I’m trying to pick up Jeremy Lewis’s Kindred Spirits again, a book which I did not finish the last time around. This means putting down Gore Vidal’s Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings 1960-1998, a book that I haven’t and probably won’t finish. Of course I have reasons for abandoning them both when I did.
There were only so many times I could read Vidal’s “there is no such thing as a homosexual person” and “sex is politics” before my eyes glaze insensibly over the words and my brain goes off to Lalaland. Besides, the book is a collection of already-published-elsewhere essays; understandably, the ideas are recycled and the writing repetitive. The essays, after all, were not meant to be read all the once. What’s more, the last third of the Sexually Speaking, a good chunk of what I skipped, were interviews of Vidal and not his own writings. Reading author’s interviews is more entertaining than listening to athletes’ post-game interviews, but only just.
As for Lewis, here’s a typical sentence
The reception hall had the same cigar-box flavour to it as the Chairman’s study on the floor above: the floorboards creaked like those of a country hotel, chintz-covered sofas and armchairs awaited the arrival of important visitors, a vase of flowers blossomed on the receptionist’s desk, the bookshelves were discreetly lined with the latest publications, and a full-length portrait of the Chairman’s father, hand and hip and roguishly puffing a cigarette, stared down on the proceedings; only the ungainly brown packages left out to be collected by printers’ reps or television companies, or the incongruous arrival of a leather-clad, heavily-visored motorbike messenger, clumping ponderously over the carpet like a grimy, gauntleted mediaeval knight, gave any indication that this was a place of work rather than a private house.
Count the lines, my patient reader, and let me assure you that it’s not only the wide margins of WordPress and block quotation that make them seem so long. Now, there’s nothing the matter with the writing, and the story Lewis has to tell is, I dearly hope, quite interesting. Nonetheless, after a couple of marathon sentences like that above, I feel exhausted and inclined to take a break to watch a 30-second, self-contained Youtube clip.
So good reasons not leaving books unfinished or not, I have a couple of questions: 1) why do I feel like I have to have reasons for putting down a book, and 2) even after justifying myself to no one in particular, why do I still feel guilty for not having read cover-to-cover?
Perhaps the second question answers the first: it is because I guilty that i don’t willy-nilly not finish reading. But why the guilt? Is it guilt induced by thoughts of how long the authors must’ve spent at creating their works? Is it the fix-cost fallacy of “I’ve spent so much time on this book already. Might as well see to its conclusion”? Is it the unconsciously picked up notion of “Winners don’t quit & quitters don’t win”?
All the conjectures sound hollow when I say them aloud. The authors are not hurt that I didn’t finish their work. Vidal is dead, and therefore unlikely to be hurt by anything. Lewis is alive but completely unaware of my having perused his book. By what mechanism on earth can he feel anything at my not having read through his book? I cannot confer value and meaning onto my reading by the mere fact of finishing — the hours I’ve already spent aren’t going to come back just when I finish, and finishing is no feat in itself. Finally, what exactly do I win if I finish the book? Aren’t I a bit too old to sign up for my local library’s “read a book, win a pencil” campaign?
So why the guilt?