What Does It Mean to Have ‘Read’ a Book?

Have you ever lied and said you finished a book when you hadn't? Here's why.

In his book Where I’m Reading From, Tim Parks asks an important question of readers: “Do we need to finish [books]?” The reason this query is so vital is that most people, I’ll argue, don’t actually finish all the books they’ve said they’ve read—and if this is so then we must all understand what we mean when we say we’ve “read” a book.

Parks wisely gets past the problem of “bad books,” in which stopping before the end is the best choice, “if only because,” he notes, “the more bad books you finish, the few good ones you’ll have time to start.” No one would encourage a person to persist with a novel they weren’t enjoying—unless, of course, it was for a class or a review, in which cases it’s still permissible to register your boredom. To close a bad book is to value your own time, to understand what you want from a book and what this particular one is (or is not) giving you.

But, Parks continues, what of good books? Parks himself argues that we don’t have to finish a good book in order to get a sense of what the author’s up to, and, moreover, we as a culture have developed a “tyranny to our thrall with endings.” A story’s resolution, he maintains, is not the part he usually loves the most anyway. For me, though, this question splits in two: 1) do we have to read a book to the end in order to have experienced what the writer intended? and 2) do we have to complete a book in order to claim, to others, that we have, in fact, read it?

Parks neglects to mention a major component of reading: people lie about finishing books all the time. And the reason they lie is because society has implicitly disagreed with Parks’ conclusion. You read it all, or you haven’t read it at all. (Or, at least, you have to acknowledge that you started but stopped.) Whether or not the act of quitting does a disservice to the writer is, more or less, a private matter, whereas the second question relates to our public lives and our interactions with others. Furthermore, what does such an interpretation of reading suggest? That only someone with the entirety of a work in their mind can justifiably discuss it? What about books you read many years ago that you don’t fully remember? How many times, in fact, have we all received this as a response to “Have you read this?” “Yeah, but it was years ago,” they’ll say. Assuming these people are telling the truth (though the “years ago” reply is often a cover-up for having not read the book but feeling guilty or less intelligent for having not), and it has been a long time since they engaged with the book, what of this situation? Would they have to reread it in order to offer an opinion?

Get recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.

Consider, by way of comparison, the way we talk about contemporary television shows, which have increasingly taken on novelistic qualities in the recent two decades. If you asked someone if they’ve watched, say, The Sopranos and they say yes, do we assume they’ve gotten through all six seasons? Or what about a show that’s still on the air, like Game of Thrones, of which no one has seen the ending? Does one have to have watched every available episode to really participate in a conversation or to write an essay? And if not every episode, how many? One season? Two? It seems like we treat TV like we should also treat fiction: we understand that a certain amount of exposure to something, even without finishing it, qualifies as enough to pass judgment on it.

Parks makes a great point in his essay about plot—namely, that even when a story is primarily plot-focused (as in, for example, a mystery novel), the resolutions are rarely what we enjoyed. “What matters,” he writes, “is the conundrum of the plot, the forces put in play and the tensions between them.” I immediately think of numerous mysteries I’ve read in which the inexplicability of the scenes, the multiple solutions the enigmas evoke, is not only unmatched by the finale but is completely ruined by it.

Take, for instance, G.K. Chesterton’s 1908 thriller The Man Who Was Thursday, which begins with and further develops a fascinating mystery: a secret agent of Scotland Yard is brought to an underground anarchist group by a poet, who hopes to be voted in as one of the group’s seven council members. After the agent and the poet take an oath of secrecy, the agent reveals his identity to the poet and usurps the election, becoming Thursday, as each council member takes the name of a day. With each successive chapter, the agent discovers that each member of the group is also a double agent—only Sunday remains mysterious. This set-up—of a secret anarchist organization made up entirely of spies trying to take down such organizations—has such wonderful potential as a brilliant commentary on politics, government, and, metaphorically, the nature of identity. Chesterton, though, is more interested in crafting a Christian allegory than a riveting yarn, and so, as soon as the enigmatic Sunday is discovered (which in and of itself is pretty disappointing), Chesterton utterly jumps the shark narrative-wise by revealing that the entire story was a dream! This is, recall, the same ending as Super Mario Bros. 2 on NES. It’s particularly annoying because Chesterton, here, reduces anarchism to mere pessimism in order to present a contrast between the “good” of the detectives. Had I not read until the end of The Man Who Was Thursday—before, that is, the dream reveal—I would probably have a much better opinion of it.

Then there are endings that I morally disagree with, like the conclusion of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Tolstoy, immersed like Levin in his obsessive interpretation of Christianity, takes his fascinating and complex protagonist, whose affair with Vronsky has already caused her great emotional turmoil, and has her throw herself in front of a train. For Tolstoy, this is the appropriate (and inevitable) result of immoral life choices—but for me it’s allowing ethics to take precedent over humanity. Anna did not deserve suicide, nor, in my estimation, is she capable of such an act—nor, for that matter, is any character who kills themselves purely as a result of some moral equation. Using suicide as a plot device—especially when used to condemn—is not only lazy, it’s also pretty offensive. Imagine a comparable notion: a “bad” character developing severe bipolar disorder as a punishment for their behavior. Obviously, our modern understanding of mental physiology would render such an ending ridiculous, and yet suicide (which psychological studies tell us more and more comes an immeasurable mixture of bio-psycho-social influences) is still for whatever reason considered legitimate, even if it’s used didactically in a simplistic cause-and-effect manner. In some way, I wish I hadn’t gotten to Anna Karenina’s ending, because I’d love to believe that Anna’s still alive, struggling with her choices, yes, but persevering anyway—as it is now, I can’t erase Tolstoy’s version from my mind.

