the contextual life

thoughts without borders

The Secret Lives of Unfinished Books

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LibraryWhat does it mean not to finish a book? To lose interest, steam, momentum? When distraction leads to forgotten plots, characters, and themes who suffers, the reader or the book left unread?

My apartment is teeming with unfinished books. They cover my desk, coffee table, and nightstand. They sit two rows deep on my bookshelves. There they remain, neglected, misunderstood, unappreciated, still with the last read page firmly marked with a piece of paper, a subscription card, or a proper bookmark: a reminder of my stagnation, my failure to engage.

With some I’d read only a few pages, others a few chapters, while others I’d nearly finished but inexplicably abandoned at the last moment. Not all books I set aside are bad; life gets in the way, my mind shifts, I am no longer the same person I was on the first page.

What if I had begun a few days earlier, a few days later? Would we have ridden it out until the bitter end?

is often much hand-wringing over the question of when to put a book down, of when to give up and walk away. For some people this is an agonizing decision. For me, I’ve never given it much thought. In my younger years I’ve either slogged through a story, not knowing I had an option, or, as in the case with assigned reading for school, never cared enough to feel obligated. Now that I’m older and at any given moment surrounded by more books than I’ll ever have time to read in a lifetime (or two or three), there’s no room for second-guessing or regrets.

My first impulse when I began this post was to anthropomorphize, to wonder what happened to the characters when tossed aside. Do they remain suspended—in a kitchen, at a wedding, in the throes of heartbreak—or do they continue on alone to an autonomous finish? That might be a silly thing to think about, like a 10-year-old with a developing consciousness or one who’s seen too many Disney films. But it puts things in perspective.

Books do not need you. They repeat their stories every night.

Here are a few books that have carried on without me, none of which were bad at all.

Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-MatasDublinesque
is something of a tragicomedy. At the age of 60, Samuel Riba is forced into retirement after his literary publishing house fails. He’d like to blame the reading public but, really, it was his poor financial management skills that brought about his demise.

Now he spends his time on Google, searching for his name and publishing house, looking to see who still mentions him and reviews his list; the answer to both is not many.

After a dream, Riba plans a trip to Dublin and brings with him three authors he’s published. They are to stage a funeral for “The Gutenberg Age” in the same cemetery that appears in Joyce’s Ulysses.

The publisher, New Directions, calls Dublinesque “A fictional journey through the modern history of literary publishing,” an apt description if any. If you’re really into books and the publishing industry, this book is an entertaining read.

Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things by Gilbert Sorrentino
What a strange book Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things turned out to be. When I first saw it in the Dalkey Archive Press email newsletter I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I wouldn’t have guessed this.

Originally published in 1971, Imaginative Qualities is a satirical look at the New York art and literary scene of the 1950s and ‘60s. Told through an omniscient narrator (although he’ll tell you his characters are doing things when he’s not looking), the interweaving cast of failed artists and poets lead adulterous, destructive lives. The women are bored, the men are hopeless, and the narrator, who is actually the book’s author, openly refuses to implement certain literary devices.

The outcome is a story with an intentionally unruly feel, which, if truth be told, is part of its charm. At one point, as if the narrator is guarding against such an accusation, he interjects, “You’ll notice how carefully the threads are pulled together in this book. I don’t want to hear one more word about formlessness.”

Other amusing asides includes talk of killing off characters.

I’ve got a few more comments to make about Lou, a few more things to say about him before I get rid of him. Prose is endless. It strikes me that I could go on and on, into a thousand pages, about this poor man. (How poor, compared to the rest of us?) For a moment, I thought of having him step off the curb in front of a truck, or drown in the bathtub, something simple and accidental. Just write him off so that the long future of academe would not be his and Sheila would be free to be unhappy with somebody else. End him with a brief paragraph E.M. Forster-style. Would that be too literary? No such thing. People who make such remarks admire the prose of Jimmy Breslin.

The beauty of this multi-layered novel is that the meaning is left to interpretation. The reader takes away from it what they wish, which, in this case, suits the essence of the story nicely.

A Breath of Life

A Breath of Life by Clarice Lispector
For a while I joked that Clarice Lispector’s novels were the new “Go Ask Alice” for my age group. When New Directions first reissued four of her books it seemed like every 30-something I knew was reading one and recommending it to anyone within a 10-foot radius. There was an aura of mysticism around the whole thing. It was the way people spoke about her and her writing, as if one glimpse of her writing would change your life.

