I finish every single novel I start. If I happen upon the first line of a 1,000-page novel, I of course don’t feel compelled to read to the end. But as a matter of personal policy, when I decide I’m going to read a novel, I read the whole thing.
I’ve gathered over the years that my persistence—or stubbornness, depending on your point of view—is unusual. Most people I encounter think nothing of dropping a novel halfway because they find it boring or because they can see where it’s going or because they forgot it on the subway and moved on to the next thing.
This behavior, common though it may be, seems lazy to me. Wrong, even. Once you start a book, you should finish it.
I realize that cultural judgments like this are no longer broadly acceptable. When Ruth Graham wrote in Slate that adults should feel embarrassed if they read literature written for children, she was attacked as a condescending snob. Didn’t she understand, critics argued, that fun-seeking was the only reason anyone did anything anymore? And if a 45-year-old enjoyed reading Harry Potter, then who was Ruth Graham to say he should feel ashamed? How dare she even use the word “should”? (I’m caricaturing, but only a little.)
At risk of offending the no-judgments crowd, here is my case.
First: Pleasure. When you stop short, you risk missing something incredible. I can’t count how many novels have bored me for a hundred or even two hundred pages only to later amaze me with their brilliance. Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers is long and dated. I quickly grew tired of Samuel Pickwick’s adventures, which were probably funny for 19th-century readers but which I found annoyingly quaint. Yet I stuck with it, because I always stick with books, and also because I thought I should give the benefit of the doubt to an author who would go on to write several masterpieces. I’m glad I did.
Deep into the novel Mr. Pickwick is incarcerated at Fleet Prison over a financial dispute. Suddenly Pickwick Papers isn’t quaint at all but social satire that skewers the absurd unfairness of debtor’s prison. Dickens cared deeply about that subject and would return to it many times over the course of his career. So when that turn happened in the novel, I felt as though I were watching Dickens become Dickens before my eyes. That sensation more than compensated for the previous few hours of tedium.
That’s just one example. With the exception of Portrait of a Lady, every Henry James novel I’ve read has tested my patience. Yet in each case I’ve hit a transcendentally good scene that makes up for all the preceding irritation.
Second: Fortitude. When a book makes me antsy I sometimes think of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment from the late 1960s, which found, in brief, that children who were able to wait longer before stuffing themselves tended to do better in school and have a healthier body mass index later in life.
It may be disagreeable to slog through a novel that you stopped liking after 50 pages, but it’s a sign of strength. Resisting the impulse to stop midway also teaches strength; it works out your mental-resilience muscles, wherever those may be.
I found Part I of Ian McEwan’s Atonement quite good and despised the rest. Part I, about a country dinner party experienced from a child’s perspective, was suspenseful—almost a page-turner. Parts II, III, and the Postscript, which span the length of World War II and then land the reader in London, 1999, were mawkish. All that nursing of fatally wounded soldiers felt cribbed from a soap opera rather than life.
Yet I don’t wish for those hours of my life back, because they built up my ability to endure intellectual anguish—something I need in my job as an editor. This essay is terrible, I think to myself, but I got through Atonement. I can get through anything. Readers in other professions will reap the benefits of finishing, as well. A waiter, for instance, might think: Serving this table of European teenagers, who probably don’t understand the concept of tipping, is terrible, but I got through Atonement. I can get through anything.
Third: Respect. As any agent will tell you, it is one thing to start writing a novel and another thing entirely to finish one. Many would-be authors simply cannot bring a work of fiction to completion, which is part of why publishing houses, as a rule, won’t enter into contract until they see an ending. The difference between being able to write 50 pages and being able to write a whole novel is the difference—at least, one major difference—between a professional and a dilettante.
To drop a novel after a few chapters is, then, to disregard what makes it a formal work of art rather than a heap of papers that reside in a desk drawer. Today, books and authors need all the help they can get; if you care about literature as an artistic endeavor and the people who create it, then you should do so fully. If you consider yourself a literary person, you shouldn't just embrace the intellectual cachet that starting books gives you. Starting, but not finishing, books is one step above saying, "Oh yeah, I've heard of that author."
The most common defense of book-dropping I hear is that because there are more good books than any one person could possibly read, it’s stupid to waste time on a dull or otherwise unsatisfactory novel. That argument makes sense if the novel is utter trash—if it’s so bad that the reader needn’t respect the author and would possibly get dumber by going forward.
But if a novel starts well and descends into trash, then it seems to me that it’s worth continuing to see if it gets better, or to see where the writer went wrong. And if it was bad from page one, then the whole “should I drop it?” issue is secondary. The best way to avoid wasting time on trash is to avoid trash entirely—i.e. to not start reading it. That shouldn’t be too hard. Skim a few book reviews, ask a few friends, flip through the first chapter before starting a novel in earnest.
When you do start a novel—in earnest—just finish it.