Unfinished books

Paddy Leigh Fermor Paddy disguised as a German NCO during WWII, when he & fellow Special Operations soldiers kidnapped General Heinrich Kreipen.

This is about the books you will never finish reading. The stories whose ends will never be reached. (We can talk about all the ones we’ll never finish writing some other time.)

I was brought up to finish what I started, and I’ve only recently changed my approach to books (and films).

Are there reasons other than a book turning out to be rubbish that make you just stop, and maybe start and stop again, but never finish. Not busyness or laziness, but something in the writing or the story?

I’ve been meaning to bring this up for a few weeks because of Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s trilogy about his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, as an 18-year-old in 1933.

Part One – A Time of Gifts – is a wonderful read – one of my favourites to which I return in the hope some of his erudition will rub off on me. It follows the teenager through Holland and Germany to the Hungarian border.

Part Two – Between the Woods and the Water – carries on through Transylvania and Romania to the border with Yugoslavia. The final words are: To Be Concluded.

Part Three – given that parts one and two were written long after events described, it wasn’t out of the question that a concluding literary leg of the journey would take us into Turkey and over the Bosphorus. But the news that Patrick Leigh Fermor has just died knocks that on head. It also explains why I’ll never finish that story. (Or will I? Hot news.)

(It also frees up the position of Greatest Living Englishman – though he was partly Irish too. Who should fill his shoes? Mr internet himself Tim Berners Lee? Michael Caine? Lemmy from Motorhead?)

I suspect I’ll also never finish Woodbrook by David Thomson. It’s a lovely book, highly praised by Seamus Heaney as “simply one of the most enchanting books I’ve read in a long time… it begins in delight before it ends in wisdom.” But I’ve stopped. So far the story has triumphed over the twilight of the Ascendancy in southern Ireland and found new momentum and love. But I know it’s all going to go tragically wrong. And I don’t want to have to suffer it.

Italo Calvino‘s a tricky character. I enjoyed his book If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller and read it cover to cover. But the constant interruption every time a story within it gets underway, means the reader is forced to abandon tale after tale. Oh, he’s mischievious.

Children aren’t spared this kind of floor wobbling approach to literature either. Take Charlie Cook’s favourite Book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. It’s about Charlie Cook who’s reading a book about a pirate captain, who is reading a book about Goldilocks, who is reading about a knight, who is reading about a frog, who…. You get the circular picture. (Good book too. The same people did The Gruffalo and The Smartest Giant in Town.)

Then you have the seemingly eternally productive blockbuster writers like Alistair MacLean and James Patterson. The joys of franchising. Hard to know when they’ve come to the end, begun to share the load with a collaborator or handed over their pen completely. (OK – in MacLean’s case it’s safe to say he’s finally done.)

Funnily enough, I’ve just begun collaborating with another writer on a new book. It may get gory. More on that another time.

What book or story are you unable to finish – or simply refuse to complete? And why?

"The Final Shift" from the Exile Imaging blog of Van Sutherland. He's sadly stopped just recently. But you can still visit for some great photos and alternative takes on life in Austin, Texas. Just click on the picture.



Filed under art, What I'm Reading

17 responses to “Unfinished books

  1. I will probably get some flack for this comment buuut … I struggled to finish “The Catcher In The Rye.”

  2. First of all I thank you Paul for stopping by and reading my latest post “Wondered Why AND Now I Know Why…” and leaving a comment. I decided to check YOU out, especially because you are Irish and I lived in Ireland for 12 1/2 years. Although I don’t see anywhere in your blog anything “about you.”
    As for this post I have to admit there are many times I start and stop, start again and stop again reading certain books. Most of them are inspirational which lends them to be read in small portions. Some are about things which help me learn about myself during this time of transition in my life. The books I want to read for entertainment, although I start them and like them, I just don’t feel right spending the time on those with so much else to devote time to right now. As it is I am trying to keep writing and there is much to do with that. And then there is trying to sell my house so I can relocate and Please God, find a job in the new location 🙂 A N D, then there is trying to keep up reading some of my favorite bloggers and commenting!!!!!!!!!!!! Whew!

