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When to persist, and when to desist? A booklover’s tale

Nilanjana Roy is a wonderful columnist for the Financial Times. She is, like me, a devoted bibliophile. She revels in her love of literature and enrols many in the cause of reading.

She recently penned a piece that really got me thinking about how I read books. My why, as regular readers of this page will know, is crystal clear. I read a lot because it’s my thing. It brings joy, knowledge and wisdom. That is all.

Ms Roy put a different question on the table. You may read a lot, but are you a Finisher or an Abandoner of books? Once Finishers pick up a book, they carry on doggedly to the end. Abandoners, on the other hand, drop a book without further thought if it turns out to be a hard slog or simply unappealing.

Like Ms Roy, I have long prided myself on being a Finisher. It’s what serious people do, is it not? We don’t just pick books up and then throw them aside whimsically. We grit our teeth, and stay in for the long haul, no? Sometimes it’s got to hurt if it’s going to have any effect, we say. Some of the best books are not at all easy to read—but read them we must.

Is it really virtuous to be a Finisher, though?

Things can look different at different stages of life. As a teenager, I read only for pleasure. Thrillers that sent a boy’s pulse racing; whodunnits that engaged the “little grey cells” (in the words of one of my favourite master-sleuths of those days); epic tales that told of heroic quests against the odds. I always had one of those on the go. I would never seek out the more worthy tomes, because they committed the greatest sin known to the inchoate mind—they were boring.

And yet. At high school I was forced to read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and Laye’s The African Child, and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and these sowed the seed of a suspicion: there may be more to this book-reading lark than just pleasure. Some books were indeed difficult to read, but there was gain after the pain.

Thus began my odyssey into more highbrow terrain. Over the next few decades, I breached various literary fortresses: the great Russians; more from the pen of the Bard of Avon; the exquisite poetry of Mirza Ghalib; and, of course, the greats from our own shores—Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Abdulrazak Gurnah, to mention just two.

Reader, I loved them all. I have found little in this life that compares with the pleasure of ending a truly great work of literature: the epic novel, the unforgettable poem. Only the great works of nature surpass the joy of literature. When the two can be combined—when a superb novel is completed in the presence of the sun sinking beyond the ocean, say, or when one can look up from some exquisite verse to see a flock of birds flying home for the night in majestic formation—ah. Those are the peaks of a book-loving existence.

And yet, again. Not every book, however well-regarded or widely applauded, is written for every reader. It is perfectly acceptable to buy or borrow a book with the best of intentions, to read the first few chapters—and just say no. As I get older and the end comes closer, I apply a key lesson from the other part of my life as a business strategist and advisor: sunk cost. That which has been begun need not be completed. The fact that you paid for something or had high hopes for it does not mean it must be continued. Do what’s best for your future, not what looked best in the past.

So, like Nilanjana Roy, I am becoming a little more of an Abandoner. I will indeed leave a book if it’s not working for me. That is not a judgement on the work; remember, there are multitudes of readers who might adore the writing. It is more of an acceptance of mismatch: this is probably great for some; but not for me, at this time.

For some books, the “not for me” feeling is strong enough for me to give those volumes away, immediately; but there also remains a “maybe, someday” pile—who knows? A future me may grow into those books.

It strikes me that this Finisher/Abandoner dichotomy has deeper meaning beyond book-reading. When should we continue with our quests, and when should we relinquish them? When should we persist, and when to desist? Let me end with a comic recommendation from W. C. Fields: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.”

(Sunday  Nation, 5 September 2021)

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