Back in 2014 the Hawking Index was born, and yes, you would be right in associating it with the great Stephen Hawking himself; but it’s not technically connected with him directly. Mathematician Jordan Ellenberg named it in Hawking’s honour, and albeit statistically flawed, it was invented with the intention of measuring how far people persist with reading certain books. Needless to say it didn’t really work as it could only gather data from very specific book files (i.e. e-book files which were read on a kindle and were compatible with the digital highlighting tool); but the initiative of the project was very bibliophilic in its intent, addressing the age-old controversial question every book lover challenges in their lifetime. To give-up on a book we are reading but not enjoying, or to persevere: that is the question.
If you’re anything like me this is a truly terrifying mental and moral dilemma which you have battled with your entire life. Because I was raised not to be defeatist and believed in the myth of merited masochism I never gave up on books throughout the first twenty-five years of my life, even books I was despising. Even now as I’m writing this I can’t really claim a status of recoverey: I have only to this day, twenty-six years into my life, given up on two books and trust me that was very difficult for me to do. I’m a knowledge nerd, an absolute philomath, and therefore this obsessive need to know as much as possible dwindles right down to even my negative or critical opinions on something. How can I critique, or know I dislike something without consuming its entire entity?
I know as well as everyone in the literary world that the publication of a book does not ensure quality, and even then quality is subjective. Most books with a decent publisher name on their spine is entitled to tube station adverts and articles in The Guardian. There are thousands of mundane, low-horizon novels out there which get bought, warmly reviewed, and sometimes even made into television series or films. I’ve never been one to care for my literary outsider status when it comes to mass popularity, but I do feel the pressurised fear of realising one day that I’m intellectually incapable of appreciating profound and widely acknowledged academically acclaimed books or writers.
It therefore makes it a challenge to be your own filter when literary pretension comes into play. The inspiration for this post serves as a prime example: I was reading an Emile Zola, a man famed for narrating gutter voices, mainly those of women, whose writing is renowned for poring over matters usually excluded from fictions (such as menstruation and excretion.) With this grungy, socialist persona in mind I thus went into The Ladies’ Paradise feeling hopeful for some socio-political narrative which was gritty but heartfelt, drawing at the forefront female and working class self-esteem and shining an empathetic light on the the heartbreaking and crippling struggle of being perpetually downtrodden on for a mediocre wage. Instead I was left with an uninspired, superficial and surface-level retelling of what it was like to work in a department store. There was nothing moving, poetic or even politically sharp, just a pale observational narrative which lacked bite or intrigue.
Despite feeling underwhelmed and disinterested I persisted dutifully to the mid-way point before I allowed myself to close the book indefinitely, no bookmark in sight. I was done. I gave it a 50% chance and realised that with the so few hours I had in my week to myself (being someone who works two full time jobs with only two days off every fortnight) I decided my time was better spent elsewhere. To my delight my brutal decision was rewarded. I picked up a Jeanette Winterson and within two pages I was back in love with reading. Reading something you don’t enjoy is an oddly personal attack; not only is it masochistic as I mentioned earlier but it also strikes you with the red hot iron of self-doubt. It’s an instinctual reflex that I have to project mediocrity onto myself: is it me? Have I lost the passion for reading? Am I too intellectually stunted to appreciate this? Did I skim early on and became wrongfully disenchanted? Have I let this book down with my poor reading skills?
It’s always my fault, never the book’s fault, or rather: never the relationship I have with the book’s fault. Ay, there’s the rub. Our pernicious endeavours stem from crippling under-confidence and self-doubt as a reader. By completing the book we can at least avoid the humiliation and shame of defeat, or evade potentially being accused of mystification by a greater literary concoction than we had the brain power to comprehend. By finishing bad books we protect ourselves from all manner of judgements, accusations and, ultimately, the sense of failure. Many book lovers like myself take great pride in having an accomplished reading list (an end of year tally, usually meticulously documented on Goodreads), meaning the majority of us construe reading times and accomplishments as “productivity”. Therefore, to admit a book as unfinished, to completely dismiss the time spent with that literature which ate away at potentially more productive and enjoyable reading time with another book is a cross too great the bear. We cannot stomach the thought of “unproductive”, “useless” and “wasteful” reading. So, we soldier on to completion, making ourselves bored and miserable in the process, just to manipulate the time as worthwhile: purely to meet that tallied goal we all measure ourselves against as readers.
