Dr Samuel Johnson once advised his friend Boswell that books, once started, should be read all the way through. Boswell’s view was that “this was surely strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?”
Do you favour Dr Johnson’s approach, or Boswell’s? Do you finish every book you start, or do you sometimes give up and leave a book unfinished? As I’ve recently done just that, I’ve been thinking about what is a fair trial of a book. How many pages should one read before ditching it? One hundred pages, three or four chapters, half way through? I hate abandoning a book before completion and do not do it often, but as I grow older I find myself getting more impatient with a book that bores me, or I feel is badly written, and have a growing fear of dying before reading even a fraction of all I still want to read. Reading time is so precious – should we use it on a book we’ve grown tired of?
A US maths professor has come up with something called the Hawking Index, a way to estimate how far into bestsellers people actually read. The name comes from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time which, according to this measure, is one of the least-finished books. Which popular books have you purchased with enthusiasm, only to let them gather dust, book mark still marking Chapter 3? I suspect that Finnegan’s Wake, Ulysses, Moby-Dick, Possession, Remembrance of Things Past, War and Peace and many other books score highly on this index. What classics have you abandoned part way, in spite of the best of intentions to persevere?
And yet some of the world’s great books are not easy reads, and if you abandon them, you are missing so much. I did not find it easy to read Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and yet my life was enriched by the experience. I have even re-read it, I still chuckle over Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadham, and the lecture I gave on it is still one of my all-time favourite talks.
We live in a world of instant entertainment, and perhaps that makes today’s readers a little too inclined to leave a book when they dislike a character, or have to look up too many words in the dictionary, or they’ve been rather distracted by other things.
So maybe you should consider making 2017 the year when you pick up a book previously abandoned and give it another try, or consider more carefully before tossing an unfinished book aside?
What books have you ditched and which ones have you endured? I’d be interested in your list and whether you thought it was worth persevering with a difficult read. Please tell me by leaving a comment.
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