On not finishing reading books

Last Updated on

I generally don’t like giving up on books once I start reading them. As a rule I only do so if I decide they are not worth reading, in which case I don’t feel bad about jumping ship. But it’s harder to explain what happens in other cases, when I think the book is worth reading but for one reason or another I just don’t continue. An example of this is Hilary Mantel’s novel about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall. I got half-way through this several years ago and then started reading something else, though I can’t remember what. I always meant to go back to Wolf Hall but never did, and now probably never will.

A more humiliating kind of failure is giving up owing to a book’s sheer impenetrability. This happened to me in 2012, when I bought Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature. I’d read his previous book, The Symbolic Species, which still seems to me to be one of the most impressive accounts of the biology of language that I’ve come across, so I started the new book with enthusiasm. As I’ve described previously, I quickly found myself completely bogged down, though I was somewhat relieved to learn that the philosopher Colin McGinn found it all but unreadable. (I’ve recently discovered that another philosopher, the late Jerry Coyne, had a similar experience.)

In the most recent case of giving up I can’t claim that excuse. I’m currently reading, or not reading, two books by Raymond Tallis, The Black Mirror and Of Time and Lamentation. Both are about time and mortality, which are themes that I think a lot about. They are written from a humanist standpoint that I find congenial. On the face of it, Tallis is exactly the kind of writer I’m looking for. His books have received widespread respect and praise from reviewers and I can understand why. So why am I thinking of giving up?

It isn’t that Tallis writes obscurely. In fact, the problem is almost the opposite. I’ve seen him described as a writer’s writer, which I think means he is a mannered stylist. He writes poetry as well as prose (and admits to a liking for ‘poetic prose’). Reading him is an aesthetic experience as well as an intellectual challenge. An added bonus, you might think.

I got these books from The London Library. I’d expected there would be a waiting list for them, but to my surprise there wasn’t; and when I received the books I saw, again to my surprise, that they had only been taken out once or twice a year since their acquisition. So perhaps I’m not the only one to have given up.

Part of the reason for this may have been identified by Andrew Brown in a review in The Guardian. He wrote:

Raymond Tallis’s books are not often easy to summarise, and not always easy to finish. … Although he is capable of writing with great clarity and force about really important things, there is a sense that he is conducting an argument with the people he has read, rather than the people who might be reading him.

This is an astute observation, but there is something else as well.  Here is a passage from a section headed ‘The unknown future’ in Of Time and Lamentation, which illustrates one of the stylistic tropes Tallis uses (he has many others) and also indirectly helps me to see why I’m having difficulty in reading his books.

When I began this book, I estimated that I had an actuarial advantage of about 7,000 or 8,000 tomorrows compared with my 22,000 yesterdays. Quite a few todays later, the number of the former is significantly less and of the latter rather more. I have of course a clearer idea of the number of my yesterdays than tomorrows and can calculate their number precisely because there is a precise number to calculate. This highlights a more general point, in addition to the mathematical one that I am more than three-quarters through the time that Raymond Tallis is a walking, talking, thinking enterprise; namely, that the uncertainty in “over three-quarters” comes from my tomorrows rather than my yesterdays; I know what is on the numerator but not on the denominator. While I can be certain that I have just under 3,500 fewer tomorrows than lay before me when I began this book a decade or so ago, I do not know which tomorrow will be the tomorrow after which there will be no more tomorrows.

I apologise for this lengthy quotation (it could have been even longer; the theme continues for several more lines, which I haven’t cited), but it’s needed just because length is important to Tallis. Passages like this demand to be read slowly and savoured. The meaning could have been conveyed more succinctly, but that isn’t how Tallis writes. One reads him, perhaps, as much for the style as for the meaning. At the same time, the meaning does matter. The books are full of ideas, and each one is put through its paces to the maximum possible extent.

As a result, this is a long book – over 600 pages of small print. And it isn’t Tallis’s only book, far from it. He’s been astonishingly prolific. Until his retirement in 2006 he was a professor of geriatrics with an interest in neuroscience. While he was a clinician, we are told, he used to write every morning between 5 and 7 o’clock before setting off to the hospital; since his retirement he has been a full-time author, now with over thirty books to his name. To do his ideas anything like justice would demand a huge investment of one’s own time and thought.

Without doing the calculation, based on the passage I quoted just now I expect that I have fewer tomorrows left than Tallis is likely to have. Do I want to devote them to a study of his work, when there is so much else out there to read for as long as my eyes hold out? The answer, perhaps regrettably, has to be no.

The scholar and critic F.L. Lucas, who wrote the best book on writing style that I know, was relaxed about not reading books to the end. ‘There are many, no doubt, that it is a pity not to; but many more where he that runs and skips, reads quite enough.’ I have decided to follow his advice in this instance. (Incidentally, I’d love to know what Lucas would have said about Tallis’s writing – he was a strong advocate of brevity.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Anti-Spam Quiz: