Monday, October 25, 2010

When to Quit

After six and a half long, weeks, I finally finished Franzen's Freedom, a novel I have been awaiting ever since I read the last line of The Corrections. I am normally a fast reader, and expected to have the book devoured in a matter of days. I even contemplated taking a day off of work to get a large chunk of it done. And yet I read slow. I told myself that I worked two jobs and didn't have time to read. True. I told myself I wanted to savor the book, not let it go before the wait for a new tome began. Also true. I secretly worried that I was not liking the book. But that was not true because it was all I could think about, talk about, post about on Facebook. ("Kelly really has a fancy for this Franzen fellow," I could hear my mother say.) And even knowing all of this, I still read slow. I felt like one of those movie situations where the main character finally gets the girl of his dreams in bed and cannot perform. Here I was, curled up in bed with the sexiest of all sexies, a great writer, and all I wanted to do was to go to sleep. This was a man I journeyed miles and miles to see, who made me swoon with his sentence structure, who was a damn Simpson character! What was happening?
And the truth, much like a shocking change in a Franzen novel, came at me simple and shocking: I am getting old and cannot read like a 20-year-old anymore. Gone are the days of 5am finishes. No longer can I sneak a book into a meeting, a line, in bed. Reading is an active experience, and it requires all of my focus. And I realize that, unlike a sprinter, I am in this for the long-haul. I want to be a careful reader, an attentive reader, and that cannot come with speed. So, Freedom took me 7 weeks to read.
With this knowledge comes the realization that I cannot read everything I want to. Picking a book is no longer a casual fancy. I need to choose wisely. Which brings me to my point: Slow reading means putting a book down that I am not devoted to. I have to quit. Whereas I could never fathom putting down a novel I started years ago(What if I miss something? what if I am not getting it?), I now routinely leave works unfinished. When do I decide to quit? This is where I suffer the most anguish. I once heard, from Oprah I believe, that if one is 50 pages into the book and not in love, it is time to stop. While 50 pages is a significant amount of pages, I am not sure a hard and fast number of pages is a wise indicator of when to stop. A work like Freedom is near 600 pages, and a 50 page chunk is only a taste of the whole. Quitting after 50 pages of that work is an insult.
I quit Nicole Strauss' The History of Love after 70 pages. While Strauss got the brunt of my post-Freedom depression, I knew, almost from the first page, that Love was not for me. While Strauss' self-conscious, self-reflecting style (call it post-post-modern) often opens itself up for pure emotion, it leaves me feeling manipulated, guilty. I suspected this before I began the book, and knew it as soon as I started the novel. So I put it down. On to the next one.
But, still afraid I was missing out, I gave it to a friend, whose opinion I trust, and asked her to read it and let me know what happened. Maybe this is a way to ease my guilt. Quitting is never an easy thing.