I Can’t Finish This Book!

Mr. Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr. Johnson if he had read it. JOHNSON: “I have looked into it.” “What,” said Elphinston, “have you not read it through?” Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to own his cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, “No, Sir, do you read books through?” [Boswell, Life of Johnson]

When I was nineteen, I had a conversation with my girlfriend’s stepfather (then a terrifying figure to me), in which he claimed that he had not read a book for years. I was surprised to hear this from a man who had studied English Literature at Oxford, and he told me that the last book he had read was so bad that it had turned him away from reading forever. We have all read bad books, and this seems like a melodramatic and petulant reaction, but he explained that it had been his inflexible policy to read every book which he took up from page one until the end. Surely there is no worse way to read. Indeed, the transition from scroll to codex was meant to break the oppressive shackles of almost-compulsory linear reading. Samuel Johnson was one of the most well-read men of his time, yet he regularly counseled against reading books in their entirety:

“On advice that books, once started, should be read all the way through: ‘This is surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?'” [Boswell, Life of Johnson]

I have spent countless hours of my life running along my library shelves, selecting volumes here and there, and reading only a paragraph or two at random. This is one of my chief literary pleasures, though I suspect that it has contributed to the especially discursive and disorganized character of my mind, which is strewn about with miscellaneous quotations, trivial facts, and half-remembered jokes.

I (hazily) remember once reading that Thomas Jefferson was unable to finish Plato’s Republic, and stored this in my repository of miscellaneous trivia. I think that I have identified the source of the claim in his letter to John Adams (July 5, 1814):

“I am just returned from one of my long absences, having been at my other home for five weeks past. Having more leisure there than here for reading, I amused myself with reading seriously Plato’s republic. I am wrong however in calling it amusement, for it was the heaviest task-work I ever went through. I had occasionally before taken up some of his other works, but scarcely ever had patience to go through a whole dialogue.”

It is comforting to see that such a widely-read man found it difficult to make it through not just the rather lengthy Republic, but even the short, crisp, pamphlet-length dialogues.

I take it for granted that most readers of this site, as readers, spend a substantial amount of time with their gazes fixed upon the page, and would therefore like to pose a series of questions about reading books through. I hope to elicit responses focusing on ancient Greek and Latin words, but I also invite responses about modern books as well.

The Questions:

1.) What book have you been unable to finish reading despite repeated attempts?

2.) What book have you been unable to finish but admire and earnestly wish that you could finish it?

3.) What book have you forced yourself to finish reading only to regret the time wasted therein?


My own responses are:

  1. ) No matter how many times I have tried, I can never read through more than a few books of Thucydides’ History. I find that it gets a bit dull after a while, and it makes for hard going. Other contenders include Statius’ Thebaid (which I have tried a few times) and Martianus Capella’s de Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii.
  2. ) I have tried to read through Lucretius’ de Rerum Natura several times, but always get stalled halfway through. I really like Lucretius, and I should be able to finish this, especially given its comparative brevity. Yet, for one reason or another, I always find myself distracted at about that point, and abandon the book for so long that I feel compelled to begin again at Aeneadum genetrix.
  3. ) I spent a good chunk of my time once to reading Lucan’s Pharsalia. I can remember a couple of sententious quotes from the earlier part, but I have almost entirely forgotten everything about it, despite my best effort to really focus on it as I read.

So, dear readers, let us know!

Image result for reader painting

5 thoughts on “I Can’t Finish This Book!

  1. Another great post.

    1. I have never been able to get past the first page of Joyce’s “Ulysses”. My trio of pain used to be “Ulysses”, “Paradise Lost”, and “Moby Dick”. I finished Milton’s epic in Grad school and made it through Melville only on audiobook.

    2. I have also never made it through Thucydides to the end (but claim it is because it fragments), Lucian (though I love parts I find it unreadable), or Petronius.

    3. I can’t believe I actually read both Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons”. Total, it might have been five hours, but I could have been napping or fake-reading Thucydides.

  2. I’ve started far more books than I’ve finished – but as for classics, I could never get through Dickens’s books, nor could I finish any by Zola (though my daughter loved him and her favorites were the most depressing). I started Quo Vadis and after slogging throught the first ten or twenty chapters, gave up. If I had to read a book for a class or a study subject I could force my way to the end, but unless I took copious notes, I could totally forget it after I finished the last page (good at self preservation)!

  3. I’ve not finished Gravity’s Rainbow or War and Peace, but perhaps will some day. In classics, of course, the usual method is just to read snippets, although I’m now trying to do whole texts in Greek or Latin. I have to say that I found the Anabasis more interesting as a whole in Greek than I ever did in English; ditto for Gallic War.

    Never felt satisfaction in reading the Homeric Hymns. They led me to the conclusion that survival alone was not a reason to read something. When it comes to modern secondary literature, there are so many that I can say have never left me thinking they were worth the effort or the time, nor do I confine myself to Derridas when I say this….

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