Abandoning Books Without Guilt

City of God by Augustine

The scene of my greatest book abandonment. 525 pages read, only 566 to go.

There was a time when I tried really, really hard to finish reading any book that I began. I had two motivations:

  1. It felt like a failure if I couldn’t get through to the end.
  2. I also felt an obligation to the author. After all, if I had written a book, I’d want everyone to finish the whole thing, right?

I’m not sure when, but several years ago, this guilt went away. I read a great deal, but I probably drop almost as many books as I finish. There are a few reasons why I quit reading a book.

The book loses my interest. This is most common with novels. Last month, with great sorrow, I returned to the library a novel I really, really wanted to like. A new novel by one of my favorite writers, I had even tried to pitch a review of it to couple of publications. Now, I’m glad that neither of those pitches worked out. I gave the novel a good shot, but 100 pages in, I still didn’t care one bit for the characters or their problems.

Sometimes, a book loses my interest so thoroughly that I actually forget I was reading it, set it down somewhere, and simply never pick it up again. This happened with a novel I had taken to Urbana 12 with me. A few weeks after I returned home, I looked in the backpack I had taken with me and discovered the book. Strangely enough, I had found the book enjoyable enough while I was reading it, but if it had left so little impact on my brain, I didn’t see much point in picking it up again.

I realize the book isn’t worth my time. I mentioned this thought to my wife once, and she felt it was a terribly unfair thing to say. But it’s true! There are far more books worth reading than I will ever have time to read, so why should I waste my time on books that are poorly written, poorly conceived, or flat out wrong? Of course, I do waste my time on plenty of books exactly like that. Some of them just strike me as more of a waste than others.

The flip side of this is that I get so excited about another book that it overwhelms any desire to finish the book I’m currently reading. Since I’m generally reading several books at the same time, I usually don’t realize that I’m abandoning the book. It’s more like it gets bumped from the rotation. A week or two or three goes by, the book gets returned to the shelf, and it’s quietly dropped.

It’s not the book — it’s me. The book isn’t always at fault. Sometimes, I’m not ready for the book. It might be over my head, and I need to do some preliminary reading to work up to the book’s level. Occasionally, a book goes to an emotional place that I’m not willing to follow, as with my greatest abandonment to date, Augustine’s City of God. Over 500 pages in (which was still only about halfway through), I had to put the book aside. At the time, I was struggling with mild depression, and Augustine began a long, unvarnished meditation on death that I simply couldn’t handle. So I set the book aside, hoping to return to it one day.

What are your thoughts? Do you try to finish every book you start?

Cloud Atlas, Science Fiction, and the Origins of Religion

I just finished reading Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and I liked this remarkable book a great deal. The book is structured as six “nesting doll” stories, each with a different cast of characters, written in a different genre, set in a different time. Each story is, in turn, interrupted by the next one; after the sixth story is told in full, the stories resolve in reverse order. As I wrote on Twitter,

I won’t write a full review, but I wanted to comment on one element. The sixth story, set in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii of the far future, features a religious system that regards as divine a character from an earlier story. This is a common trope in science fiction: some remarkable, but ultimately reasonable and nonreligious event or person becomes the basis for a religion after centuries of distortion, misunderstandings, and half-remembered truths. Half-remembered truth + time + distortion = religion.

Science fiction that uses this formula shares the same assumptions as classic Liberal Christianity of the 18th and 19th centuries. Both assume there’s something true, more or less, at the core of religion, but that truth can be explained in purely naturalistic terms. The “religious” elements of religion, meanwhile — miracles, belief in the divinity of the founders, metaphysical claims, prayers and other rites — accumulated slowly as the original truths were forgotten or misunderstood. While the religion may have begun as a new philosophy or social movement, it was never intended to be a “religion.”

This strikes me as exactly the opposite of how religions are actually founded. Whatever the event or teaching that launches the religion, its religious nature is immediately apparent, and the movement is regarded as a religion during the lifetime of the founder or shortly thereafter. Whatever truth or falsehood these movements possess is there from the very beginning. If anything, the passage of time tends to make the religions less mystical, as they move away from the ecstatic experiences of the founding generations and settle into systematized belief.

Let’s set aside older religions for the moment and instead just consider religions whose origins were well-recorded by outsiders, such as Sikhism, Bahá’í, Mormonism, and Scientology. Each of these featured a founder who made radical new claims about the nature of reality and claimed to have received these insights through an otherworldly experience. Religious elements and rituals were present from the very beginning (and were usually the innovations of the founder), and the sacred texts of the religions were written by either the founder or his followers. Though their origins are less well-documented by outside obervers, I think the same basic pattern would apply to Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and other older religions. Hinduism, classical paganism, and traditional animism may fit the “time + distortion” model, but their origins lay so far in the past that theories about their foundations can only be conjecture.

By the way, I also enjoyed David Mitchell’s 2011 novel The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’m adding the rest of his novels to my “to read” list.