All of us who are readers, book buyers, and collectors have them. They sit sullenly on the shelves or lie in dangerously high stacks on the night stand. They are the books that were started and never finished. A bookmark might be anywhere from page 1 to page 500 in a book, but it sadly testifies that the book was once started, was once embraced by the owner, was once sharing its secrets with the reader, and then was jilted, cast aside, ignored, buried under a pile of pulp fiction, or otherwise shunned from the reading stacks.
For many of us, that unread book is a classic. We picked it up with a determination to better ourselves and appreciate great literature only to enter into a bog of words and a fog of plot devices. For a time, for a few chapters, we plodded along, and then that classic experienced what Mark Twain once said: “A classic–a book which people praise and don’t read.”
I confess to having the unfinished books. A glance at almost any shelf in my house, office, or study will reveal the tell-tale bookmarks, the testimonies to failure, a lack of perseverance, a journey begun that was never completed. I am guilty and vile. The shelves speak of great literature, history, theology, and philosophy, but the bookmarks tell another story. The marines are looking for a few good men, and a book is looking for a few good readers. We realize that we flunked out in basic training with a Puritan reprint, that we went AWOL with a hefty Russian novel, and that we turned and ran when a true epic poem confronted us for the first time.
How many readers have gladly locked arms with Ishmael and climbed aboard the Pequod? That white whale was illusive, but the long ranging, deep sounding, endlessly moving tides of Moby Dick has turned many a sea-bound reader into a television watching land-lubber. And what of Calvin’s Institutes, Augustine’s City of God, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Shelby Foote’s Civil War, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Tolkien’s Samarillion?
I teach literature to students. Some students don’t like to read and some don’t like to read heavies. Some students are incredibly busy. Some are bored with everything that doesn’t appear on a screen, and many are only intellectually interested in mental fast food. Even Spark’s Notes, Cliff’s Notes, and Fill-in-the-blank for Dummies are too wordy, too mind constricting, with too much thought-tonage for their minds. John Locke’s notion of the tabula rasa, the blank slate of the mind, might very well have developed out of a classroom experience.
I don’t speak as a literary snob, but as a fellow stumbler, a mental dullard, and an undisciplined learner. A droning lecture on the literary features of elegiac poetry or on social mobility in the Old South glazes my mind and lulls me to sleep. Teachers all too often wrench the beauty of literature and turn the excitement of learning into a forced march across the frozen steppes of academia. I missed the point of some of the great literature I was taught. I, too, was often bored, uninterested, distracted. Even without the rich trove of literature we teach in a classical Christian school, there was much that I missed in my own years in school.
We are all in this together. I have books I have started and not finished. My students don’t always get the books read that they are assigned.
So what are the benefits of unfinished books?
I am going to outline 12 benefits and uses of books we don’t finish reading. Not every point applies to every book. A reference work, a history text, or a collection of poems can be partially read with extreme benefit. We don’t normally read our dictionaries and encyclopedias cover to cover. But read and use these 12 points as needed.
1. An unfinished book can give you a familiarity with the author, the style of the writing, and the theme of the book. Most literary anthologies give excerpts. At the very least, 20 to 100 pages of reading will give the reader a sense of the book and writer. Superficial knowledge is still knowledge. You can move a book from the category of totally unknown to vague familiarity. I have lots of books that I would benefit from reading just a portion from in order to at least make an acquaintance with the book and author.
2. An unread book is a motivation to try to read it again. The bookmark beckons. The guilt weighs heavy. You know that you tried once and failed, but you are willing to try again. After being thrown from a horse, the best thing is to get back on again. Gear up and give that unread book another go.
3. An unfinished book may cause you to learn from others or listen to lectures on the book. This past summer, I read Charles Dickens’ book Hard Times because I read an essay about the book. Sometimes I have had friends who have talked about a book I had started, and they convinced me (usually without knowing it) to read or finish a particular book. If you didn’t finish a book, look at some reviews or essays on the book. Find a lecture or discussion on it. That may convince you to finish the book or it may give you what you need to know for now. Thomas Foster, author of How to Read Literature Like a Professor and Twenty Five Books That Shaped America, can whet the appetite for any book, and he has read virtually everything.
4. Along with learning from others, we can talk to others about unfinished books. “I’ve some of that book” may be just enough to get you into a conversation. When you see a copy of a book you never finished on someone else’s bookshelf, ask them if they have read it. Their words, either recommendations or criticisms, may help yo to figure out if you need to read more, start the book over, or just skip over to a particular chapter.
