Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Confessions of a completionist

He'd always been a completionist: he had to finish a book once he'd started it; it seemed like bad manners not to, like not finishing the food on your plate.
Ian Sansom, Mr. Dixon Disappears

When I was a young city hall reporter, I might sometimes have to spend an hour or more waiting in the mayor's office for a chance to ask him a question or two. I always carried a paperback with me for such circumstances, and I read a number of books while getting paid to wait for the mayor. One day the city solicitor came in, said hello and asked what I was reading. It was William Golding's novel The Spire. He asked if I liked it. I told him, "Not particularly."

"Then why are you reading it?" he said.

The fact that I remember this conversation more than 40 years later suggests it must have been more significant to me than one might think it could be. Like the character in Ian Sansom's novel, I was a completionist. If I started reading a book, I finished it. Liking it had nothing to do with it -- until that little conversation in the mayor's outer office. I don't remember ever finishing The Spire. I still made it a point to finish most books I started, but I no longer felt compelled to read to the last page of every book. As I've gotten older, realizing how many good books remain unread and how few years I have left to read them, I have become increasingly impatient with those few books I simply don't like. A couple times a year I will give up on a book after starting it. There are many other books in a state of limbo, sitting somewhere with bookmarks in them neither being read nor discarded. Maybe I'll get back to them someday. Most likely I won't.

Authors have put their hearts and souls into those books. Publishers have thought enough of them to put their imprints on them. They must have some value, even if I don't see it. Perhaps if I read a little bit more, all will become clear. This is very much like the fictional Sansom's character's conviction that it is somehow bad manners to not finish a book. I have never worried much about finishing the food on my plate, however. If I've had enough or if I don't like something, I don't eat it, even if children really are going hungry in China. I've always seen finishing a book as more of a moral question than cleaning off my plate.

My own rationale has more to do with economics than food. I tend to think of reading as an investment, both of time and, if I purchased the book, of money. I like to get a return on my investments. Not finishing a book puts the experience into the loss column, a waste of time and, perhaps, money. Aging has made me realize, perhaps a little more with each passing year,  that it's a bigger waste to devote even more time to books I don't enjoy reading.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy is this year's most unfinished book. Many people who started reading it were disappointed it isn't more like her Harry Potter books, so they gave up on it. Other books that have been left unfinished include The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (too grueling) and Fifty Shades of Grey (made readers uncomfortable). Of course, the real reason these were the year's most unfinished books may be because they were also among the year's best-selling books. Most people, I suspect, are not completionists. They buy books, usually best sellers, with good intentions, then lose interest after a few chapters. The reason you can find so many books at used book sales that look like new is because they are like new. Someone bought them but never read them.

I've heard that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time (1988) is among the best-selling books of all time that few people actually finished. I finished it, even though I can't claim to have understood much of it. I haven't managed to finish Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004), however. I read a few pages each year, after forgetting what I read the year before. 

I guess I'll always be a recovering completionist.

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