Clarice Lispector, in her posthumous work, A Breath of Life, asks readers to examine both sides of the author-character relationship. The male writer explains that his creation, Angela, is “not a ‘character.’ She’s the evolution of a feeling. She’s an idea incarnated in the being.” Shortly after he enters a conversation with her where, at one point, she asks, “Am I pure?” The author answers, vaguely, philosophically, “Purity would be as violent as the color white. Angela is the color of hazelnut.”

Throughout the book there are scores of aphorism that make you pause: “Writing is difficult because it touches the boundaries of the impossible,” “[I’m] an open parenthesis. Please close me,” “Solitude is a luxury,” and “When I write, I mix one color with another, and a new color is born.”

What’s striking about A Breath of Life is that it leaves you wondering if you’re in the presence of brilliance or insanity—although one could argue the fine line between the two. As with much of Lispector’s writing, I imagine, A Breath of Life cannot be understood in one reading. Her books strike me as those that are meant to be read, wrestled with, digested, and then read again in order to find hidden layers and new meaning.

Read an interview with Enrique Vila-Matas
Read an interview with Gilbert Sorrentino
Read an interview with Clarice Lispector’s translator


Written by Gabrielle

March 26, 2013 at 6:51 am

27 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on O LADO ESCURO DA LUA.


    March 26, 2013 at 7:24 am

  2. I Must admit my apartment is crammed full of unfinished books. Mostly i don’t lose interest in theme i just find an even MORE interesting book and i end up being consumed by its magical ambiance and i become entranced with that title instead and occasionally i forget about the book i was previous reading and then the book becomes Lost in an always expanding black hole that resides in my apartment full of unfinished books and unfinished writing i am currently working on! I Love your Blog,glad i decided to stop by and check it out,I am going to subscribe because i most definitely would like to read more content from you in the future,Thanks for the interesting and entertaining content,it’s very inspiring to me being a fellow Book lover , Blogger and writer!


    March 26, 2013 at 10:21 am

    • haha. with those three books i mention, going through them again for quotes and whatnot made me want to pick up where i left off.


      March 26, 2013 at 5:34 pm

      • I totally understand, even when I manage to stumble upon a book I read a long time ago…if I make the mistake of opening it up I always end up re-reading it again and putting my current project or what I am currently reading to the side (Hence my big black hole of unfinished books) HaHa

        It’s a mess but hey,That’s life!


        April 1, 2013 at 9:25 pm

  3. Reblogged this on The Splendid Siren.


    March 26, 2013 at 3:40 pm

  4. Reblogged this on Writing in the Cold.


    March 26, 2013 at 6:32 pm

  5. Great post. I also love the top picture of the library. Where is it from? It looks like heaven.

    • great photo, right? It’s the Klementinum Library in Prague … and thanks for the nice words.


      March 27, 2013 at 7:05 am

  6. Reblogged this on Outside the Margin.

    M K S

    March 27, 2013 at 11:35 am

  7. Reblogged this on The 9th Soul and commented:
    I have unfinished books myself but it never really occurred to me that it didn’t mean the same as giving up on someone.

    Fated Blue

    March 27, 2013 at 11:30 pm

  8. There other day, I pondered the moral question of writing a review on a book that I was just shy of finishing (it was a good book, but there was the whole preaching to choir effect where the amount I was learning diminished exponentially the more I read, and it therefore became painstakingly difficult for me to push myself through the last 40 pages), so I’m glad that someone else indulged in this edgy behavior for me–isn’t vicarious risk taking a common quality amongst 99% of bookworms?

    As for your third question in your first paragraph, I believe that it is the reader who ceases to suffer the moment she puts down an unfinishable book.


    March 28, 2013 at 3:13 am

    • i think if you’re reviewing on your own blog and mention you didn’t finish the book, a review is perfectly fine. it only gets tricky if it’s for a publication and the reviewer pretends to have read the book in full. great answer to the third question!


      April 2, 2013 at 6:45 am

  9. Fiction is ultimately entertainment.

    In my universe, an unfinished book is the author’s responsibility. Chucking an unreadable book into a well-stoked hearth is no more personally disappointing than dismissing a bad vacation or unpleasant meal. Somewhere along the line, the author was either unable or unwilling to join me to their positive or challenging experience.