    You are a very good writer, I can tell just from your post here. Keep it up.

  3. Póló

    Couldn’t properly even start “Catch 22”.

    Thought the film “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest” brilliant but couln’t get into the book.

    Otherwise I doggedly finished everything I started bar a few reference books I dip into from time to time..

    In recent times, I find that promising myself to put up a review on Amazon (.co.uk) gives me the incentive to finish what I have started if only out of sheer perversity.

    That’ll be five guineas, please. 🙂

    • Since I have entered the blogosphere in July, 2010, I have had time to get through just 4 or five books. Two I trashed as really getting nowhere as plot evolved.

    • blackwatertown

      That’s a good idea – the Amazon review.
      I’ve reviewed a couple – but not for ages. Must check myself out – to see if anyone is reading them.

  4. Chen

    crime and punishment…maybe 3rd time lucky…

  5. Pingback: Monday Books Blog Report: A Literary Betrayal, a Reading Diet, and More » Lose Weight Central

  6. I stopped reading ‘The World is Flat’ by Thomas L. Friedman about 1/3 through. Just couldn’t stand his perspective. I later forced myself to read the entire book, thinking it somehow important to do so. In the end, I was more frustrated and angry than ever. His flippant last minute comment about ‘what is lost’ culturally struck me as a completely insufficient band-aid to cover his soulless praise of free-trade, and the pursuit of wealth at all costs.

    Oh, and thanks for the mention, Paul! I promise, someday I’ll get the blog going again.

  7. speccy

    I couldn’t finish a Japanese book called ‘Out’ for our book club. horror; properly nausaeting. Mostly I trundle through rubbish, unless it’s total dross.

  8. The only book I almost didn’t finish — but did — was “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand. The first 90 (or so) pages were tedious gnats-whisker details. I thought it would be more fun to poke myself in the eye with a sharp stick than to keep reading.

    HOWEVER — it turns out those pesky details were very important and I’m glad I finished reading it. It’s among my favorite books.

  9. Barbara

    “Shadow Country” by Peter Matthiessen. I’m not sure if I was just bored or if his descriptions of the climate and terrain in southwest Florida reminded me too much of being sick and too hot while visiting the Everglades in the summer with my parents when I was a child. I may pick it up again some day and give it another try when I’m in a different frame of mind.

    I’m going to put “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water” on my reading list…

  10. blackwatertown

    @ exile imaging – I’ve enjoyed reading Friedman’s columns over the years, never tried him in longer form though.
    @ speccy – you’re in a book club. Excellent. I need to join one of those I think. I devour books at a ferocious rate. Among those I’ve recently enjoyed – The Contractors by John B Keane, The Unit – I’ve talked about that in the blog recently, currently reading The Day The Leader Was Killed by Naguib Mahfouz – perhaps I should write about the day I met him in Cairo.
    @ holessence – Atlas Shrugged -never appealed to me – but I may give it a go now you’ve given me encouragement to persevere.
    @ Barbara – A Time of Gifts is just great – epic – he’s more relaxed and a little older and more confident by the time he gets to Between the Woods and the Water.

  11. I am the slowest reader in the world, now with my new eyes I hope to change that.

  12. 29

    I think that I have that ‘eat up all your food’ attitude with regard to books so, as in University Challenge, “I’ve started so I’ll finish”, although I must say that in the early 60s when I bought my-self a new translation of the Bible I found it a testing exercise to read from cover to cover. Chapter 22 of the Apocalypse was eventually a welcome sight.
    Re Chen; for ‘Crime and Punishment’ just read ‘Russian Novels’. The correct technique is to make up a glossary as you start of all the ‘oviches’ and other obscure and confusing names as I discovered in the 50s when I borrowed my elder brother’s copy of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’.
    However do not despair, In London recently I read ‘War and Peace’ from cover to cover to a 2year old grand-daughter in about 3 min in the public library, ie about 10 board-pages each with one word. I read her 2 other complete classics but time was running out so I left ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for another visit.

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