Does it matter if we never reach The End?

A recent survey by Canary Wharf Group found that nearly 40% of adults in Britain hadn’t finished a book in the last six months.  “New research reveals that 53,094,541 books are left unfinished in the UK every year” laments the headline, sounding, you would think, the death-knell for reading as a pastime.

Whether this finding is genuinely a story of doom depends on a number of things the statistic alone doesn’t reveal. It doesn’t tell us, for instance, whether some of those interviewed had started half a dozen books in that time and elected not to finish any of them. (Or how many of those who had finished books were people reading The Gruffalo on-demand nightly.)  But what it does say is startling enough: the 53 million books people have started to read (in addition to some they presumably did finish).

So do we have to finish a book for it to count?

Some, definitely.  With a fairy tale there’s a unique satisfaction for reader and listener in reaching the moment where the elves come dancing in their new clothes or the gobbled-up child is sprung miraculously from the wolf’s stomach. All the redemption and resolution and promise of happy-ever-afters come in a concentrated blast. To miss it is to miss the whole point. And knowing how the story ends doesn’t diminish its appeal; repetition only adds to the anticipatory pleasure of all being (grimly) resolved. But novels are different creatures.

Have you ever fallen for a novel and then somewhere, perhaps two hundred pages in, gradually stopped needing to know where it goes? If you have, the problem isn’t necessarily yours. According to E M Forster, it’s in the novel’s DNA: “The inherent defect of novels: they go off at the end.”

The more you think about it, the less surprising this seems. If a novelist has got all the characters to a point of singing and dancing of their own accord, without visible strings – no small feat – eventually they’re not going to be happy performing to his tune, less still to agree on when the show’s over.

In fact, by showing us complex characters in compelling situations, a good novel can be the victim of its own success. In which case, not finishing isn’t a failure of author or reader; it has more to do with the form. No wonder then that novels, which unlike fairy-tales, set out to show us not archetypes but something closer to real-world people with some of their
contradictions and inscrutabilities, aren’t concluded without, quite often, a sense of artificiality or just Oh well.  The last 50-75 pages can appear to be there for form’s sake, to placate the publisher (and the determined reader who will always pursue a book to the final full-stop, regardless).

So we disengage.

Or the writer, sensing the meaty work is done, and that she or he is now just doing a job to order, the equivalent of tossing pancakes perhaps, disengages.

Or, because it would make her career decidedly short-lived, she turns to one of tried and tested devices at hand for plot resolution.

“If it were not for death and marriage, I do not know how the average novelist would conclude.” E M Forster

To test this, I took ten novels, a mix of contemporary and classic, off the shelf to do a quick count of how many were sped along to their conclusion by the marriage or death trick. Four concluded without either; five used one device; one was indeterminate (it was genuinely too hard to tell what was going on to say whether anyone had died). This 50/50 split didn’t seem like over-reliance; to be fair to novelists, marriage and death aren’t purely plot devices. It’s not as though they don’t ever occur in real life, after all.

And one of the ten randomly selected novels, Elizabeth Taylor’s View from the Harbour, made interesting work of the rule. There is a death and a marriage in the final chapters, but rather than leaning on them as narrative catalysts, Taylor manages to set these events against the prevailing tide of life carrying on as usual. One character enquires whether the death will likely occur before 9.13 so that she can still catch her train, while in the final scene, for the child observing the street from her bedroom window, her first glimpse of a coffin is merely the stuff of a better-than-average day.  Yet the book is strangely more compelling for its evenness of rhythm, its lack of engineered jolts to get us over the finish line.

But as to the many – apparently tens of millions – of books we pick up and put aside, does it mean we have failed as readers?

Well, no. It can mean that you as reader prefer to stay suspended in the novel’s world – surely a great compliment to an author? If a novelist has combined sufficient vision, psychological insight, sense of place and great style to propel us two-thirds of the way in, maybe they’ve done their job?  Maybe we can choose not to finish without a sense of personal failure, or of having snubbed the author in question. Sometimes, perhaps a book does not require finishing to be appreciated.

Anyone who has experienced that plunge of dismay on emerging from an engrossing book would probably prefer not to have finished it. It’s not always a matter of how the book ends, it’s the fact that it has ended at all.  Our deciding not to keep going till the end is as much as to say, let the life of the novel continue; let the people involved work it out in their own time.

There are of course those novels which we finish but don’t feel as though we have. These are probably the most satisfying of all, novels whose authors manage to suggest a life beyond the scope of the pages. Where, notwithstanding the upheavals of marriage and death, the characters continue to shuffle about knocking into one another and life does what it’s best at;
carrying on.

Five eminently enjoyable novels you don’t need to finish:

1. The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst

In the grand sweep of eras and milieux, and characters who age gloriously across them, the central plot swirl – concerning the passions that inspired the late poet, Cecil Valance – gradually shifts from centre-stage. With nothing so obvious as a clear protagonist, it’s safe to stow your expectations of a tidy resolution and allow yourself just to be caught up in the mesh of personalities and their versions of history that propel the novel along.  Part of the novel’s accomplishment is that you’re quite happy to do just that. 

2. Bleak House, Charles Dickens

There are the books that you never finish because you’re permanently stuck in a Sisyphean holding pattern, at around 300 pages, that you never get beyond before sleep – or another book – takes over. So you have to re-read the pages in question again and again. Bleak House is one of these books. And, yet a curious sense of dèja-vu accompanies any page gains you
make (possibly BBC drama-informed). So ultimately it doesn’t seem to matter. Back to page 284….

3. Autumn, Ali Smith

This novel represents the you-know-you-have-read-it-but-can’t-remember-the-ending category. Or if you didn’t quite finish it, someone you know did and can’t remember the ending either. But you both quite liked it.

4. The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer

The book that won Meg Wolitzer the kind of attention that had eluded her for decades, The Interestings follows the lives of six friends from their first meeting at a hippy-themed summer camp in the early 1970’s.  What follows is an exploration of friendships that begin with uneven loadings of talent, money, charm and ambition – and how these relationships travel into middle-age carrying that shifting freight.

Depending on where you’re situated along the mid-life crisis timeline, i.e. before, mid, or post, this is a novel you could begin then set aside for a few years till you’ve caught up with the main characters. Divorce, cancer, sexual crises, career changes –  all the bases are covered.

5. Any Moomins book, Tove Janssen

Even better, you can also start pretty much anywhere and be instantly immersed.