Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Stop Reading Novels

This post (linked from Marginal Revolution), which argues that people love long novels in part because of "Stockholm syndrome," brings to mind one of the most liberating moments of my life. A professor had recommended a bunch of books on urbanism, and I told him I was having a hard time with one of them, finding it dull and absorbed with trivia (I'm sure I phrased it more diplomatically). "Put it down," was his advice. "You have to learn not to finish a book."

This was liberating precisely because, while I didn't finish every book I started, I strongly felt that I should. I felt like a failure every time I gave up. It was a kind of literary puritanism.

Now, sometimes you have to finish a book whether you want to or not. And obviously, you are sometimes rewarded for sticking with a book. I read the first several pages of Anna Karenina and put it aside for years, bored by it. When I picked it up again, I devoured it, and now I consider it the best book I have ever read.

But! But! You absolutely have to learn when to set a book aside for good. If you don't like the first 100 pages of Infinite Jest, I don't think you're going to like the next 988 either.

It's a little like folding a hand in poker: you'll never know what would have been revealed. In the case of long novels, that can be tragic - you could be missing out on something amazing. But if you never fold a hand, you aren't playing poker right.


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