To finish or not to finish, that is the question.

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I am currently reading Alchemystic by Anton Strout.

Well, allegedly I’m reading it. Actually I’ve been reading The Official Arrse Guide to the British Army because the Arrse Guide is a lot more fun, plus being informative. And it has the addictive properties of playing minesweeper, especially in the presence of several (less desirable) things you ought to be doing.

The question is, in the face of the fact that there is virtually nothing I like about Alchemystic, should I slog on through to the end, just to see it all squared away (or in the – probably vain – hope that it will somehow suddenly improve out of all recognition), or should I abandon it as a waste of my life?

One the one hand, if I stop now, does this mean that the precious minutes of my life that I have devoted to Alchemystic so far will be wasted, not to mention the money I forked out for the book in the first place? I’m from the north of England: I’m all about getting value for money.

Or if I struggle on to the end, does this mean even more wasted time? Is it the equivalent of throwing good money after bad? Should I just quit while I’m ahead (so to speak) and not torture myself any further?

What do you think? Is there some kind of intrinsic moral advantage in finishing a book? Should every book be given the benefit of the doubt, just in case the author manages to rescue it in the last few chapters (although in this case, I can’t see how)? Is it OK to write a book review even if you didn’t finish the book?

There are actually very few books I abandoned without finishing; abandonment has happened for various reasons. In the case of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach it was because although this is an excellent, excellent book, it is also the most terrifying and depressing one I have ever read (I sneaked a look at the last few pages, so I know how it ends); the terror of it comes from the hideous possibility of the events the book chronicles. One can get a delicious thrill of fear from a book about vampires and werewolves – we know that vampires and werewolves are imaginary (probably!) so the events described will never form part of our personal experience. The events of Shute’s book, however, being well within the realm of possibility, give us the fear without the delicious thrill. One of my memories of junior school (as it was then – it would probably be about Year Three [Third Grade] now) is something about nuclear war, and what was likely to happen. I don’t remember exactly what we were told, but I do remember the lasting terror. And it was terror – that is the only way to describe the cold, paralysing fear. I remembered the feeling long after I forgot the lesson. And On the Beach brought it all back.

Looking back now, I find myself thinking about what stopped me finishing On the Beach. As I’ve said before, I do like a happy ending – but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all got to be hearts and flowers. Really, I suppose, I like there to be hope. Hope for a happy ending sometime in the future – On the Beach made it clear that, in the book, there not only wasn’t going to be a happy ending, there wasn’t going to be a future either.

Should I have persevered with On the Beach? The author’s message was clearly an important one (i.e., nuclear holocaust is a bad thing, so don’t start one), so does copping out after only half the book mean I have missed out, or that I have evaded my duty? That the author’s message was so important that I ought to push on through my disinclination watch the characters approach their inevitable doom in order that I ensure I don’t miss a single nuance?

Actually, I don’t think so. I got the message. Shute’s writing was powerful enough that I didn’t have to read all of it to grasp his message (or to have nightmares), and his imagery has stayed with me for nearly twenty years. I don’t think anyone could ask more than that.

But to go back to Alchemystic, I think I’m probably going to carry on and force myself to finish it. Unlike On the Beach, where the book’s message was received loud and clear without having to read the whole thing, I have not received such a message from Alchemystic. The point at which it is ‘allowable’ to stop reading a book, therefore, becomes the point at which you are sure that you have either received the message the author was trying to impart, you have partially received the message and decided that you don’t agree with it, or you are sure that the book has no message worth reading. With Alchemystic, I have not currently detected any signs of a message worth reading, but I suppose I feel that having told everyone reading this blog how much I dislike it, I ought to at least make sure before writing my review.

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