In which I muse about the enormous pressures we put upon ourselves at times despite the fact that we are supposedly reading for our own enjoyment, and the pros and cons of our so doing.
I wanted to do a discussion post today about something that has been on my mind a lot lately.
There are times when you actually absolutely have to read a certain book that you do not want to read. Maybe you’re assigned to read it for school. Maybe you’re part of a book club. Maybe someone gifted you their favourite book and you feel obligated to read it. Maybe your distant cousin wrote a novel and you’re the only one in your entire extended family who hasn’t read it because you happen to think it’s kind of crummy.
Remind me, if a distant cousin of mine ever writes a novel, to come back and delete this. Because that could be really bad.
That’s not what I’m talking about today.
What I Am Talking About
What I’m talking about is the internal pressure that we sometimes put on ourselves to read or to finish a book. There are many reasons we may do this, and those reasons vary from person to person. Here are some of mine, in order of frequency:
- It’s a classic.
- It’s a really short book, so in theory I should be able to finish it.
- I want to review it.
- The subject matter is something that I genuinely want to learn more about.
- I see how it could have been good.
Now I’m going to discuss a couple of these reasons in more detail.
1. It’s a Classic
Even though I have read a lot of classics, I still feel insecurity about the ones that I haven’t read. In some of these cases—and I’m really embarrassed to say this—I tried to read them and I just don’t feel very compelled to finish them.
When I don’t connect with the characters and am not invested in the outcome, there are a couple of reasons—one somewhat valid, one frankly silly—that I might try to guilt-read it anyway. Both have to do with its classic status.
The first reason is that it was very influential. This is one of the reasons I’ve been really, really, really trying to read Huckleberry Finn. I can really appreciate, intellectually, the fact that Mark Twain attempted to capture how real people talked in his dialogue. These days, we take it for granted that that’s the way to write dialogue, and “The characters didn’t sound like real people” is a common criticism in book reviews. But that’s due in a large part to Mark Twain, because in his day, it wasn’t the standard in the way it is now.
I appreciate the importance of this contribution to literature, and actually genuinely do enjoy Huck’s distinctive voice. And yet, a little over halfway through the book, I am not at all invested in the outcome of the novel, with the result that I keep reading other things instead of finishing it.
The other reason, which is a silly reason, is that I’m embarrassed not to have read it. An example: Oliver Twist. It’s such an iconic book. I’d like to say I’ve read it. But I just couldn’t do it. To me, it felt very melodramatic and overwrought. That said, I didn’t make it even halfway through, so perhaps I’ve been too hasty, and will return to it one day.
I kind of doubt it though. I’m so sorry Mr. Dickens, this is just not for me. I’m not a fan of whiny, angelic orphan boys. I’m sorry. I’m a terrible person, I know.
So, since I do think the first reason has the potential to be a valid one, I’d like your take on it: is it necessary to have finished a book in order to appreciate its influence on literature? Or can you appreciate it but acknowledge that it’s not really for you, and just read what you want to read instead?
As for the second reason, which is really a silly one, read whatever you want and don’t feel embarrassed to say, “No, I haven’t read that enormously iconic book, because it didn’t really appeal to me personally.” That being said, are there any books you feel kind of insecure about not having read?
2. It’s So Short.
I don’t have that much to say about this. I would just like to take a moment to marvel at the fact that some of the longest books I have ever read have had very skinny spines.
What is the deal with that?!?! Why does it take me the same amount of time to read Les Miserables as it took me to read The Old Man and the Sea? Why have I been reading Huckleberry Finn off-and-on for months, whereas I can read Jane Eyre in a couple of days?
Some of my biggest guilt-reads result from the fact that the book is very short, and I should be able to finish it. But that results in enormous reading slumps, where I don’t end up reading anything because I keep guiltily looking at that short book I should have finished by now.
Am I the only one this happens to?!?!?!
3. I Want To Review It
This doesn’t happen so much anymore, because I’m not the dedicated blogger I used to be, and I have come to accept the fact that I rarely do reviews. But back when I was around more often, I felt this pressure a lot.
Which begs the question: do you have to finish the book in order to review it? Or, is “I genuinely could not even bring myself to finish this book,” a valid criticism? I mean, if you acknowledge that it was that unenjoyable for you, could that be a good indication not to pick it up for someone whose reading tastes are similar to yours? I’d love to know what you guys think.
There was one time where I did a light little round-up of some books that I didn’t finish. But for the most part, I’ve only reviewed books if I finished them.
Should You Guilt Yourself Into Reading a Book?
My immediate answer is no, because rationally, if you’re reading as a hobby for your own personal enjoyment, you shouldn’t put pressure on yourself to read something you do not want to read.
And yet, I do it all the time.
Plus, there have been some cases where I had to force myself every step of the way, but ended up being glad I did. The most recent example is The Old Man and the Sea. It took me FOREVER to get into that book, and I could have easily put it aside. But I am so glad to have read it, so it was a good thing I stuck with it.
There’s also something to be said about self-discipline, and the fact that if you never force yourself to do anything that you do not enjoy, you will lack the skill of being able to force yourself to do something that you do not enjoy.
Does the finish-your-broccoli argument apply here? Do you think a book can be good for you even if it’s not your taste?
I just don’t know. It’s difficult to say, and I’m still undecided, and can’t wait to discuss it with you guys.
Which leaves us with an overwhelming question: Should I finish Huckleberry Finn?
Have a lovely day!