5. Sometimes an unfinished book can be supplemented or partially explained by watching the movie version of the story. Movies and books are different kinds of art and entertainment. There are always lots of arguments over movie interpretation of books. But lots of movies have motivated me to read the books they were based on.
6. Some unfinished books need to sit on the shelf and wait. Sometimes, you need time and experience to grow ready for a book, or you need the right occasion. I got Rodney Stark’s book The Discovery of God one year for Christmas. I started reading it and found it uninteresting in comparison to several of his previous books. This past fall I picked it up again after starting to teach a World Civilizations dual credit class. I realized that I needed to know more about the religions of Indian, Chinese, and other cultures. The book was a perfect fit.
I bought the book In the Twilight of Western Thought by Herman Dooyeweerd about 30 years ago. I had it for 20 plus years before I read it. I was not ready for it prior to then, and the need wasn’t there, and the frame of thought was not in place.
Many books have to wait on us.
7. Ownership! This obviously doesn’t apply to a book checked out of the library. But there is a certain pride and sense of accomplishment in owning books. The stately spines filling a bookshelf to overflowing is a form of wealth, a heritage for your children, and a aesthetic comfort. I admit to being consumed. Like Christopher Dawson, I seek to have my house in a library rather than having a library in my house. I would hate to not have my 40 or so volumes of the Church Fathers, my 20 volumes of Nobel Prize Winners, my complete set of Dickens, my many volumes of the Library of America, and numerous unread and partially read sets of books, besides many, many individual volumes.
8. Unfinished books motivate you to find supporting materials. Sometimes, a shorter work by the same author, a commentary, or a condensed version of a book opens up the larger work. Reading Augustine’s Confessions is a good start for tackling City of God. Faulkner’s short stories pave the way for understanding his novels. Books like An Invitation to the Classics, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness, really helps the reader to understand a classic. Don’t be ashamed of reading simplified, condensed, and children’s versions of stories if that helps with later readings of the classics. Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare is a good resource for understanding Shakespeare’s plays.
9. Picking up an unfinished book gives the reader the chance to re-read the opening. The opening paragraphs of Calvin’s Institutes can be read a million times. Chapter 1 of Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship is a gem. The opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities are unforgettable. Whether it is “There was a man and a dog too this time” or “Call me Ishmael” or “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a good wife,” opening lines and first chapters beckon us to read them again and again.
10. An unfinished book gives you time to evaluate the worth of the book itself and the worth of the book for you. The best books, like good financial investments, accrue interest. I only have to glance around my office to see the treasure stores that are untapped or only partially tapped. I know certain books are good because I have read a bit of them, experienced some of the power, and witnessed the solidity of the work. I also have the testimony of book reading friends. A postcard from a place you have never visited can convince you that you want to go there. So can the reading of just a portion of certain books.
In other cases, you will sometimes come to a different conclusion about a book. Time will convince you that it has less value than you thought or that it doesn’t fit your needs or ideas. Some people discard such books. I am more likely to move them to the lower shelves.
11. I know this point is repetitious, but I will make it anyway. An unfinished book can be replaced by a condensed version. In novels, the key point is to get the story line down and then to read the fuller version. In histories, biographies, philosophical works, and theological works, shorter versions can be effective stepping stones to reading the full book. I don’t figure I will ever get the 4000 pages of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica read (and maybe not even started), but Peter Kreeft put together a shorter version called The Summa of the Summa, which is a mere 500 pages. Thankfully, he then did a book called A Shorter Summa: The Essential Philosophical Passages of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica Edited and Explained. The title is almost as long as the book, which is 162 pages.
12. Leaving a book unfinished gives the reader the chance to pick up another book and start reading. I am writing this in May which is a hectic month for a school teacher. It is even worse this year because I have a senior graduating from Wheaton College and another graduating from Veritas Academy. (Congratulations Nick and TaraJane!) Sometimes in May, I am prone to pick up a serious, sober, somber, scholarly theological work of several hundred pages and start reading. Won’t work. there is no mind power in May. This is the month for the page turner, the delightful biography, the non-threatening comfort reading. The serious works will end up with a bookmark, while the dessert reading will get top billing.
So, enjoy your unfinished books and stop feeling guilty.