Finishing Reading

Midway upon the journey of our life, I have now tried, and failed, to read Proust. And not just failing to read Proust: I’ve failed to even finish Swann’s Way, the first volume in the 4,000+ page novel.

The first time, I was twenty-three and living for a summer without a phone, car, or TV in the woods of East Texas. This was the 1934 edition of C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation, which distilled all seven novels into two cloth-bound volumes, their spines imprinted in gold lettering, that otherwise might have been dictionaries or civil codes at a law office. Even then, with pre-Internet levels of concentration and absolutely nothing else to do, I only made it about a hundred pages in. I’m not even sure the young Marcel had gotten far in his quest to get his mother to come say goodnight.

And no wonder: the type was double-columned and as small as a Gideons Bible in a Ramada Inn. I put the book back on the table and probably set a cup of coffee on it.

The second time was a lifetime and three presidential administrations later, when a mom friend with a PhD in English set up a page on Facebook that would be designed to get us reading and commenting. That didn’t help, either. The people who liked writing at length about the book on the Facebook page somehow cemented my contrarian impulse to neglect it, and go read In Style magazine instead.

The third time was also a group facilitated on the Web, but just a couple of folks, so the level of commitment was a bit stronger. We had a couple of enthusiastic discussions about the prose, but didn’t get further than the description of the grandmother’s bedroom in Combray.

Not finishing books is a recurrent habit in my life. I quit William Gaddis’s JR after only a few pages, which makes sense, but quit The Brothers Karamazov around fifty pages from the end, which doesn’t.

As I write, I have been reading Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings since November 2016. I got a hundred pages in on a red-eye back from San Francisco, then quit until August of 2018, when I was on a vacation in a house with no WiFi. I did another hundred pages in 2021, and again in 2023.

Some of this has to do with the fact that the action of the novel, which focuses on the 1976 plot to assassinate a singer (AKA Bob Marley), is incredibly violent and rendered in Jamaican patois.(Though every word of it felt warranted, true, and beautiful, as well.) I was worn out while reading. It turns out that my friend and former NPR producer Brenda Wilson had a similar experience—” Along about the fifth killing, I was worn out.”

I’d decided to head to Facebook to see whether anyone else had the same problem I had, and immediately received a ton of incredibly thoughtful reflections, including Brenda’s. She went on:

“On the other hand, if I am honest, it took me a year to read The Magic Mountain. Never finished To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson, nor War and Peace, though I’ve read Anna Karenina three times. I was too young for War and Peace. By the second read of Anna Karenina, however, I had grown up considerably. It was a completely different book and it was Dolly I loved.”

I’ve mulled over Brenda’s wise words ever since she posted them. And the ways in which the passage of time can affect possible readings came from many of the folks who posted on the thread—it gave me much to think about, and much to hope for. I was comforted to hear my old friend Matthew James commiserate with me, and note that he tends to be a “‘serial adulterer’ when it comes to books,” wandering away, and eventually coming back to finish them later.

Deacon Patrick Mitchell said, of C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy: “It took me a while to realize its value. I had to first ask myself the questions it answered before turning to it again.”

Patricia Lee, meanwhile, got at the ways that a lack of progress in reading can get bound up in emotional hesitations of all kinds:

“I started reading Wool during the pandemic. I stopped reading because the dread was building in me as one, then two characters who the plot was focused on died. The third character focus was beginning and I couldn’t bear wondering if this one would survive until the end of the book.

I picked it back up a year or more later and started from the beginning. I made it farther but this time I put it down a little more because I was trying to not ignore my daily duties, but some of the dread was still there. I actually want to restart it again, but I’ve misplaced the copy… and it was borrowed…so I feel shame from that…”

I’d long thought that not finishing books was just another manifestation of attention deficit disorder. And certainly that is part of it—as well as, yes, the ubiquity of smartphones and the phenomenon of continuous partial attention.

Yet the result of my admittedly-informal Facebook canvas has made me think about all the other inherent possibilities. What are the ways that our own traumas cause us to relive those experiences, and make them once again vivid to us—and how do those push us to check out on works, even when we desperately want to read them?

One can, I think, recognize that influence without merely rejecting the work as—so the now-cliche goes—”triggering.” Surely our introspection about our own reading should be aligned with our own spiritual practice, and our own efforts toward prudence—as seductive and pleasurable it can be to fall into a book and only surface, breathless and blinking and headachey, after a long rainy day on the sofa.

I still have not made it another hundred pages in A Brief History of Seven Killings. But I have great hope for doing so—and for finding out how all those Jamaican gangs and CIA operatives circled around in their cloud of violence and clandestine mythmaking, that great Cold War story that’s never really left us.

Here’s the inspiration I found, from my old friend, the wonderful writer Tom Williams. When asked about his book that he’d had trouble finishing, here’s how he replied:

The Magic Mountain. It was like climbing a mountain: my copy had all these places where I stopped, unable to scale any higher. Then one summer I told a friend I was going to try it again and I wanted some reason to finish, and he told me it had a fantastic ending. That’s all I needed.”

Perhaps, we readers can keep giving these kinds of insights to one another.

Caroline Langston was a regular contributor to Image’s Good Letters blog, and is writing a memoir about the U.S. cultural divide. She has contributed to Sojourners’ God’s Politics blog, and aired several commentaries on NPR’s All Things Considered, in addition to writing book reviews for Image, Books and Culture, and other outlets. She is a native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, and a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She lives outside Washington, D.C., with her husband and two children.