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?

Religion and Violence

Nicholas Kristof recently wrote on Facebook

I’m struck how many Westerners see Islam as intrinsically violent. No religion is intrinsically anything, in my view. The Bible approves of genocide (those poor Amalekites), the Fifth Dalai Lama ordered massacres, and Shintoism justified atrocities. And yet each has also been an inspiration at times for peace and justice. Ditto for Islam.

I’m not going to address whether Islam is “intrinsically violent,” but Kristof’s position ignores the specificity of religions, ignores their history, beliefs, and theology as if they were all the same. In a secular society, all religions (within certain bounds) are according basically equal standing in the eyes of the law. This does not mean that all religions are the same. I’ve particularly been struck by this fact while reading (slowly!) through Augustine’s City of God. In this book, Augustine responds to Roman pagans who have aruged that Christianity was responsible for the fall of Rome. In our contemporary, “post-Christian” culture, we so easily forget the great diversity of religion throughout history, and the variety of values, beliefs, and gods that have been worshipped.

Greeks worshipped Ares, god of war, who became angry if war was not well-waged. Jainism forbids ALL violence, even against plants and microbes. Romulus, founder and chief god of Rome, was a murderer and warrior, and the Romans worshipped him BECAUSE of his violence, not in spite of it. Quakers, Baha’is, and Jehovah’s Witnesses have made pacifism a supreme virtue, even one worth prison and death to preserve. How then can anyone claim that there are not different levels of privilege given to violence in different religions?

Further, if this is the case, why make peace or violence a presiding factor in a religions value? If one god says that violence is good, and another says peace is good, how can we judge between them? Are there, perhaps, other factors which determine a religion’s truth or value besides its view of peace and violence?