I know several people who claim that they are unwilling to stop reading a book once they start it. I usually claim to be baffled by this attitude. For every book I finish, there are usually 2-3 other books that I drop after reading the first few chapters. I don’t think that this is any reflection on the rejected books. I just feel like, in order to have a successful reading experience, a book needs to resonate with my mood. I’ve rejected some books (like Midnight’s Children) 5-10 times before they finally caught me when I was in the right mood.
However, I guess there is more of the grim completist in me than I think there is. Because recently I’ve gotten 20% into several books* and then realized that I either wasn’t enjoying them or wasn’t in the mood. And then I’ve proceeded to plow straight through and finish them.
I think the culprit here is my book log. It’s nothing special. It’s just a list of books that I’ve completed. Each book gets a day of completion and a little note on what I thought of them. And unless I finish the book, it doesn’t get to be in the log.
Putting a book in the log is quite a joy. It’s like ticking off a box on a to-do list. But the log also creates some perverse incentives. It encourages me to read short books instead of long books, and to finish all the books that I’ve put substantial time into.
In order to counter these incentives, I’ve recently started tracking the amount of time that I spend, each day, on reading. It’s weird to think how much I’m guided by these totally self-imposed metrics, but this change saw an immediate alteration in my reading habits. I immediately started reading longer and more knotty books (like Trollope’s Doctor Thorne and a verse translation of The Odyssey).
And now, for the first time in three years (since I stopped after getting about 25% of the way through The Canterbury Tales), that I abandoned a book after investing significant time into it.
I recently decided that I wanted to go back and take a look at the lesser-known work of a few authors that I’ve enjoyed. Since I quite liked The Scarlet Letter and really loved The Blithedale Romance, I decided that maybe I’d start this journey with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House Of The Seven Gables.
I should’ve smelled a rat after I saw that the first tenth of the book is given over to a length recitation of the antecedents of this old-ass New England house. But I kept going until we finally got to the heroine, an aged spinster who’s been forced to start operating a shop out of the house. At that point, I was like, “Huh, that’s interesting. Yeah…I can get behind that.”
Twenty thousand words later, absolutely nothing had happened. I mean yeah, the woman’s cousin had come for a visit and her boarder had been introduced and her brother had come home from prison, but…cmon, the book had basically taken 40% of its length just to get all the characters onto the page. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it was boring me out of my mind.
And still I read on! I knew that if I just read it for another 2.5 hours (one side-effect of measuring my reading time is that I now know pretty much exactly how long a given book will take to read), then I’d be able to add it to my log.
And yet….sometimes even two and a half hours is too long. These are the precious hours of my life, and I can’t justify even an hour of boredom. Or…at least…I’d like to think that was my thought process. But I can’t escape the sneaking suspicion that if I hadn’t instituted a way to measure those “lost” hours I spent reading the book, then I would’ve just gone ahead and finished it…simply so the effort wouldn’t have been wasted. Oh well, I guess this just goes to show the importance of choosing your metrics wisely (or of not being the kind of anal-retentive person who measures his life out in metrics).
*John McPhee’s Oranges and John Cheever’s Falconer