Are you a finisher or an abandoner? On the existential anxieties of the bibliophile

This lovely piece by Nilanjana Roy touched a nerve with me. It reflects on the relative merits of being someone who finishes books and being someone prone to abandoning them. Around a decade ago I committed to becoming the former after discovering that a year largely spent reading had only led me to finish 20 or so books. Disturbed by the realisation that I was likely to read only a few thousand books in the rest of my life*, I sought to be more intentional in my reading. If a book was good enough to start, it was good enough to finish. Or at least that’s what I told myself.

In the intervening years, as my life has become more filled with non-book things, this has increasingly felt like a constraint on myself. It leaves me refusing to dip into things which I want to look at because doing so would involve a commitment I’m unwilling to make. It leaves me soldiering through things which I’ve long since got bored with. It leaves me hurrying through front matter and appendices which are irrelevant. In short I realise I’ve taken a good idea a bit too far and it’s time to stop. Roy nails the merits of being a finisher:

As a former Finisher, my answer would have been embarrassingly solemn: you keep reading out of respect for the labour of the writer, out of a sense of fidelity to the broader church of literature itself. And so on. But the truth was more ignoble. I finished books partly out of hope, partly because I liked the image of myself as a dedicated reader, slogging up the most daunting of mountains. Hope is easily explained. I wrestled with Roberto Bolaño, not really getting into The Savage Detectives until I’d read 100 pages — but I was so glad I stayed, because once I began to understand what he was doing, I was there for the full, exhilarating ride.

Being a Finisher also helps when you’re reading out of your comfort zone; it gets you through the feeling of swimming in strange waters. I didn’t want to be an Abandoner in part because the laziest of that breed miss out on some of the most rewarding reading.

However she also explains how the spirit of the abandoner can help loosen up rigid finishers. I think this is the right way of looking at it, refusing the impulse to be one or the other and instead recognising “the twin traps of finishing books you don’t really care for and abandoning books that might have brought you joy”.

This is something I’m thinking a lot about at the moment as I clear out old books at home because I need to bring hundreds home from the office. It’s such a difficult undertaking because I bought each and every one of these books because I wanted to read them but so many have never been read. I’m wondering if the way to approach this is to set myself an arbitrary rule (e.g. if I’ve had it for over 5 years and haven’t read it then I give it away to someone who will value it) but the rigidity of it feels unsatisfying. However without such a rule, I fear I’m going to spend the summer dipping into (not finishing!) these books which I’m supposed to be giving away.

*Do the calculation: estimated books per year x estimated remaining years of life. There’s a peculiar bibliophilic anxiety which this can generate amongst those who experience the cultural archive as an endless array of potential delights.

2 responses to “Are you a finisher or an abandoner? On the existential anxieties of the bibliophile”

  1. Flip the equation, Mark, and the answer to the question of whether to finish or abandon a book is clearer.
    Years left to live x great books unlikely ever to be read… means you must abandon a book when you want to, as there are far more books that could or deserve to be read (perhaps even fully).
    And you can always come back to anything later if bibliophilic guilt strikes, of course.
    Basically, life’s too short. So, keep moving! There are more delights to discover – always.
    Great post, Mark, thanks.

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