I tell my friend L., as I sometimes tell people, though never my mother, that I rarely finish reading books.  This shocks L., as it shocks most people I tell which is why I don't tell many people, especially not my mother.  L. says I don't seem like the type of person who doesn't finish books which makes me wonder who she imagines the people to be who don't often finish books.

Similarly, but somewhat differently, L. is shocked to learn that I'm not a drinker since I seem like the type of person who would drink more than I do, given the facts, I assume, that I live in a state known for its heavy drinking and that I dated a beer salesman in college.

It shocks me to hear that L. doesn't know that I don't drink much since I have always known that about her.  It doesn't shock me that over the weekend together, visiting our alma mater, we order only one beer each, though neither of us finish even that one, a fact that would have shocked the guys at the neighboring table who each drank from their own pitcher, if they would have noticed us, which they didn't.

Since L. is so shocked that I don't finish most books I start reading, I try to explain why that is but while explaining find that I don't have a very clear explanation to offer.  She says she always finishes books and is sure to add that it doesn't matter that I don't, that she doesn't think the worse of me.  When she thinks about it some more, she realizes that her husband is always reading many books at once and perhaps he doesn't finish them all either.  Though she doesn't say it, it seems to be more okay that I don't finish books, now that she realizes her husband might not either.

At some point, I ask her about a book I gave her for her 40th birthday, Patti Smith's memoir that won the National Book Award, a book I did happen to read in its entirety.  I just knew that L. was going to love it, especially given a particular photo of a young Robert Mapplethorpe since in it he looks just like the type of guy L. went crazy for in college.

I ask her how she liked the book, expecting her to gush about how much she loved it.  Instead, she says, "I liked it," but in that cautious way that warns me not to be shocked that she didn't really like it that much.  She didn't like the writing style, shocking not only because it won the National Book Award, but because the writing style was exactly the reason I liked it so much.

She admits that perhaps her book group tainted her opinion of it.  They didn't just not like it.  They hated it.  They hated the life she led and they hated how she went about living it and they hated how she chose to describe it.  It seems to me particularly unjust criticisms since one of the women in the group was good friends with the ex-wife of the famous playwright that Patti Smith had an affair with.

That's no way to judge the artistic merits of a book, I argue.  L. is shocked at my vehemence.  "Our book group isn't just about judging artistic merits," she says.  "We talk about how the book makes us feel." Which is exactly her problem with Patti Smith's book, that she never writes directly about her feelings.

I couldn't help it.  It made me feel a little hurt that L. did not love the book I gave her for her 40th birthday the way I expected her to love it which is exactly the way L. feels about Hedwig and the Angry Inch, her favorite movie which she expected me to love but I didn't.  Since I watched it with my husband, and since we didn't finish watching it, a rare occurrence when it comes to movies, L. does not accept my negative impression of her favorite film and is always encouraging me to try to watch it again, ideally, when my husband is out of town. 


  1. It's far better to not be able to finish a book than not be able to NOT finish a book. I suffer from the latter. Sometimes it's like a death slog through the hellish swamp of bad literature. And yet I persist. Tell your mom that for me.

  2. I also start a lot of books that I don't finish, partly due to the glacial pace at which i read (approx 3 pp's and I'm asleep). Among these was Just Kids, not because i didn't like it, i just got distracted and had a hard time hooking in fully. I think I'll pick it up again.

  3. Yes N., I know exactly what you mean. Not finishing isn't necessarily a reflection on if I like the book or not, more a reflection on where the book gets buried. Is it possible to have too much reading material around the house??

    I am also a very slow reader, always have been and for a long time felt bad about it until I read a very good case for the merits of being a slow reader. Now I don't feel so bad anymore.

  4. Anonymous,

    This is exactly the case with my mom. I recommended a Ben Okri book I loved and I saw my mom reading it and asked her how she liked it. She admitted she didn't like it at all. Then why are you still reading it, I asked. She was shocked, how could I ask such a question. I gave her permission not to finish. It was the first, and probably last book she never finished.