reading itself can grow on a person. If we abandon a book there is always the risk that we have done so prematurely.
Plus, even if we never truly enjoy a book we may still get something out of it. If a person has written a book, edited it, hired an agent, found a publisher, and gotten the thing printed and into your hands, the finished product is probably worth your time. Perhaps my standards are too low, but I generally believe that if I’m not enjoying a book then it is probably my own fault. Rather than give up on a slow read, I should try to understand what others saw in it. Maybe I’ll learn something.
And yet, there is an obvious crack in my counterargument: time. With so little time and so many books, we cannot afford to read anything but the best. Recommendations from friends, literary awards, and trusted reviews can help us reduce the number of subpar books that we read. But we will inevitably begin a book that is, relative to better books, not worth our time, and it is from this unnecessary trap that Irving would like to free us.
Irving’s argument depends on a reader’s ability to determine for herself whether a book is worth reading before she has finished reading it. Irving states that we gain this skill upon “leaving school.” If this skill is real and infallible, then it follows that quitting bad books early will benefit the reader in several ways. She will spend less time on bad books, more time on good ones, and more time enjoying. Plus she will avoid turning “vicious and angry” from reading books she does not like.
Having considered both sides, I still believe in finishing every book you start. I have two reasons. First, we should not always read for enjoyment. Reading can be challenging and uncomfortable. I certainly experienced this with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. As my review attests, I felt personally attacked by her novel and never fully settled into it. However, I feel that Americanah, which I would have loved to quit early, is one of the most impactful books I’ve read. I wonder how Irving would respond to the concept of reading for something other than enjoyment. Perhaps he would tell me not take the word “enjoy” so literally. Maybe he’d say that I should have enjoyed being challenged. Alas, I did not.
This brings me to my second reason: trust. I do not trust myself to always give books a fair chance. In my review of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, I call attention to the novel’s strenuous first hundred pages, which the author compares to a hill that must be climbed. I ended up enjoying the book immensely, but it was only through stubbornness that I kept going.
The downside to my approach is that I will sometimes finish books that neither enlighten nor entertain me. I never did come to enjoy Ghosts of Spain, and I remember very little of what I learned. My time would have been better spent elsewhere. This is the price of finishing every book. It is a game of chance, and occasionally you lose.
But I’m convinced that the losses would be greater if I followed Irving’s advice. I worry about the types of books that would go unfinished. My reading list would likely become even more of an echo chamber of my own beliefs. I know which authors I’d stick to if I cared only about enjoyment: Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, and Tom Robbins. This is not to say that I do not enjoy reading authors from different backgrounds, but rather that appreciating different perspectives takes patience, and patience is the very opposite of what Irving suggests.
I am, for the time being, resigned to finishing every book I start. I will certainly end up finishing books I don’t enjoy, and I may well end up, as Irving puts it, “vicious and angry.” I have just spent several paragraphs lambasting an author over comma use. But I disagree with Irving that finishing every book is somehow childish. Rather, it is the only surefire way to grow.
Perhaps I will one day awaken to find myself a true adult, one who is capable of weeding out bad books and finding enjoyment in challenging ones. I’m not counting on it. I have already left school — with a degree in literature to boot — but have still not grown up. Until something changes, you will find me trudging through every book I start, vicious but learning, a dutiful child cleaning his plate.