What’s Wrong with Only Reading Half a Book?

Last month, the e-reading company Kobo revealed which books its users read to completion. Much was made of the fact that Donna Tartt’s prize-winning bestseller The Goldfinch was only finished by 44% of Kobo readers, and that, in general, the bestseller list didn’t match up at all with the most completed list. It also spurned a flurry of essays on what this data mining could mean for writers, readers, and publishers. Will, as Francine Prose wonders in the NYRB, marketing departments dictate authors rewrite plots and characters based on user data? Or does this, as Joseph Bernstein suggests at Buzzfeed, mean little to the writing process while having the potential to better connect readers with books they like?

These are interesting questions, but almost all the articles I’ve read have had an underlying unchallenged assumption that I’d like to challenge: that a half-read book is a failure either on the part of the writer or the reader.

Certainly there are books that could be better written and there are readers that could be more patient and willing to challenge themselves. Analytics might help weak writers figure out what they are doing wrong, and plenty of readers would benefit from pushing through to the end of good books. Still, it isn’t the case that book that a half-finished book means the book is flawed or that the reader has sinned against literature. This should be obvious for much non-fiction, or poetry and story collections. One can learn volumes from a history or biography without finishing it, and poems and stories are complete units that do not have to be read together to be appreciated. But even a half-finished novel can provide plenty to a reader.

Here’s a confession: I’ve never finished Moby-Dick. I absolutely loved Moby-Dick, call it one of the greatest novels of all time, remember passages and scenes on a regular basis, and know it taught me many things about writing. But I haven’t finished it.

Should I? Probably, and I almost certainly will at some point. (I read every word of Infinite Jest… spaced out over a few years.) But even if I don’t, Moby-Dick provided me with everything that can be asked of a book. It was hilarious (seriously, read the opening chapters), beautifully written, formally innovative, and all around immersive, interesting, and entertaining. Around the time I started Moby-Dick, I also started Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. I had the latter on an e-reader and decided to leave the large Moby-Dick paperback at home when I traveled. I had to force my way through Doctor Sleep. If I hadn’t been traveling, I’d have never finished it. I’ve enjoyed other books by King, but Doctor Sleep was a slog and a snore. There is no measure by which Doctor Sleep surpassed Moby-Dick for me, even though the former gets a 100% personal completion rate.

We seem to expect more from books than other narrative media. If we read a four book series and think that final book sucks, we characterize the entire series as a failure. Yet no one says to avoid watching The Wire because season 5 is a letdown, or that The Godfather 3 ruins the first two films.

There are many factors that go into whether or when a reader finishes a book. I imagine many people’s reading habits are, like mine, scattered. I have at least a dozen in-progress books on my nightstand — and several more on my phone and e-reader. Readers stop reading a book they enjoy when they put it down and forget to come back. Readers finish books they hate when they are assigned it for book clubs or else they want to hate-read and laugh about with their friends. (Certainly a large percentage of Fifty Shades readers fall into that second category.) Just as a half-read book isn’t necessarily a failure, a completed book is not necessarily a success.

It’s also worth pointing out that it is actually logical that bestsellers have a lower completion rate. The Guardian noted with surprise that “Kobo’s first analysis of trends in e-reading… reveal an unexpected divide between bestsellers, and the books that readers actually complete.” But bestselling books are exactly the books that are purchased on an impulse, or picked up by casual readers who only finish a book or two a year. A good book that only sells to its niche should be expected to have a higher completion rate than one given out as Christmas presents to aunts and uncles.

Whenever people talk about books that people don’t finish, the same titles get trotted out: Infinite Jest, In Search of Lost Time, Ulysses, Moby-Dick, etc. Often these books are used as evidence that the classics of literary fiction are secretly awful or that people are pretentious fakes who’d be happier reading the latest Dean Koontz. But the most common feature of those books and the The Goldfinch is not pretention or density. It’s length. Long books are more likely to be abandoned. This is true whether it’s King, Rowling, or Pynchon.

The world would be a poorer place if books that are long or difficult were made short and easy. The people who do devour the long and difficult books often find them to be the most rewarding books they’ve read. Maybe only half the people who read Bolano’s 2666 finish it, but that half may love it far more than the 80% finishing a shorter and more formulaic mystery. In fact, that may even be the case for The Goldfinch. A separate e-reading data analysis done months before Kobo’s found that The Goldfinch scored near the top of the charts in the Hawking Index, a measure of which parts of a book readers highlight. Almost all of Tartt’s frequently-highlighted passages were at the end of the book. This means that those who were engaged enough with Tartt’s work to highlight passages were the ones who read, presumably happily, to the end.

And even those who don’t finish The Goldfinch or Gravity’s Rainbow or Ulysses may end up getting something out of their reading experience that they never would if they only read the books that an algorithm suggested they were most likely to finish. And what’s wrong with that?

still of Donna Tartt reading The Goldfinch from BBC

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