COLUMN: Finishing your book

By Karin Schimke

It has been a month of starts and no finishes.

The most enthusiastic start, with the sharpest finish, was with the current German bestseller, a satire that imagines the illogical return of Hitler – arising fully intact from a spot on a field in the middle of Berlin, as though waking after a brief nap in his uniform – in new century.

er-ist-wieder-da-T-KHKKLxThe book, called Er Ist Wieder Da, by Timur Vermes, daringly pokes fun at a great many things – most notably and hilariously the current media culture – and its dry delivery induced long-lasting fits of laughter.

But then, suddenly, I’d had enough and stopped reading it.

I also started and then stopped Julian Barnes’ latest novel Levels of Life. It’s not the first time I’ve given up on Barnes either, though there are books of his I read easily and happily to the end.

I hope my father never reads this column. He’d be mortified. Giving up on a book is, in his opinion, an act of sacrilege, not unrelated, perhaps, to his position that one eats every morsel on your plate. He was a little boy during WW2 – he knew what it was like to feel hungry. Later, perhaps in response to the cruelties and privations of childhood in a post-war society, he became a voracious reader of adventure stories, usually featuring brave boys or intrepid young men.

An unfinished book, like an unfinished plate of food, is, I think, a sign to him of both ingratitude and unconscionable waste.

I might offer the sweetener – were I to get into a conversation with him about this – that life’s too short to waste time on bad books. Yet I don’t only give up on bad books. Neither of the two mentioned above are sloppy, thoughtless books.

The reason I don’t give up on bad books because I seldom start bad books. This is a skill most avid readers develop eventually: the ability to find a friend or colleague whose opinion you value, a reviewer you trust, a handful of authors you can rely on, so that you no longer have to wade through the waist-high piles of rubbish that are on offer to find that which floats your particular literary boat.

In an essay entitled “On reading and books” – which, by the way, is utterly worth reading beginning to end, if only to remind yourself of the provoking one-sided parley you enter with a dead philosopher when you read his or her work – the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer says that “in order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited”.

While his quaint views on women are unfortunate, I do agree with the old chauvinist on the matter of how I would like to spend my reading time.

Yet, there are many people like my father who will hack and chop their way through a literary unpleasantness come hell or high water in order to come out the other end being able merely to say “I finished it”. I think they are misguided: giving up on bad books is not just “not terrible” it is almost a duty to yourself.

But it still doesn’t explain why I’d give up on books I could very well expect to be good. And I do. I frequently give up on books I am enjoying very much.

This is the point in a piece of writing where the writer would reveal some deep insight. In this case, where I’d be able to offer a perfectly reasonable explanation for my treason. But I can’t.

I can only offer, instead, that I am reading Sons and Lovers (DH Lawrence) for the second time, and if I was reading right now instead of writing, I’d have finished it this morning. – Schimke is an author, poet and independent journalist, and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.

  • This column first in the Cape Times in August 2013

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