You Can Stop Reading That Book, or A Farewell to A Farewell to Arms

Life is short. Don’t read books you hate unless someone is making you, like your teacher or your students or a weird criminal who breaks in to houses and makes people read things they don’t want to read at gun point.

People who make themselves read bad books are psychologically disordered. They are wastrels. People who spend time unnecessarily reading books they don’t enjoy have unrealistic expectations of their own longevity. They have delusions of immortality.

I was once a psychologically disordered wastrel myself. I used to compulsively finish reading everything I started. Once the marker was placed, I could not remove it until the last chapter was turned. Sometimes I loathed the book but read on anyway with the kind of self-flagellation that leads to anxiety and disappointment.

And then, one day, I realized I am going to die someday. I gave myself permission to stop reading things I don’t enjoy. Now, when I find myself reading a book I don’t enjoy, I read just long enough to understand why I am not enjoying it. Fifty pages is enough. If an author cannot manage to somehow interest me in 50 pages, they aren’t really trying.

Most recently, I decided to dust off my Hemingway. I made 32 pages into A Farewell to Arms. The novel promises a “frank portrayal of the love” between somebody and somebody else which “glows with an intensity unrivaled in modern literature.” Hemingway’s description of the German attack on Caporetto is “one of the greatest moments in literary history.” Umm. Okay. 32 pages. There are mountains, and it is snowing. There’s a war but you can’t see the war because they keep taking vacations. And, during vacation, the character I don’t care about tries to date rape the other character I don’t care about. She tells him to stop. Then, she tells him not to stop. I don’t know if he stopped. I pulled the bookmark.

Of course, sometimes not enjoying the book is the whole point. You might find yourself enjoying the experience of not enjoying a book. Like the summer in high school my friend Brian and I made a bet to see who could read L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth the fastest. That was the summer before our senior year in high school. I didn’t have a lot going on, I guess. I lost the bet. Cooler kids than we chugged cheap beers that summer. We chugged bad science fiction. It still makes me sad.

It may be hard to give yourself permission to not read a book. You may feel guilty. Do it anyway. Pull the bookmark. The feeling passes. Life is short and there are 45 shelf feet of not yet read books waiting in my basement.

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