I don’t read books as much as I used to. I think I might have mentioned this before. Ian and Julian have infected me with the need to read the internet until I’ve finished it. Ian knows he’s read it all when he resorts to DefenceTech. I’ve never reached the end.
This compulsion to finish things has affected me for years. In a strange way. Years ago, when I was a graduate trainee, they did a psych test on me which came up with the stunningly accurate insight that I do an excellent job until I have completed 95% of a project and then I abandon it and move on to the next new and interesting thing. That’s why I treasured my ex-colleague Catherine, a completer/finisher. Given that the very last thing I do on a project is send out the invoice, this could be a very bad thing for an independent consultant. These days I have a little spreadsheet whose boxes are coloured green when I have completed a project, when I have invoiced and, much more rarely at the moment, when I have been paid. Requiring enough money to live focuses one’s mind remarkably. Of course, being paid in advance short circuits this useful mechanism and, as I write this, the one outstanding project for April is one I was paid for in advance. Must finish that this weekend. Still, those don’t happen very often.
Anyway, I’ve meandered away from my point, which is that I like to finish reading a book. When I first went to a convention I shared a room with a German woman who stated that she always finished any book she started even if it was awful. I’m not that driven, but I feel a mild sense of failure when I don’t get to the end.
There are, of course, some books that I want to fling away rather than put down and just neglect to pick up again. Angel of Death was one of these. It came free in a convention bag some time ago. It was the only book I took when I spent three days in Coventry last year. The blurb was good; the book itself was not. Something about an angel of death who used a mass murderer to effect the required deaths. The murderer cut off the hands and head of his victims and masturbated into the head. The angel fell in love with the woman detective investigating the murders. Blech! I felt no urge to finish this book even though the writing style was engaging. It’s somewhere in the bedroom awaiting disposal.
In these apocalyptic days, when Julian Headlong has stopped buying books (an obvious sign of the end times) I have decided that I can attempt to change my habits. This whole line of thought crystallised when I was reading the comments on a Suzanne Moore article about hoarding. The comments generally agreed that hoarding, whilst many of us have a tendency towards it, is not a good thing. Until, some way down the comments thread, Mrs Moose chimed in with, ‘But having lots of books is okay. Isn't it? I mean most of them (not all) are on shelves. And I don't have two copies of that many things. The children's books might come in useful if there are grandchildren. I'm sure I could make myself stop. I gave a book away to a charity shop once. I think. Yes, I'm sure I did....’ My thoughts exactly! But is this right? It made me think. I have some books that could be categorised as trashy that I’m almost certainly never going to get rid of. Ring of Fear by Anne McCaffrey comes to mind. I have some classics, lit and SF, which could certainly go; I’m never going to read them again. They might be landmark works of the genre but they’re just not that good and, with no interest in academia, why give them shelf space?
I hesitate though. I’ve regretted disposing of the Chalet School books, I’d quite like to have all my Cadfaels back. It seems that every time I get rid of something I need it the next day. Samuel Delaney’s Tides of Lust is a case in point. I was never going to finish reading it. The writing is gorgeous, the subject boring in both senses. I hid it among some less salacious books and took it to Oxfam. And then I found I wanted to quote from it in a fanzine article. I mentioned this and within days a new copy arrived from a friend in America. Sigh. I guess it’s a keeper, or at least, a returner. Maybe one day I’ll attempt to read it again.
Anyway, coming back to the point, I’m giving up the guilt. If I don’t finish a book I’m going to get rid of it. Sometimes. There are those that don’t get finished, not because of any flaw in the book but because of circumstances. I forget to take my current book when I go away and have to buy a new one that sets me off on a different train. Or a new Gail Carriger, Mike Carey or Tanya Huff book comes out and all other books fall by the wayside.
Recently I was reading Windhaven by George RR Martin and Lisa Tuttle. It’s a perfectly good SF with ‘hang gliders’ book and the characters are mildly interesting however I have premonitions of disaster and I don’t want to read about it. The characters are doing things that will lead to hurt and loneliness. I don’t want to follow them on that journey. John Dowd passed the opinion that if you are not going to read books because bad things happen to the characters you’ll miss many great reads. That’s as maybe. I’ve got enough where that isn’t going to happen. To read Windhaven I would have to spread it out over weeks, maybe months, picking it up again only when I have ceased to care about the characters and putting it down when I start to worry about them again. It might take years. It doesn’t even matter when the characters are vile. I worried about the angel of death in just the same way. I sometimes wonder if I embraced golden age SF because the characters were so cardboard that it didn’t set off my worry reaction. This may be linked with my distaste for the comedy of embarrassment and for watching people do stupid things. Whatever. There are so many books in the world and I have so little time to read them why struggle with something that is not worth it in the end.
It has occurred to me that there is a nuance here. Felix Castor does stupid things resulting in harm for himself and those he loves, and yet I read these books avidly. I think it is because I care deeply about Felix. The people in Windhaven, names already forgotten, and the angel, are not sufficiently large characters for me to need to know what happens to them. And I don’t want to know.
Anyway, back to the point. White Mars is going, despite being signed by Brian Aldiss, because there is too much of it that is dull. Windhaven is going. The Angel of Death is certainly going. It may even be that Gladiator at Law is going. I’ve reread it recently and I’m fairly sure I’ll never read it again. I will make the commitment to at least attempt to read the books before ditching them. Physical Metallurgy and the Design of Steels by Brian Pickering will probably be kept for sentimental reasons. And it’s a cracking good read. Oh yes, and it cost me £27 in 1981.