Saturday, September 19, 2009

On Not Finishing a Book

Are you the kind of person who checks out dozens of books and only reads a few of them? When I go to the library I feel like a hungry man at an all-you-can-eat buffet: I know that I can only eat so much, and I regret that I can't try everything. I still put too much on my plate, knowing that I will throw away half of it, but I just can't stop trying new foods.

I have been chipping away at a fascinating book about a journalist's travels through Iran, and I was very annoyed the other day to receive an email reminder from the library, telling me that the book was due. I felt this pang of regret, knowing that life would move on and I would probably never finish the book--it would go on the ever-growing pile of unfinished projects, partially-read books, and abandoned hobbies.

Just when I was about to sink into one of those bouts of self-pity I had a realization: Do you have to finish a book to enjoy it? Maybe not. I don't have to know someone's life story to have a meaningful discussion with them. I met a guy from Mali yesterday; we had a great discussion for a few minutes and then went on with our lives. He didn't ask me about my third-grade teacher, and I didn't get his position on Kanye West, but I would still call the conversation a success.

I wonder if we're just too hard on ourselves. I think we often forget that Sherlock Holmes and Hermione Granger are not real people--we don't have to become an expert in everything we're interested in, complete every project we begin, or finish every book we check out. There are so many hours in a day, and when you think about it, years in a life.

I was falling asleep last night, going through the frantic "did I forget anything today" to-do list, and remembered my late library books. I thought to myself, "I met a fascinating book the other day." It was okay that I didn't finish it--there were millions of books still waiting for me, and I would probably meet a few tomorrow.

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