We're finished! I know we had fewer than a hundred pages remaining until The End, but I can't go on like this. You were a fine book, with fully developed major characters, engaging minor ones, a setting that enveloped me in a deeply resonant sense of place and a plot that unfolded dramatically. It's not you; it's me.
After a couple of decades in the book trade, I've become resigned to the unfortunate reality that I often "bail out" of books--even those I'm enjoying--for reasons rational and irrational. Maybe I lose a little reader's momentum in the early chapters, or a potentially more intriguing book comes along to tempt me; maybe the protagonist says something that ticks me off or my to-be-read pile nags me into looking for any excuse to head for the exit at intermission. Buffet reading was part of the job description when I was a bookseller. It was a survival tool. And yes, sometimes I even told a customer "I'm reading it" when I had bailed long before.
An "unfinished" book is a different thing altogether because a much more substantial commitment is required to reach the unfinishing point. If bailing is a rational decision, unfinishing is subconscious and often inconclusive.
"There are lots of books I've never finished," Roddy Doyle has said. "But there's only very few I've said I'm never going to finish, and a pile of books I'm going to get around to finishing."
As I write this, signs of my tendency toward unfinished books can be found nearby. A novel (whose title shall remain nameless to protect the innocent author) has a marker tucked between pages 348 and 349. Though I have fond memories of the book, I don't know how it ends because 62 pages remain unread. I invested several hours of my reading life in it, yet at some point I simply looked away.
"Is a good book by definition one that we did finish? Or are there occasions when we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even only half way through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent, that we were glad we read what we read, but don't feel the need to finish it?" asked Tim Parks earlier this year in the New York Review of Books, where he concluded: "There is a tyranny about our thrall to endings. I don't doubt I would have a lower opinion of many of the novels I haven't finished if I had."
In Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, the failed novelist says: "Do you remember, in Italy, you said you liked my book and I said I was having trouble finishing it? Do you remember what you said--'Maybe it's finished. Maybe that's all there is?' "
A quick perusal of my bookshelves reveals more evidence that I'm a chronic unfinisher. Someone (Paul Valery is often cited) once said that a work of art is never finished, only abandoned. For readers, it's not quite so simple. We know there is an end in sight when we begin. Our abandonment isn't a surrender to the whims of creative fate, but a judgment rendered. Maybe I should begin a pilgrimage during which I read the last 50 pages of all these abandoned tomes in my collection.
The highlight of my unfinished library is probably Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which I've been reading for more than 40 years and in numerous editions, yet I'm still no more than three-quarters of the way through. It isn't that I don't love the book. I do. After all this time, however, I've become a little superstitious. I'm almost afraid to finish, as if it is somehow tied umbilically to my lifespan.
Parks wondered "if it isn't perhaps time that I learned, in my own novels, to drop readers a hint or two that, from this or that moment on, they have my permission to let the book go just as and when they choose." Now there's an author who understands, even anticipates, my fondness for a broader definition of the open ending.
So here's to the art of the unfinished read. May your eyes leave the page with all the electric grace of Glenn Gould's final arm movement as he plays the "end" of Bach's incomplete Fuga a 3 Soggetti, snatching his fingers from the keyboard as if shocked by the sudden realization of a musical precipice.