Some people feel obligated to finish reading every book they start. Once they pick up a book, even if it's hundreds of pages long and makes them want to scream with boredom, they will reach that last page if it kills them.
I am not one of those people. It's not that I don't love books. One reason I work in a public library is so I can read any book I want. If it's not in our collection, it can be ordered from outside the system.
I make use of this service so often that the reference librarian in charge of ordering hard-to-find books from other libraries often jokes that she's tempted to hide under her desk when she sees me coming. But even after she's moved heaven and earth to locate a book in some itty bitty library in Bugtussle, Pennsylvania, and it has made the long journey across the state and into my hands, if it doesn't grab me by chapter two, I'm sending it back.
I never feel compelled to finish a book. In fact, I rarely even feel INCLINED to finish a book. I will only reading if a book is so great that I CAN'T put it down.
A library patron recently told me that I absolutely had to read The Poisonwood Bible.
"I gave up on it after two chapters," I said.
"It took me fifty pages to get into it," she admitted. "You have to give it a chance."
"I did. I gave it twenty minutes of my life. That's all it's going to get."
When I do fall for a book, I fall hard. I read it, and reread it, and recommend it endlessly. I'm the best friend a book could ever have, because I will bring that book scads of new readers. If there's one question you're asked when you work in a library, it's "Can you recommend a good read?"
I'm convinced that I'm personally responsible for several extra print runs of Richard Russo's Straight Man.
Book clubs are particularly pernicious for the reader who feels compelled to plough through books she can't stand out of a sense of obligation.
A patron recently confided, "I have to read Moby Dick for my book club but it's making me seasick."
"Don't worry," I told her. "I can help you jump ship."
I printed out a batch of online reviews and she left the library smiling, prepared to discuss the Great White Whale but intending to go right home and curl up with the new Paretsky.
A book has to keep me up till two in the morning turning pages. I refuse to settle for less. The way I look at it, people who suffer to the end of a novel are like people who stay in bad marriages. If the thrill is gone, I want out! Years ago, my ex and I pulled the plug on a 20-year relationship. Now I'm with a guy who is consistently thrilling, and my ex is happily re-married to the actual love of his life. I call that a happy ending.
Some people disapprove of my ability to jettison a book so quickly. "Once I start reading, I have to finish," they say proudly. I'm guessing these are the same people whose parents made them clean their plates when they were kids. They probably had to choke down every last pea, even if they hated peas, before they could enjoy dessert.
But you're a grown up now! You can make (and break!) your own rules. If you aren't enjoying your peas, feed them to the dog and have broccoli instead. Even better, toss them in the trash and go right to dessert! Who cares that you've only read five chapters of War and Peace? The Sylvia Chronicles is calling to you! Kick Tolstoy under the couch and go with the book you really want. Life is too short (and War and Peace is too damn long) to do anything else.
(This essay first appeared on Womens Voices For Change.)