Tim Parks has a fascinating post on the New York Review of Books’ blog this week, in which he considers the ethics of finishing a book. He isn’t talking about bad books—no one should feel obliged to finish one of those, he says, “if only because the more bad books you finish, the fewer good ones you’ll have time to start.” (I wish I’d had the sense to think of that before I pushed my way to the end of Mr. CSI: How a Vegas Dreamer Made a Killing in Hollywood, One Body at a Time; talk about a book that can and should be judged by its cover.) Instead, Parks asks:
Is a good book by definition one that we did finish? Or are there occasions when we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even only half way through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent, that we were glad we read what we read, but don’t feel the need to finish it?
Drawing on his experience as both a reader and a writer, he makes an excellent case for putting down a book when we’ve gotten what we need from it. Just as we wouldn’t feel obliged to force down the last mouthfuls of a wonderful meal after we’re quite full, we needn’t spoil our enjoyment of a book because of a compulsion to reach the final page. He takes the argument a little further, in fact:
I also wonder if, in showing a willingness not to pursue even an excellent book to the death, a reader isn’t actually doing the writer a favor, exonerating him or her, from the near impossible task of getting out of the plot gracefully. There is a tyranny about our thrall to endings. I don’t doubt I would have a lower opinion of many of the novels I haven’t finished if I had.
I usually finish books. Looking at my bedside table I see a couple of dusty volumes that I haven’t touched for a couple of years, but the fact that I haven’t shifted them to another shelf suggests that deep down I still believe I’ll pick them up again and read to the end. (They’re Howard Jacobson’s Kalooki Nights, one of the best novels I’ve ever “read” about my home town of Manchester, England, and Andrew O’Hagan’s Personality, about which I have nothing but positive feelings.) I do, however, have a chronic problem with leaving TV shows unfinished.
It’s not just that I allow episodes of a series to accumulate on my DVR. (I’m not hoarding Luck, I’m just not ready to admit that I’m never going to watch it again.) It’s that there are some shows that I watch with great enthusiasm throughout the season only to leave the thrilling finale unseen.
I first noticed this phenomenon when clearing out my DVR in preparation for the new TV season. (Thanks to a hard-drive “expander” attached to my TiVo, it can hold a lot of episodes.) Nestled among the favorites I was saving to re-watch and the newish shows I hadn’t gotten around to yet were a bunch of season-ending episodes of series that I like enough to watch every single week: Leverage, Master of the Mix, Rizzoli and Isles, Work of Art, Burn Notice, Covert Affairs, Suits.
I’m particularly puzzled by the reality competitions. I watched the DJs of Master of the Mix and the artists of Work of Art battle it out for a couple of months, and then I couldn’t bring myself to find out who won? Perhaps it’s my way of ensuring that my favorite contestants never get beaten.
As to the rest, they’re mostly shows from networks that use the odd season structure so beloved of USA and TNT: five or six episodes in three or four clusters throughout the year. I’m not saving them to remember what happened; the networks almost always rerun the previous season before the new one begins. Maybe I’m saving myself the stress of a cliffhanger that won’t be resolved for months.
Years ago, people used to worry that their TiVos thought they were gay. Now I’m fretting because mine knows that I’m crazy.