A Guide To Half Finishing Books
Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 5:40PM
Aegis Training

It's no big deal really, there are worse intellectual crimes. Creationism for example, or liking dubstep. And yet every time we abandon a book halfway through it feels a little bit like a defeat.

It sits by the bed. Face down, spine broken, bulging slightly where you've folded a page as a bookmark. A page that will now (despite your half-hearted avowal to return to it) forever trumpet the moment of your abdication.

"Too tough for you was I? Never mind. I hear Dan Brown's got a new one in the works."

I'm a promiscuous reader; three or four books on the go at once, each assigned a rough apportionment based on its location in the flat, time of day or other factors. Even travel concerns affect the rota; bulky hardcover or ephemeral iphone download?

But, crucially, the system works. So when it breaks down and I find myself skipping over a book in my daily rounds, putting it off till tomorrow or (worse) forcing myself through a preordained number of pages simply to feel like I'm making headway, I get a little anxious.

It's not that I don't like reading. If anything it's that I love it too much. I just find it hard to commit. I see lists of "100 books to read before you die" as an objective scoring system, a method of quantifying just how uncultured I am.

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would say it's due to my lack of a traditional academic background . A university degree in a respected subject engenders security in one's own intellect. In contrast, to be self-taught, working in an industry without the agreed hierarchy of a traditional profession, one is more likely (says Bourdieau) to become an "anxious intellectual hoarder." Like an over-eater whose mind is on the next forkful instead of what's in their mouth, I catch myself worrying about the knowledge I'm missing out on even as I'm reading something I find fascinating.

Not all books provoke conclusion anxiety of course. short story anthologies or collected essays welcome the sporadic reader. A Clive James collection will be content to lie around till whenever we feel like dipping in. In contrast, a half-read War and Peace with its mercilessly vast and bafflingly polyonymous cast is some seriously guilt-inducing book shelf real estate. It will stand there, quietly judging until you come crawling back.

You could argue life's too short to persevere with any book that doesn't instantly grab you and compel you to keep reading. But almost by definition serious literature is the stuff that rewards effort, to shy away from any book that doesn't yield immediate superficial pleasure is to confine yourself to mass market page-turners.

My solution then, for the commitment shy bibliophile is to embrace both your literary sluttishness and a book-rotation system. Following multiple stories in weekly instalments is standard practice for comic book fans. It's also how we watch TV, barring the occasional single show box-set binge, so why be a monogamist in one medium when you already philander in others?

As for when to abandon books, of course it's a personal choice, but I suggest a 100 page rule. If you're that far in and not hooked, no matter how great the book is supposed to be, I say ditch it, guilt-free, and move on.

Kafka apparently reckoned that after a certain point books could finish anywhere, and even left some of his

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