Are You Obligated to Finish What You Start? (Or, When to Put A Bad Book Down) by Brad Windhauser and Ron Hayes

Are You Obligated to Finish What You Start? (Or, When to Put A Bad Book Down) by Brad Windhauser and Ron Hayes

How do readers in general and writers specifically feel about putting a book down before they finish? Should they feel guilty? Does this say something about the person that they can’t/don’t finish something, especially a famous work? Here at 5Writewrs, we got to thinking about these questions and here is what Brand Windhauser and Ron Hayes have to say.

First, Brad’s thoughts: I have a lot of respect for the craft of writing. I also have deep respect for the classics–a number of people whom I respect have validated these books, so there must be something great in these pages. I also feel a writer needs to develop his or her reading list: we need to know what has come before us. Therefore, I have spent a lot of time returning to the classics.

But what happens when I crack one of these books and, a chapter or two in, I want to toss the book aside? What if I find the process of reading so tedious and painful I never want to pick up another book? Am I a bad reader? Are some books just over my head? The flip side: maybe a classic operates in ways that run counter to my understanding of fiction, so I need to embrace different approaches. But do I torture myself just so I can say I have read a particular book that millions of people revere?

For years, I would torture myself, slogging through a book just to prove (usually to myself) something, as if I’d earned some medal. Now, however, I find that my time is too valuable to waste on a book that doesn’t speak to me. I’ll give it a chance, but if I’m not going to learn from a book (some technique, for instance, about character development or use of point of view) or actually enjoy reading it, I put it down.

This happened recently when I attempted (for the third time) to read Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities.

I admit that I will not like every book I begin–nor do I think I should; however, since I accept this, I am willing to read a book I’m not really enjoying because I believe I can learn at least something of value from any work–no matter how seemingly insignificant. After all, the book got published; it must do something well, right?

I feel this most strongly when it comes to a famous work. Once I realize that I’m not bound to like the book (for example Crime and Punishment or Moby Dick), I then challenge myself: why is this book a classic? What can I uncover that can inform my craft?

I found nothing in A Tale of Two Cities. It’s boring, overwrought, etc. The characters are not developed well–and I felt this way well into the book, by the time I reached the storming of the Bastille–so I said to myself: you know what, my time is too valuable to waste on a thankless task. And so I ditched the book (actually, I donated it, which seemed a better decision than putting it in the fireplace, a choice I strongly considered). I’ve decided that I need to cut myself some slack: first and foremost, reading should be fun; secondly, if not fun, it should be at least a rewarding experience. If a book can’t meet either of these two criteria, I’ve decided to move on, and hopefully, by sharing this experience, other people will feel entitled to do the same (if they don’t already).

Put simply, there are far too many worthwhile books out there–classics or not–to devote your energy to one that does nothing more than give you a headache or, as a friend of mine from Facebook mentioned when I posted this experience, spends three pages describing a lamppost.

Now, Ron’s thoughts: As a teacher, I feel like there’s a very staid and stoic academic somewhere deep in the core of my being who’s scowling down at me for what I’m thinking. As a teacher, I believe that it’s my job to open doors and to keep them firmly wedged open while I encourage my underlings to persevere, work hard, avoid giving up, and keep pushing through because the payoff at the end–the lesson in that book I just know will be a valuable life lesson–is just sitting there, waiting for them to close that back cover and grab it.

As a teacher, I’m a bloody hypocrite.

Like my friend Brad, I also have tried to get through books and poems that I, as a purveyor of the craft, feel obligated to have read from beginning to end. And like my friend Brad, I have many times found myself emulating Dorothy Parker by tossing aside entire works not lightly, but with great force. Even worse, I have no compunctions about telling friends and neighbors (and, shudder, even STUDENTS sometimes,) that I routinely eschew any literature having any connection to the canon prior to, say, 1915.

I’ve tried, I’ve tried, honestly I’ve tried. I just can’t seem to hack it.

Sure there are exceptions to the rule–Poe, of course, is eminently readable and, as a poet fond of working in forms, I don’t mind rooting around the canon for the dead white guys (and ladies, of course,) who could really sling a sonnet or villanelle or a sestina. But in terms of fiction and longer works of poetry, I threw in the towel long ago. Sure, I’ll warm to Shakespeare after multiple readings, and Blake holds a certain fascination for me that I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on. Beyond that, however, the thought of spending even minutes perusing some Tennyson or Coleridge, leafing through a crisp volume of Dickenson, or mucking through the drudgery I find to be Milton or Sidney or Wordsworth is enough to send my eyeballs rolling back into my skull and my palms to become preternaturally sweaty.

And for as long as I’ve studied, for as long as I’ve been a serious poet, I’ve always, ALWAYS wondered why. Why is it that reading virtually any poem (and, honestly, any fiction as well) that’s of any relative age is as detestable a task to me as navigating my annual tax return or lying on my left side waiting for the colonoscopy to conclude. I mean, I’m an honest to goodness poet (published and everything!) who’s been well educated by fine, even exemplary, professors who’ve laid at my feet the world according to literature. Why can’t I read so much of it??

Well, here’s the deal. I’m 45 years old. These are questions I’ve grappled with for over twenty years now. And the answer I’ve come up with is something I’d like to share with you here. Know what it is? It’s simple: Taste. These works are simply not my taste. And. There. Isn’t. A. Damned. Thing. Wrong. With. That. Plain and simple. There’s nothing wrong with preferring one thing over another. And as Brad alluded to at the beginning of this piece, we writers often engage in years if not decades of self-loathing and guilt. So much so that I’ve no doubt it begins to affect our work. We need to stop. YOU need to stop.

Haven’t muddled your way through Moby Dick yet? Bummer. Move on. Still got Pride and Prejudice on your Bucket List? Cool. Get to it or get over it (hint: either one is okay!). Friends and colleagues point and giggle at you at parties because they know you only talk a good game when it comes to Eliot’s The Waste Land? Quit faking and read it or buck up and admit your duplicity. Because I agree with Brad. Life is far too short to spend plodding through words that don’t engage us, enrapture us, or encourage us to emulate them.

The teacher in me says I shouldn’t tell you these things, but that’s the teacher who still gazes pie-eyed into the profession and sees only wonderful children and committed, caring parents. The other teacher, the one who lives in the real world and survives on pragmatism and rationality, looks me in the eye, claps me on the shoulder, and reminds me that, according to Google, nearly a million books are published every year in the United States alone. “You’ll never finish them all,” that guy says, and, chagrinned, I nod. I nod and then I go on because I realize: there’s just too much. We can’t possibly fit it all in. So why spin your wheels on work that doesn’t move you? Move on. Because in the end, it’s not necessarily WHO you’ve read, but HOW what you’ve chosen to read takes you, changes you, shapes you, and makes you a better writer. Listen to that guy, I tell myself. He knows what he’s talking about.



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  1. #1 by Jules on March 19, 2014 - 10:24 am

    You got a point there about not having all the time in the world. I stick to a 100 pages rule: If it is no good in the first 100 pages it is okay to ditch it. The other thing is the moment in your life you come across a book. 10 years ago I took up Thus Spake Zarathustra and couldn´t get into it. I took it up again last December and it read like butter.

  2. #2 by A Writer With Something To Say on March 19, 2014 - 2:27 pm

    I am in the same boat with you guys. I have two books that I loved when I first started it. I don’t know if it was the hype of the new book or what, but I just can’t read them anymore. I may look through the table of contents and read what interests me. Currently I’m reading about how to write a spec script and i’m loving it! I guess as writers we have to read what we want and write what we know.

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