For Better or For Worse


I regularly listen to Faith Middleton, the host of a local NPR show, in the afternoons when I’m driving to pick up my youngest son at preschool. She recently did one of her book shows, during which she and three other people recommend books that they have recently read that listeners may enjoy. Faith commented that she had decided not to feel guilty anymore about not finishing books that she had started. If she picked up a book, and it couldn’t hold her interest, then she felt free to discard it without guilt.

I wish I was so carefree. I commit to books the way that I commit to my marriage. I am going to get to the end, no matter what. Granted, my marriage is far better than some mediocre book (Hi, David). But I almost feel as though I’m going to get in trouble if I don’t finish said book. Who’s going to come and get me? The book police? Of course not. However, I still feel like I’m committing some cardinal sin if I don’t finish a book that I’ve started reading.

For example, I just finished a book called The House at Sea’s End. It’s the third book in a mystery series. I really liked the first book. The second was all right, so I had high hopes for the third. Things were going well until the author decided to reveal the murderer. All of a sudden, some random minor character with no real part in the story was holding a gun up to the main character’s face.

Why is it that murderers feel the need to spill their guts to some character in the story right before they plan to shoot the character? Don’t these murderers know that the police are going to burst into the room the minute they’ve poured out their confessional?  Have they not watched Murder, She Wrote? I thought about putting the book down right there, but I forced myself to finish it. A chase scene ensued, the main character escaped and the murderer said something along the lines of, “I would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids!” Then, the book was over.

Another book that I started but didn’t finish last month was a memoir called Blood, Bones and Butter. This was a book that had been splashed all over NPR and had received numerous kudos from various important people. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get into it. Does everyone who writes a memoir have to have a quirky yet miserable childhood? The writer’s parents divorced, then she lied about her age and became a waitress, then she took up shoplifting. I suppose that if she had a happy and somewhat saccharine childhood, she would never have gotten a book deal. As for me, I put this book down because I didn’t find her shenanigans fascinating. I found them tiresome.

Lately, I feel as though I’m putting down more books than I’m finishing, and I definitely feel guilty about it. I am my mother’s daughter in terms of thrift; if I don’t finish a book, I feel guilty that I haven’t gotten my money’s worth. However, I do face the fact of a finite existence, and one can only cram so many books into that existence. I want my books to entertain me, but I also want the characters to do something noble. I want them to have characteristics of the best of humanity, even if they are simultaneously seriously flawed. I want the characters to behave in an authentic way, a way that I, as another human, would recognize and believe. Reading a book about a childhood shoplifter who has no regrets reminds me of listening to one of the older girls on my school bus brag about her carnal and light-fingered escapades at the mall. I’ve lost interest in badness. I want some kind of genuine redemption or recovery.

I am a master of making myself feel guilty for no reason, so I suppose that I should drop my book guilt complex. I’ve been thinking about reading either The Passage or Stephen King’s new JFK book. Maybe one of them will be impossible to put down. I’d like to remember that feeling of reading something that made me want to forget about going to bed at night. I want to read something that can make me feel engaged.

3 thoughts on “For Better or For Worse

  1. I agree. That’s why I get most of my books from the library, so I’m not out of pocket for something that I might not like. I also read reviews on Amazon before I read new books. And if I feel bad about not finishing a book, I’ll skim it very fast and just read the last chapter (with the hope that the story will redeem itself). But there are some that are so dire, I just walk away.

  2. Melissa says:

    Just finished the Stephen King; it’s a nice ride! I saw the ending a mile away, though. Still thought it was worth the time, and I did actually lose some sleep over it (finished in 2 1/2 days, but I get like that with most books).

    I never finished War and Peace. God, I just put that in writing! Feels a little like confessing a mortal sin or something. I also never finished Emma Goldman’s autobiography, which REALLY makes me feel bad, because she’s kind of my hero. But it’s clearly not written by a professional–there are times when it reads like the so-and-so-beget-so-and-so sections of the Bible. Other than that, I’ve generally felt compelled to finish, even when the book SUCKS. Like Beverly, I’ve been known to skim just to get to the end.

  3. Jeanne Martin says:

    Ah Jackie, let this guilt habit go…. I don’t bother to finish books that don’t get my interest any longer… the ones I used to finish just didn’t make it worth my bother. I move on to the next one waiting patiently for my attention. May I suggest The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy if you haven’t read those already… or perhaps Diana Gabaldon? Not sure what you have already read or what you like to read…. for science fantasy, I love Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and the other one is the Sword of Truth series….

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