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in defence of promiscuous reading


Image: Ryan Franklin

Image: Ryan Franklin

I have a confession, dear reader. I have been sleeping around. In fact, I have been at it from an early age. I have been far from faithful

I am a promiscuous reader, and I love then leave the books I read. I tease a book, thumb through the first few chapters, dog-ear pages, scribble sweet nothings in the margins, then dump it unfinished when something newer, something more alluring, comes along. As I write this column I count fifty-seven books stacked around my room. Five of them, the largest ones, form a desk for my laptop. Out of these three score, I have read nine through to the end. The rest are unfinished; abandoned.  They are a depressing sight: their pages yellow with age; their spines wrinkle; their bent covers gather the ashen bodies of moths that have flown into my lamp. At first I don’t care, but looking now, I am again filled with post-abandonment regret.

I didn’t just make that phrase up. It’s a genuine thing. The New Yorker’s Mark O’Connell identifies the Stockholm Syndrome Theory of Long Novels where the reader craves the satisfaction of finishing a book, especially a freaking great doorstop like War and Peace. Not to mention the incentive of bragging rights. Or another cause of post-abandonment: ‘sunkcost bias’, a phrase familiar to economists. Remember that precious $24.95 you handed over for that book? Wasted. Remember those hours you spent reading Wuthering Heights, waiting for Cathy to stop being such a cow? You’ll never get those hours back and Cathy will always be a cow.

I may be unfaithful but I am a chronic sufferer of post-abandonment regret. My first bout was in 2004.  I was twelve. I thought I would rack up some intellectual cachet at my new school by reading the “classics”. I started with Cervantes’ Don Quixote. For the most part, I enjoyed it. It was ridiculous, funny and, heck, it’s a great work of literature so it must have been educational as well. I could almost feel my brain expanding with every word I read. In fact it was just my ego expanding as I imagined all the bragging rights I was clocking.

A set-back came when I realised that my new school friends didn’t care if I was reading the classics or an issue of Dolly magazine. The promise of satisfaction on reaching the end of the book waned as my bragging rights became empty. A few weeks of reading passed, and Don Quixote and Sancho were just about to attack the windmills when I finally tossed the book aside. I didn’t abandon Don Quixote because I grew tired. I abandoned him because I lost the drive, the thrill. Plus there were so many other books out there. Again and again I fell in love with books hard and fast. I tore off its jacket and I’d be nose deep in a great book… but then I’d go to the bookstore, see something new and that first book would find itself under my bed – another tombstone in my graveyard of unfinished books.

As I grew older I grew even more flighty. My relationships with books were casual at best. I was getting a reputation as a serial book philanderer. At university, English Literature reintroduced me to the classics and I was asked to write long critical essays on old lovers.  Without fail the phrase “close reading” would appear on the criteria sheet, taunting me, daring me to finish a book – for just once.

In my first year at university I wrote an essay on Pride and Prejudice, despite never actually finishing the book – I can quote the first three pages by heart thanks to years of falling asleep to the audio book – but I never got any further. In my second year I wrote an essay about Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya, or the Moor and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk. I read most of The Monk…except the last five pages and I didn’t even crack the spine of Zofloya. In my third year I wrote pages and pages on Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in Highschool and on Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller despite abandoning both halfway through. Somehow I managed to write essays and get good marks without finishing these books. I came to know books without caring for them.  I took only what I wanted. Forgive me.

I could put forward the usual arguments. I’m busy. I don’t have the time to finish books. Work, study and socialising get in the way. There’s this thing called the Internet, have you heard of it? I can’t concentrate on the printed page when there is a new gif of a penguin in a top hat.

And In Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, Johnson dismisses the idea that you should finish a book: ‘You may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?’ Dr Johnson is with me in my readerly promiscuity.

Maybe I’m a product of our distracted age or maybe I have commitment issues. I like to think I will try to finish all those books one day and get over my regret. But over there in that bookshop, in that library, just look at that a beautiful new book.

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