Not Finishing Books

old books

In Latest Readings Clive James, a writer whose brilliance, wide-ranging literary tastes and seriousness some of us have appreciated too late, reads back through books that amused, interested, inspired or frustrated him in his earlier days. James has a playful turn of phrase those of my generation recall from his TV career and his musings on literature are very enjoyable. This, in turn, got me thinking about those books we put down due to lack of time, impetus, disinterest or disgust. Is this acceptable? Late in life James finds new meaning in the writing of Joseph Conrad, reads back or remembers Twentieth Century novel sequences- Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War Trilogy and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Books put down long ago are read again and James revels in the greater appreciation and understanding his maturity gives them.

James also laments the loss of books sold on or lost. His collection ran to tens of thousands – not a suitable number for a dying writer and his family took action to relocate his office from London to Cambridge. Many are bought, some covertly, for a second time. James hides them from his wife and daughter having discovered that his terminal illness is slow in reaching its inevitability.

This got me thinking about books I have either failed to finish or have given away over the years – artefacts that disappear from life. Indeed, James’ own Cultural Amnesia is one I proudly bought in hardback and never really appreciated or read in full. It was sold on with little thought and I’d love to read it now.

I recently found my crumpled Flamingo edition of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. A book which frustrated me to the extent that I vowed to rip it up or throw it at my bedroom wall. I never reached the end but the book survived. That is ok. Maybe I’ll read it again one day.

Those with a large reading pile – for example literary agents – face a Sisyphean task in getting through a reading list. There are submissions – solicited and otherwise, first drafts from clients, further drafts, edits in response to the agent’s editorial comments, trade articles, newspapers and review columns, websites and published books which are sent or need to be read to keep up with the market. Do emails belong to this group? This volume poses a problem even for the most dedicated reader. The bedside pile grows until it swamps furniture.

Over the years I left left unfinished books by Sebastian Faulks, Murray Bail, Henry Miller and too many others to admit. I left the Sebastian Faulks novel on the roof of a car and drove off – actually glad to see the back of it. I have left untouched books bought or given to me by writers as varied as Javier Marias, Donna Tartt and Bernardo Atxaga. Dickens’ Selected Journalism has defeated me a dozen times. It seems to bring on bouts of sleep or distraction. Selected Writings of William Hazlitt fell by the wayside long ago. At the same time I have read too many Maigrets, Mankells, Larssons, waded through too much average later Philip Roth and read some books many times over as guilty pleasures.

I have come to believe that leaving books unfinished is ok. Clive James has made me realise that they can be read further down the line in life and probably read better. I need not allow unread spines to psych me out, as they’re trying to as I write this blog (Call It Sleep by Henry Roth). I recently picked up a book I love: The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane. I feel an affinity for this book, especially the essay Holloway that deals with an area of Dorset I know well. Yet on re-reading it I realised I’d hardly read it at all – perhaps only two chapters and a few others scantily. The book has been part of my life for ten years and I have recommended it to several people. This realisation made me understand Clive James’s point that it is the quality and understanding of the reading that counts. Don’t let your reading list dominate you, as you’ll fail to do it justice if you feel intimidated by it. A book, an article or a blog will receive the reading it deserves in the end. The size of the pile should not be significant.