    In turn, if someone stops following my stories, then I simply couldn’t rise to the challenge of joining them to my experience. An unread book is either a challenge to improve my storytelling or remain satisfied with the positive or challenging experiences I successfully created.

    Either way, I have few regrets, but I’m always hoping for more entertaining stories.


    March 30, 2013 at 2:41 pm

  10. Reblogged this on .


    March 30, 2013 at 7:33 pm

  11. I hardly ever give up on books but a few have defeated me. I wouldn’t say I feel particularly guilty about it though – you can’t like everything and sometimes life is just too short. The last book I gave up on was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell which I thought was ambitious but just too weird. I wrote a post on the same topic a while ago too:

    • nice post. this came to mind when everyone was coming up with their “best of 2012” lists. i thought of the books i hadn’t finished in 2012 but wanted to review anyways. a roundup seemed a good way to go.


      April 2, 2013 at 6:46 am

  12. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in leaving books unfinished, piling up on my desk or next to my bed. If only there was enough time to read all we want to! I suppose it makes those we finish more special in a way. One day, I would love to be able to say that I have read every book I have on my bookshelf – but this post makes me feel a lot better about the long, largely unsuccessful journey to that point… Thanks for sharing this – it’s a great post!


    March 31, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    • thanks for reading … and, my quickness in buying books outpaces my ability to read them. i’ll never get through all my books.


      April 2, 2013 at 6:47 am

  13. I think the worst is when you’re forced to give up on a book because of work or school. I’m only a student, and it’s hard enough for me to block out the time to finish a normal length novel, so I can only imagine the difficulty for a working person. Finishing a book in a reasonable amount of time is one of the best kinds of accomplishments. There are other books I haven’t finished simply because I don’t want them to end, but that’s another problem entirely…


    April 1, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    • i think students and people working definitely feel the constraints. i work in publishing so i need to read for work in between reading for pleasure. students are given books to read. same thing. ive definitely read a few books slowly to stretch out my time with them. love those!


      April 2, 2013 at 6:49 am

  14. I know a lot of people with the “I finish every book I start” mentality, which I’ve never really shared. I never walk out on movies, but that’s because even if a film is bad, I’m only going to be spending two hours with it. But if I commit to finishing a bad book, that’s five, possibly ten, possibly fifteen hours committed to something I’m not enjoying.

    Nick Merrill

    April 7, 2013 at 1:58 pm

  15. I feel strongly that life is too short to waste a moment on a bad book, especially in a world where there are far too many great books going constantly unread even as you read this. Any decent author spends more time writing his novel’s first sentence than he does on the entire first chapter. If you’re not incurably hooked by the end of the first page, don’t turn it–you’re only delaying the inevitable disappointment. Avoid disappointment whenever possible.


    April 21, 2013 at 9:53 pm

  16. I read a lot of books, but I go on book buying binges. There are apt to be five or six unread books piled up in any corner of my home (or on my iPad) at any given time. I get around to reading most of them. The ones I don’t read are often from author binges, where I have bought many books by the same author expecting them to be the same style..and they’re not, even though they may have been in the same genre. Sometimes authors experiment with their writing style. I may like a series, but not like anything much outside of that series. If I can’t get into a book in the first chapter, it usually goes in the yard sale pile, or gets deleted from my library.


    April 21, 2013 at 11:48 pm

  17. Nice working circumstance .


    April 24, 2013 at 9:24 am

  18. Right there with you! I have many unfinished books on my library shelves, abandoned for various reasons or none at all. Just like you said.
    It’s so appropriate from the writing side of the book world, too. The unfinished manuscript for my second novel is collecting dust at the moment, and I always think of my characters in suspended animation, frozen in time, holding their breath, waiting for me… Hope your great post has served as inspiration, and a polite kick in the pants! Thank you 🙂


    May 13, 2013 at 3:53 pm

  19. I’ve been reading “100 years of solitude” for 27 years now. My wife keeps trying to put it in the charity shop pile, but I take it out showing her my bookmark. Does this count as an unfinished book. I used not to be able to not finish books, now I realise life it too short to carry on with things if they’re not amazing, so I don’t worry.


    June 25, 2013 at 7:36 pm

  20. Reblogged this on blissfullyignorantreading and commented:
    It’s taken me a long time to accept that it’s perfectly fine not to finish a book. I’ve made myself finish loads in the past. Now I think life is too short and I’m fine I think!


    June 26, 2013 at 4:34 pm

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