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June 11, 2006

Debating the merits of the Clean Plate Book Club


Do you feel compelled to finish every book you start? I'm thinking about this right now in connection to the SRP (yes, you can still join!), but it's an issue that bothers me periodically anyway. As you can see in the sidebar (which really needs to be updated), I have a little problem with starting more books than I finish. But the books listed are all ones that I intend to finish, really. I think.

Now, I don't actually feel obligated to finish EVERYTHING I start. Occasionally I'll start a book and just hate it. More often, a book will have to go back to the library, and I won't be into it enough to locate it elsewhere right away or to keep it a few extra days and pay the fine, as I did with Into the Wilderness. Sometimes I'll write down the title and author so I can find it again later; sometimes I don't. It's not like I'm ever going to run out of things to read.

But for books without an external deadline, I have a hard time giving up on them, especially if I've gotten through a good part of it. In her delightful memoir of reading, So Many Books, So Little Time, Sara Nelson calls the compulsion to finish books the Clean Plate Book Club. She sees this as something to be outgrown, like the necessity to clean your plate at dinner. Being able to put a book down a quarter or half or even three quarters of the way in is a sign of maturity, apparently. I think there's something to that, but I'm not sure it's the whole story.

The act of reading requires the reader and the book to enter into an unspoken contract. The reader promises attention, an open mind, a willingness to learn and to be affected. What is the book's obligation? I think it depends on the book, and on the reader's intentions and expectations. Some books promise simple escapist entertainment, and that's fine, and necessary. Some promise knowledge; some wisdom. Some demand an emotional response. If the book does not deliver on its promises, it's reasonable that the reader might break the contract on his end as well, and stop reading. But what if what the book has to offer isn't what the reader thought it was? Maybe the reader expected mindless entertainment, but instead was made to think. Or vice versa. Maybe the reader disagrees with everything the book says, but it's still a good opportunity to clarify his own thoughts and views. So it may be a sign of maturity to stop reading a book that doesn't meet one's expectations, but I think it can also be a sign of maturity to keep reading and open oneself to whatever the book has to offer.

Posted by Kat at June 11, 2006 04:34 PM

I used to feel obligated to finish every book I started. Now I don't. If a book isn't "grabbing" me, I don't bother finishing it. But overall, I do finish most of the books I start.

Posted by: Chris at June 11, 2006 05:17 PM

Hi Kat;

Every book I pick up has 100 pages to get me. If it doesn't then bye bye. I never thought of it as matrity it's just reading is not something I have to do now. I'm not in school. I do read the book if I'm in a book group so I can discuss it but other then that I stick by my 100 page rule. I have way too many other things I have to do.....

Posted by: Maryellen at June 11, 2006 07:25 PM

That's tough for me...I tend to be one of those people that is in for the long haul with a book...and I can't remember the last time I didn't finish a book I started. I always feel guilty if I don't finish the book and then of course there is always that feeling "that it is going to get better" and I will have missed it - unfortunately some books never get better. At 60 years old I can probably count on one hand the number of books that I have started and then stopped reading midway...

Posted by: Sara at June 11, 2006 10:13 PM

Sadly, I do feel the need to finish every book I start. It may not be for -years-, and I may have to start over, but I always finish them.

Not only that, but I'm a sci-fi fantasy reader, which presents other problems. I always finish -series- too, even if it goes downhill after the frist one.

I think it's just a bad case of being compelled to know what happens next.

Posted by: Colleen at June 12, 2006 09:16 AM

Thank you for describing a concept that I have long struggled with but have never been able to name. I too am one of those people who have always felt that they should read an entire book, even if it's not interesting, well-written, or even comprehensible.

Happily, I've given that up to some extent as of late, deciding that life is too short to waste on books I can't make it through. Hence, "Backlash" sits on my shelf because I got too depressed reading it, I admit that I will likely never make it all the way through "Guns, Germs, and Steel," and my husband's copy of Tintin sits on the headboard under the Arts section from the Sunday Post. Yet, I still feel that twinge of guilt when I return a book I have only read half of.

I suppose this brings a new meaning to the concept of biblio-therapy.

Posted by: Rita at June 12, 2006 10:16 PM

I go both ways. Some books I reach a point where something terrible is about to happen, and I just don't want it to become reality, so I stop to prevent it from occurring. (Yes, I can be just like a five year-old in some regards.)

On the other hand, there are other books that just don't grab me and I put them down for a while. "It's not you; it's me" kind of mentality. Sometimes either the book or I just don't fit at a certain point in our lives, but I feel we might at some other time. Housekeeping was that kind of book. I'm hoping White Teeth is that kind of book, too.

Posted by: sprite at June 12, 2006 11:40 PM

A sign of maturity to give up reading a book? or finish it? I think the author is reaching. I tend to finish what I start unless it's truly absymal, not that I don't have a few DNF's on my shelves - waiting for me to finish them.

Posted by: Carrie K at June 13, 2006 04:27 PM

I read every book from cover to cover. In the past 10 years I have only given up on one book (I read 5 in an average week). I always keep going in the hope that something will happen to save the book - shame it only happens some of the time.

Posted by: Jenni at June 13, 2006 05:21 PM

In my old age, I've developed a tendency to not pick up books I'm certain I'll dislike. Generally I browse the beginning, then peek a hundred or so pages in. At that point, I usually have a sense of whether or not I'll stick with it. My pet peeves are blatant author intrusion (see Richard Preston's Hot Zone for a prime example)or a bad case of florid purple prose in a so-called nonfiction title. The last book I truly disliked (and refused to finish)was The Great Immortality, a book assumed I'd love because it was about the Black Death and therefore I skipped my usual pre-read browse. Oops. Anyway, if I find a book is that crappy, I stop reading it and pass it on. Life is too short.

Posted by: Erica at June 13, 2006 11:22 PM

Hmm... I do abandon books, but I feel obligated to at least give the book a good chance. I read enough of it to get a good feeling for what it's about, get to know the characters... and then if I just really don't like it, I don't force myself to continue.
However, I also only read one book at a time, so I rarely have a reason to ignore a book that I'm actually enjoying. If only I could apply that philosophy to knitting projects :)

Posted by: Tracy at June 21, 2006 09:36 AM

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