Why to read, when not to read – Part II

Awesomely, one of the New Yorker weblogs published a post musing on another very new-to-me reason for reading, not reading, and/or finishing a book during the same week as the HRSFANS-discuss book recommendation thread I wrote about in July. (By the way, I have started—barely—to collate the recommendations list on the wiki. Please help! “‘Paperbacks-for-the-road’ Recommendations” is linked through from the “Index to the Awesome.”) I considered in parallel from the start Ms. Minkel’s apparent compulsion to show herself “an adult” in her reading life and Tony’s warning of potential future bad volumes in good-so-far series, so here come my musings specifically on the former.

An extract:

On one hand, we have big, painful books we feel compelled to see through to the end. On the other, the books we’ve sort of read and glibly lie about having finished. Both of these seem tied to some sort of reading scorecard, one in which the readers are measured and judged by—perhaps even more than—the books that they’ve read. …

But is the reading scorecard internal or external? Or are the two so entwined that it’s impossible to answer that question?

Ms. Minkel could mean the “we” impersonally: “On one hand, we have [here an example of] big, painful books we feel compelled to see through to the end,” but the rest of her post seems to indicate that she does speak as “we” for herself and her assuredly well-read readers (the comments posted seem to presume this, too).

Yet to me this entire concept of a compulsion to finish a book (painful or not) is foreign, bizarre, and surely detrimental to reading health. Does it ring a bell for anyone? Can you explain how this compulsion could make sense inside one’s own head (or how it can compel regardless of sense)?

People who’ve read my posts before may have noticed that I, if anything, tend to brag about my willingness to drop a book at any point, as if it’s macho, or stoic, to leave the story ever unfinished in my own mind. Come to think, in some cases it does feel internally macho, in that I’m deliberately holding myself back from the experience because I do care and yet don’t feel it would be advantageous to continue (Big Love after “Pilot”, new Battlestar Galactica after “Bastille Day”, A Reliable Wife more than 2/3 through, and to a lesser extent The Pillars of the Earth after 300p); in other cases it does feel internally stoic in that I’m accepting that I don’t care a whit about the next phase of the story and would rather turn to more enjoyable pursuits, without necessarily faulting the author(s) for being unable to keep my interest (Potter V 70p in without a single page free of people yelling at each other, Angel after “Reprise”, Farscape after “Season of Death”). When I discovered Ms. Minkel’s post, I immediately opened a chat to a friend whom I’ve mentioned earlier as a counterpoint to my reading style: he once devoured half of War and Peace in two days as escape reading. I opened the conversation (minor typos & grammatical quirks corrected):

me: you’ll have a COMPLETELY different reaction to this than I will …

you won’t think this whole concept of “we have big, painful books we feel compelled to see through to the end” is foreign, bizarre, counter-to-one’s-reading-health

he:i think that reading is just less painful for me

because i read so fast

… i mean, i am a bit compulsive about finishing books, but that’s more my obsessive nature than it is powering through

what would take willpower is putting them down

it’s not that i feel compelled to finish a book because i started it. it’s because i like reading and don’t like putting books down.

me: Usually a reading struggle for me just means my psyche isn’t keeping pace

I still don’t see how liking reading is a reason to keep reading a story you’re not liking—there’s hundreds of others available just as easily (in your case, without even putting down the device if you’re reading on the iPhone)

he: well, but you want to know how it ends

as i said, i don’t task switch well

if i’m in the middle of a video game

i find myself playing it for several more hours

me: no, I only want to know how it ends if I’m interested in the story

and even then, that’s not the important part

If I wanted to know how every story ends, I’d be even more of a basket case about keeping contact with everybody than I already am—and I never would have cancelled my FB account due to lack of interest

Read for your self, not for your private morals or for their public display. Reading is between you, the story, its characters and/or its world, and the author. Everything and everyone outside is just details—and if they aren’t, read something else.

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