As expressed earlier: poor writing is subjective, though it is interesting how often that subjective opinion can frequently be ubiquitous. Not many were wowed by Girl Online “by Zoe Sugg” (Quotation marks not misplaced, I assure you), which is extremely antithetical when one acknowledges that her book was the highest first-week sales for a debut author since records began, beating J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter records. The publishing world has been somewhat confused and divided when it comes to publishing quality over the past decade, and particularly in the last five years (I would say, but I’m no analyst.) Publishers are stumped by, and therefore at the mercy of, the record breaking sales of books like Zoella’s; which was famously ghostwritten at a middle-grade reading level and contained no challenging, groundbreaking or intellectually stimulating content. They also are unable to turn a professional blind eye to the data fed back by e-book and audiobook marketing research, revealing shocking* high statistics of unfinished digital books (*shocking to publishers and anyone who identifies as bookish and lives in a bookish bubble, buried far away from the very signals bearing the popular reality television shows and top trending Youtube videos.)
This pressure has the potential to negatively impact the publishing industry ethos when it comes to capitalistically-untainted-literature; although this threat highly abstract and would possibly only pose a threat to the idealised, great literary masterpieces which are few and far between in this mass commercialised industry (as Joseph Bernstein brilliantly hypothesised: Joyce wouldn’t stand a chance.) There’s every possibility in the future that authors will be told to write books based off user data: plots rewritten, characters altered, perhaps even the style of writing. Though this is unlikely…or so I hope. Whilst the logic seems strongly in my favour, we’re not exactly living in a logical society anymore (at least not politically, for sure.)
Though let’s hold the phone for just a minute and take a reflective viewpoint on this. While all have pipped in over the years with concerns or counter-arguments to said concerns regarding these unread statistics, one belief seems to have remained dutifully unchallenged by critics: that is that the unfinished book is a failure either on the part of the writer or the reader. Not all unfinished books are bad, nor are all DNFers* uncouth, literary philistines (*the internet, bookish slang for those who ‘did not finish’.) A handful of Sylvia Plath’s poetry is enough to change you life, and some philosophers’ anthologies take years to digest: but you certainly don’t leave at page 478 out of 1,687 without some kind of intellectually, mind-blown induced headache. I never learned more in my life than I did in my university library, specifically the one of my undergrad. I read several hundred essays about Shakespeare, Livy, Plato, Heroditus, Waugh, Joyce, Orwell, Woolf just to name a few, which were scattered throughout essay collections I never read in full because their entireties didn’t suit my prime scholarly needs.
I handed in my Masters thesis on Ulysses with Ulysses itself still sat on my desk at home unfinished. I got a high 2:1 for my thesis so I must have garnered something worthy from that unfinished literary leviathan. I came back to it, of course, but only after a year (I wasn’t mentally ready to return to the trauma of the text until then.) I persevered because it gave me something rich, deep and meaningful. Finishing Ulysses allowed me to reconnect with my lost, scholarly self; brutally torn from her dreams of pursuing a doctorate but still an academic to the tips of her fingers, despite her unfulfilled scholarly ambition.
I became so caught up in the fear of ‘failure’ however, that my reasons for reading began to blur. Reading and failure became synonymous, and thus not finishing a book was a failure I endured to avoid. Tedious, poorly written books were thus given my life dutifully to the point of resentment against the nature of reading as a whole. This laborious, masochistic hobby fermented bitterness and resentment against literature as a whole: and when I came to a reading steep of abysmal book after abysmal I threw my hands in the air in frustration and admitted defeat, rejecting the entirety of literature for fear my life was slipping through my fingers.
The problem was, however, that I had forgotten why I loved reading in the first place. I read for knowledge, I read for philosophical enchantment. I read for memories and images to haunt me body and soul. When I was reading these atrocious books I wasn’t reading with this intention anymore: I reading to escape failure. I’ve never gotten anything out of a book I didn’t enjoy; I can’t recall ever having a ‘Eureka!’ moment whilst reading a dreadfully dismal, tedious or trying novel. Books rarely turn round at the mid-way point (and if they were to, such a ‘comeback’ per se wouldn’t say much for the author or editor’s skill.) I doubt a book which begins weakly and then proceeds to fumble and stumble for the next two hundred pages has a treasure of a plot awaiting the reader, or bears a wealth of unique and life-changing enlightened content in its latter half which it never alluded to in its preceding text.
So now, I focus my energy into every book. Whilst analysing the literature I simultaneously analyse my own philosophy alongside the material being read. If the text does not match my philosophy by the half-way point I admit not my defeat, but the book’s failure to meet my philosophy. Reading isn’t just a hobby of mine; it’s my purpose life, and because of this I shouldn’t take it lightly. If something does not meet my life’s purpose that should not been internally construed as a failure of mine, but a failure of the book to be compatible with me. It may be more successful with another reader’s purpose, but not my own. It was all thanks to “bad books” that I finally realised that the only way I can fail at life is to not live it to my fullest potential. My fullest potential has no time for unfulfilling books.