To finish, or not to finish, reading a book
My social media feeds this week have contained interesting statistics and discussions on the number of books sold versus the number of books actually finished. Ebook sellers can now monitor what percentage of a book on a device has been read*. And bestsellers, it turns out, are not necessarily the most popular reads.
I have always had a somewhat complicated relationship with books. I remember walking through the door of our town library as a very small child, smelling the polished wooden shelves and whispering in a hushed voice to my mother. The children’s section was up a small flight of stone steps and the bottoms shelves were full of books with bright pictures. Those on the shelves above held storybooks with fewer pictures and more words. And those on the highest shelves, well, they were just too awe-inspiring for words. Because words were all they had. Suffice to say, I named my first dog Paddington twenty-five years later.
I stepped into big book breeches when I was five. My sister had finished a Famous Five book by Enid Blyton, and I bravely queried the wisdom of reading a book without illustrations. She tossed the book at me and told me to try for myself. I did. And then I worked my way through the rest of the series, danced through Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, wished myself away at Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School, and never looked back. Buying a new book was a big deal and required careful consideration. I had mine arranged on shelves with homemade library labels stuck inside. This was the beginning of my book collection, I thought, and not a single one could be thrown or given away.
My notion of books being too precious to discard stems from two sources: the first and obvious one being money was short and a new book was a treat. But the second, I believe, is a reaction to the reprehensible book burnings that have taken place throughout history on political or religious grounds. Standing in Bebelplatz, Berlin, it was all too easy to imagine the terror and glee as over 20,000 books were burned by the Nazis. Books, I was taught, should be treated with respect.
Which brings me back to the original dilemma. I have always had trouble abandoning a book half read. Funnily enough, I have no qualms about channel hopping or abandoning a TV series, but giving up on a book feels illogically mean. While my brain is convinced no book can be enjoyed by all, life is too short and books too plentiful to waste time on a disengaging read, my heart is still fighting for all books to be treated with equal respect, and that means finishing them. And to be fair, there has been many a book that took a little getting into before I became completely hooked. The downside of this strategy, of course, is my reluctance to start a book I feel iffy about, to wit I am horribly guilty of judging a book by its cover and blurb.
For the sake of space – our attic is about to sag and our storage facility is filling up rapidly – I tend to buy novels as ebooks and only textbooks as hard copies. If I see or hear of a book worth reading, I download a sample to remind me that it’s out there and it sounded an interesting read. If I see a good offer on a seemingly good ebook, I buy it there and then. Which means my device is loaded with a good number of, as yet, unread books and samples. If this is representative behaviour of the average ebook reader, do these ebook statistics truly represent readership? And am I inadvertently giving some authors a black mark on the Bought But Not Finished list? And if so, should I even care?
As a writer, I would want to know whether my buyers were also my readers. But as a reader, the whole idea of ebook sellers monitoring exactly what and how much I read irks. That’s my business. But I can also understand why they think it might be theirs. Because in terms of future sales, it is. Assuming readers are less likely to buy a second book by an author they abandoned. I’m tempted to become a book rebel by scrolling through unread books by authors I enjoy to chip in to their Finished statistics.
I’m currently reading Gone Girl – all 555 pages of it. I’m half way through and sucked in. Gillian Flynn will be getting a tick on the Finished list. But then I just might start a book from a, for me, totally new genre, just to see. If other avid readers have learned to abandon a book, perhaps I can too.
And then again, I might become hooked. And give it a tick in the Finished list.