Abandonment and Liberation

I think it’s a pride thing: forcing oneself to finish some unreadable book. Telling yourself you’re going to finish it, and what’s more, you’re going to learn to like it along the way: because Jhumpa Lahiri was quoted on the cover as finding it enchanting and if you’re not similarly charmed (no, more charmed! Try to like it even more than Jhumpa Lahiri! Tell your friends!) you must not actually like to read, so quit with the facade already and head to the genre shelves.

Besides, the minute you pick a book up, you’ve made an investment. The minute you carry it across your threshold, you’ve made a commitment. And once you’ve cracked its spine, that’s it: there’s really no turning back now. This is The Book You’re Reading, until final sentence do you part.

The carefree summer evening we skipped, holding hands, into Funny Games was the night that planted the seed of revolution in my mind. I’d glanced at the movie listings hastily. “Blah blah blah, some rich family, blah blah blah, trying to fit in, golf courses, weird neighbors — sounds hilarious. If we leave right now, we can make it.” We bought our tickets and ran down empty theater stairs to Screen 4. I froze in front of the door.

“You have to admit, you . . . brought this on yourself,” I read on the marquee. “Wait. Is that a tear going down Naomi Watts’ terrified face? Hold up, wait, waitwaitwait. I don’t . . . think this is the kind of movie we thought it was.”

“Hmm. Yeah, no. Do you want to turn back?” Jurvis asked.

But we’d already walked a mile to the theater. We’d already bought the tickets. It was starting, everything was in motion now and it was too late. Too late, I say! So we sat down and we watched it, and we hated it. It was the kind of movie that dared you to stay just one more minute, and when you did, it blamed you for what happened next. It was the kind of movie that made you feel like a terrible, sadistic person, complicit in both torture and in movies made about torture. And we did not get up and leave, because we didn’t leave movies back then. And an hour and a half later as the lights came up I looked, battered and torn, around us: the theater had become completely empty.

And I thought “I am a sucker.”

I thought, “this is exactly the way I do not want to spend my life.”

So last night I quit a book that Jhumpa Lahiri claims to find enchanting.

I had read barely twenty-five pages of the thing when I threw it back to sea. “Back on the shelf you go!” I cried.

The efficacy was completely unprecedented; usually my literary abandonments — well, okay, all of my abandonments — are absurdly drawn-out. I start out forcefully strong, teeth gritting, then slowly taper off. It becomes a few painful pages every night. I keep judicious track. Then every other night. We’ll get through this! Until, maybe, although I’d never admit it to you, it’s the way I put myself to sleep. Then it sits comatose on the nightstand for a few months, hidden under other more interesting books, until I half-heartedly pick it up again, dust the dust off the dust jacket, and it’s just a few more nightly charades now until I am forced to slide it, slyly, back onto the shelf — the “currently reading” shelf. Someday, maybe, I’ll come back to this one.

But this, this immediate rejection felt amazing. It was like saying “no” to a second date. I know what I don’t want, and it’s the way you described his thin fingers as chicken bones enshrouded in slubbed silk. What? No! Stop wasting my time! Go away! What’s this other thing?

(I started a rebound book today, and it is all kinds of wonderful: funny, and sad, and compelling, and riddled with affairs and descriptions of Montana barns. Life is cured. Why would we ever count the pages?)

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  1. The rule with books is (allegedly) that you give a book one hundred pages, minus your age. When you are ninety-nine, you can look at the first page and decide whether or not it’s worth it!

  2. I had a science teacher in 7th grade who told me that if you could read the first 14 pages without looking to see what page you were on, it was a good book.

    Then he gave me a C.

  3. I never quit a book (that wasn’t assigned by a teacher or ex-girlfriend) unfinished until this year. I didn’t quit Judge & Jury, but I should have. Having soiled myself with that garbage, I quit books pretty confidently, and the quality of my reading has gone up.

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