Gesa Stedman continues her multi-part review of Tim Parks’ essay collection Where I’m Reading From, this time with a response to “Why Finish Books?”. In contrast to the author, she thinks books deserve to be read cover to cover.
I learned two things from Parks’ essay entitled “Why finish books?”: middle-aged readers may get tired of reading books right through to the end if they read professionally, and that Parks thinks the end of a novel is less important than the rest of the book. He finds justification not just in his own reading experience, but also in the statements of ‘great’ authors such as Kafka or Dr Johnson.
Just to be clear about one thing: it is not ‘bad’ books Parks is interested in. Those can be discarded at will in his opinion. No, he means the reading experience of ‘art’, high-class novels which he enjoys but for whatever reason does not wish to finish.
I object on two accounts:
1) Even terrible novels have endings which may be important – perhaps because the final twist of the plot undermines all that has gone before (which may, incidentally, have redeemed the whole novel if it had not been for the ending).
2) Even if Kafka says some books have arbitrary endings, thus implying the reader could stop earlier than the last page of the novel, and even if masterpieces exist which are unfinished, most novels have an ending and most authors pay as much attention to the first as to the last sentence. If I don’t get to the last sentence, I probably cannot form an impression of the whole.
Tim Parks acknowledges this since as a writer, he knows how much attention to the end he pays. Nevertheless, plot is less important to him – even in genre fiction – than language.
I think the one cannot be had without the other. If we ignore plot and endings, we will miss out on potentially important, possibly even crucial elements of a novel, inextricably bound up with all narrative characteristics of the texts. And perhaps other readers like me feel as if something is missing, or as if they have forgotten to do something important, or are even compelled to return to a novel if they leave it unread for any length of time.
Why finish books? Because they demand it, deserve it and – often if not always – reward the reader.
Tim Parks, Where I’m Reading From. The Changing World of Books, London: Vintage Penguin/Random House 2015 (2014), 255 pp, RRP 9.99 GDP
Tim Parks has a website and can be found here: http://tim-parks.com/ (link to website, last access 23 April 2018)