I enjoyed this article by Juliet Lapidos, arguing that we should do our best to complete every book we begin to read. She gives three reasons: her second, fortitude, made me smile.
It may be disagreeable to slog through a novel that you stopped liking after 50 pages, but it’s a sign of strength. Resisting the impulse to stop midway also teaches strength; it works out your mental-resilience muscles, wherever those may be.
I found Part I of Ian McEwan’s Atonement quite good and despised the rest. Part I, about a country dinner party experienced from a child’s perspective, was suspenseful—almost a page-turner. Parts II, III, and the Postscript, which span the length of World War II and then land the reader in London, 1999, were mawkish. All that nursing of fatally wounded soldiers felt cribbed from a soap opera rather than life.
Yet I don’t wish for those hours of my life back, because they built up my ability to endure intellectual anguish—something I need in my job as an editor. This essay is terrible, I think to myself, but I got through Atonement. I can get through anything. Readers in other professions will reap the benefits of finishing, as well. A waiter, for instance, might think: Serving this table of European teenagers, who probably don’t understand the concept of tipping, is terrible, but I got through Atonement. I can get through anything.
I particularly admired how Lapidos makes a case for demanding reading that did not fawn in front of the classics, or try to claim that reading must only be done in a serious, reverent mood. To find space, in other words, between the opposing poles of “You must only read Tolstoy!” and “How dare you judge me for loving Katniss!?” You should finish the book despite its difficulty or tiresome effort, not because that’s what reading is supposed to be.
In short, I liked the vision of pleasure that her article outlines: that pleasure can, sometimes, be hard work; that we can fail to meet its challenge and be less happy as a result. Sloth and joy are not as good friends as we sometimes take them to be, but that does not mean we should confuse joy with diligence, either.
Now I just need to make myself pick up Under the Volcano once more (confession: I got stuck on page two).