And yet my personal preferences wouldn’t matter at all when placed in the context of culture. If I were, say, discussing Anna Karenina without having discovered Anna’s death, with someone who had finished it, the lovely notion of Anna continuing to exist would matter not at all. For in such a situation, the person who read the most would be taken more seriously. So even if we understand that getting to the last page of a book isn’t necessary to get a sense of the piece as a whole, we don’t carry this belief into the social realm. But this is not because we genuinely believe in the validity of taking the person who’d finished Anna Karenina more seriously than the one who didn’t—it is because we all have the wrong idea about other people’s reading habits.

It breaks down like this: in youth, we’re taught to associate books with intelligence and maturity, and often our first exposure to fiction comes in the form of an assignment, something we’re forced into. Many don’t get that far past this early impression and go through most of their lives believing that reading is a boring and/or pretentious activity and thus, never read at all. Others persist and become readers, but the intelligent/mature/difficult/boring connotations come along with them, so as they move from classic to classic and they find their progress stunted by boredom or incomprehension, they blame themselves—something must be wrong with them, considering how well-regarded so-called canonical literature is. Even when readers mature and come to understand that they cannot be faulted for not being engaged by a text, an odor of failure continues to linger over unfinished books.

So people lie. If they read past the halfway point, especially. After all, how much easier is it to fib a bit than it is to explain that yeah, I read some or most of that novel but for whatever reason I didn’t get to the end, and then to have whomever brought up the book (who, usually really likes it) ask you why you didn’t like it, which must be the case since you stopped, because I guess there’s no way a person could read some of book, enjoy it, but still not finish it, and then you might justify your quitting with some extenuating circumstance or maybe you’ll explain that, no, you did like it but at some point the idea of a conclusion just seemed, as Parks puts it, “an unfortunate burden, an embarrassment, a deplorable closure of so much possibility,” but no matter what answer you give, the person who asked, the person who did finish the book (or at least claims to have), will lord it over you with sometimes smug superiority, because oh, you should have read the whole thing, the ending was the best part, as if you would have been transformed in some fundamental way, and there isn’t anything you can do to stop their pompous pontifications, a state made all the more depressing by its being unnecessary?

These literary fibs, then, already contain implicit arguments against what I’ll call Completion Theory—only it’s undetectable and thus not really effective against the overall societal condescension. What’s needed is a reconsideration—indeed, a redefinition—of what it means to experience art. And though it’s tempting to be aggressively democratic about it, our new definition can’t be the complete equalization of little exposure and a lot of exposure—as with most things, it’s a matter of degrees. The important thing, though, is to eliminate the stark division between finishing a book and all the steps leading to it. Readers should never be made to feel ashamed for any aspect of their literary enterprise but especially not what is, ultimately, an awareness of their own tastes and rhythms and needs. We should promote any engagement with books, of any kind, and not only because literacy should be right, but also because avid reading is an extraordinarily effective means of self-discovery—as your interest in genres and authors and style gets refined and narrowed down, the resulting choices reflect back at you, providing a convenient and self-created way of understanding what fascinates, rivets, and compels you. A path forged in darkness can still, in the light of day, lead you back to where you began.

In some ways, not finishing a book can be a great compliment to the author’s creation. Parks’ phrase regarding endings, “a deplorable closure of so much possibility,” aptly articulates what I mean. Sometimes the world of a novel or story is so beautifully imagined, so wonderfully vibrant, that not only do I not want to leave but I actually might resent the writer for giving it an ending and thus forcing me out of it, and by stopping before this has a chance to happen, the characters and the setting, in my mind, still possess that exquisite sense of possibility that is evoked by great fiction and snuffed by most endings. Quitting a story might be the only defense against finality; conversely, a way to keep its beauty alive in your heart for longer than the unread pages. Sometimes we love an invented world with such passion, we’re resistant to any ending, even if it’s the author’s, because in life we’re always in the middle of our stories, enmeshed in multiple narratives relating to numerous problems, and if we’ve learned anything, it’s that the neat-and-tidiness of endings doesn’t occur in reality. Each of us is an unfinished book, so sometimes when we stop reading a story, it might simply be because we need it to go on, to move parallel to our own stories and become a space for solace and self-recognition, something almost sacred, which we would never want to betray by obstructing with an ending, by reducing the wondrous awe of infinite possibilities to just one.

Featured image: spatuletail/Shutterstock.com

About Jonathan Russell Clark

JONATHAN RUSSELL CLARK is a literary critic and the author of An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Tin House, The Georgia Review, and numerous others.

[email_signup id="4"]