Classic Books · The Reading Life

Reading Interrupted: BFD to the DNF

My February reading roundup included almost as many DNF titles as it did completed ones. Typically, DNF implies a book and reader failed to connect on some level. Conventional wisdom says if we love a book, we read it from beginning to end, possibly without putting it down. Not finishing a book must mean something went wrong along the way.

DNF
So many DNFs in my Nook library…

I want to resist this idea. I want to say: It’s okay not to finish reading a book. And also: Don’t blame the book. Don’t blame the reader (even if that reader is you). Maybe there was something else going on that made it necessary for the reader and book to part, and it was nobody’s fault.

Well anyway, this is how I feel about having begun and not finished many books in my life, including last month. I’ve been trying to learn to appreciate reading in bits and pieces without feeling badly about the books I don’t read cover to cover. I’ve been trying to respect my needs as a reader and what I’m looking to discover or experience.

I wonder if denigrating DNFing is a form of book snobbery, the kind that makes readers feel compelled to lie about the books they do and don’t read.

From the literary scholarship standpoint, I acknowledge that some books are more stylistically complex, deeper, more layered than others. I acknowledge that some interpretations account for more of a text than others, which is to say some interpretations are more accurate than others. To derive an interpretation of a book and contribute to literary scholarship, obviously it’s necessary to read a whole book. Duh.

But what about when the goal is not – as it is with literary scholarship – to contribute to a discipline’s body of knowledge but to learn and grow from literary experiences, to deepen the capacities for empathy and connection, to be delighted and enchanted by language and its infinite potentialities? If you read for these reasons, as I do, what matters then? I would say it’s that the books we read enrich and entertain us, that they illuminate something about ourselves and society and our selves in society.

There is no magic formula for this. Different books work for different readers. Some of the Big Books, both in terms of length and literary substance, well, I may or may not sit in that chair and read them from beginning to end. Obviously, until I do, I won’t be able to speak, with authority, to their merits as literary artifacts, but I can still enjoy and learn from them.

And here, by way of example, are three examples why:

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. On a whim, resulting from a buzzfeed.com post, I read the first chapter, and my head almost exploded because what Wallace does with language is so brilliantly executed. Through word choice and sentence structure, he replicates in the reader the state of anxiety and confusion his narrator is experiencing. I stopped reading after the first chapter because it was the most exhausting book I can recall reading. Even though it’s likely to stay on my DNF list, I respect and am awed by what that first chapter illuminates about the power of language. Big time.

Moby Dick: or, the White Whale by Herman Melville. Some readers call it a Great American Novel. Others call it overrated. Still others may never decide for themselves because the idea of reading hundreds of pages about whaling feels … no. Just no. As for me, I read most of Moby-Dick a few years ago, due largely to having a guilty conscience about NOT reading it when it was assigned in graduate school. But even then, I did a quick skim of the whaley bits. What I would recommend is dipping into the first 120 or so pages, if only to experience Melville’s quirky, funny, and, yes, discursive narrative style. Those pages overflow with great lines and phrases that capture the “American idea” and what it means to be human in any time and place. Will you get a better sense of it by reading the whole? Obviously. Still, those first 120-150 pages may prove quite a revelation.

And if you’d like further inspiration for tackling some or all of this, check out Nathan Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick?

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - quote
I’ve not read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn cover-to-cover, but I do love this quote.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. In truth, The Brothers Karamazov is novel I heartily encourage reading from beginning to end, especially this translation, which captures Dostoyevsky’s poignant humor, his ability to see the absurd even in the midst of devastating suffering, better than any other I’ve (tried to) read. But if you never read the whole thing, you can see what I’m talking about by reading the Epilogue.

What books are on your DNF list, and why?

2 thoughts on “Reading Interrupted: BFD to the DNF

  1. This is really interesting. The books on my DNF list generally fall into two categories: Either I simply got bored by them, or they overwhelmed me – not that that’s a bad thing (like your Wallace experience). I often will find myself coming back to the latter group and finishing – for me, it’s often a question of mood and I guess you could say mental preparedness.

    In terms of “Moby Dick”, it was perfect for me because I loved Melville’s writing style – I let myself drift along on the beauty of it. And it also helps that I’m a wannabe marine biologist who’s also fascinated by man’s historic relationship to whales. So there’s that, too. 🙂 But even that book, marvelous as I found it, I couldn’t just pick up any old day.

    There are two big overwhelming books in my life and on my DNF list:”Mason & Dixon” by Thomas Pynchon, whose creative use of language is just too much for me, at least for the time being — I’ve come back to it several times, to no avail, even though I’ve always enjoyed what I did manage to read. The second book is “Zazie dans le Metro” by Raymond Queneau, a classic French book full of puns and wordplay that reminds me over and over that no matter how proficient you are in a second language, you’ll never know it intimately enough to always be in on the joke.

    1. Hi Alysa! 🙂 I LOVE what you say about Moby-Dick: “I let myself drift along on the beauty of it.” That captures it so perfectly. And it’s how I often find myself reading Dickens as well. Your DNF experience resonates with me as well. Boredom, yes, causes DNF, and so does overwhelm, which is so very different. Another book I could mention in that category for me is Love in the Time of Cholera. I can’t read more than 5 or so pages in one sitting because there’s so much happening that it takes me time to process.

      Thank you for sharing your experience reading the French book. I have this issue reading novels in Greek, which is interesting because it’s technically my first language!

Comments are closed.