Monday, March 12, 2007

Unifnished books

BBC 1 Morning Show covered the story this morning: someone has listed Britain's least finished books, i.e. those that we are most likely to put down after reading a few pages and never to pick them up again. The whole list (plus digest finishes of them, for those who lacked tenacity the first time around but might still be interested to know how it ended) is in Guardian.

John Crace (the author of those and other digests in Guardian) and Kate Mosse (do note the silent e at the end of the surname) were in the studio to comment. Both agreed that it is no longer considered "wrong" to pick up up a book and then not finish it if you don't like it. There are books you buy because everyone else does, with all those 3 for 2 offers around that happens to everyone. There are books you get as gifts, and therefore might not be up your alley.

I must say, I do belong to the (I suppose old-fashioned) group that feels very bad for not finishing a book, although I agree that if you don't like the book there's no reason to struggle with it, there are plenty of good ones to read instead. There have been a few I've not finished, mostly because they've at first progressed slowly and then were forgotten little by little as I had no time to read, and then something else came along and I started them instead. Joseph Conrad's Nostromo goes to this category, but I'll take another go at it one day. There are others that I've borrowed while on holiday and then had to leave when the holiday ended, as I couldn't take someone else's books with me.

And there have been one or two that I've just decided to close after finding no connection with the book whatsoever. Tuula-Liina Varis, a Finnish author is in this category.

I'm surprised to see that they've included non-fiction books as well. Having been in the business of devouring academic books for a while now, and also enjoying popular science books and other non-fiction, I'm not sure they are meant to be read from beginning to the end, in a linear fashion. For instance, the punctuation rant by Lynne Truss, 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' (might have got the punctuation wrong there) is a good book, but it's more like something you read from here and there, and perhaps use as a reference book every now and again, but it doesn't necessarily work as a novel.

Reading changes. Internet organises information in network form, rather than hierarchically and in a linear way as books do. Young people used to the chaotic "organisation" and linked hypertext in the web have a different take to learning and reading than the book-generation. With Google, the information is always there, and to be able to use it, it is more important to learn to be good in accessing it fast, and less important to remember things by heart. Moreover, you can't necessarily trust anything you read these days - being critical of your sources and double-checking for validity is much more important these days, regardless of the media. Now that magazines and newspapers are fighting for reader's attention with more and harder scandal stories, TV is more entertaining than information, the internet is a playing ground for teenagers, blogs are overtaking established news organisations in the speed of their response to news events, and anyone can print professional-looking books on demand, the quality control that lies in the hands of the editors now covers a narrower band of the publishing spectrum than it used to.

Our relationship with books changes as well. Paperbacks are inexpensive, and there are more of them around. Competition for readers is hard, and it is also difficult to make good choices. Competitions are a way of lifting some books ahead of the rest, and big prizes like the Booker prize have a big impact on sales figures. And once everyone is buying A book, it becomes THE book and so you are more likely to include it in your 3 for 2, and then perhaps not finish it as it wasn't what you expected. (There are unhealthy repercussions of this as well, as every bookshop now offers the same books (not so good), competes with prices (good), and plays safe with commissioning new books and just doesn't take risks with interesting novels that don't "market" well (very bad).)

The one thing that doesn't change is the reason why reading novels is so important. It feeds your imagination, enhances your ability to see the world with other people's eyes, live their life choices, try to understand them and learn to see differently. We all need to be reminded that the world we see and how we see it isn't all there is.

P.S. There are bad reasons not to finish a book. The BBC-man (technical term, trust me) commented Louis de Bernières' 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' that was on the top 5 of unfinished books by saying that "it was a blockbuster film but probably the book wasn't as good". A-hem. Having read the brilliant book and heard a number of people ridicule the idiotic film, I'd beg to differ. But I can see how people who liked THAT film didn't like THAT book. They probably only realised it was a book when Hugh Grant read it in the end of Notting Hill. And most likely they are probably the same bunch who bought the David Beckham "auto"biography (third on the list of unfinished non-fiction) and didn't finish it either. The difference being that THAT book should never even have been born.

(Pic: "brittle book" from Joan M. Reitz's ODLIS.)

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