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What I'm Reading (No. 33): on not finishing books + president #2
On Not Finishing Books
I used to be the kind of person who had to finish a book once I started it. It was a compulsion that I'm sure many of you can relate to. Not finishing feels like failing, ya know? Nobody wants to do that. If you're in that camp, as I once was, I'd like to at least try to re-frame your thinking and give you the freedom to boldly and happily leave books unfinished.
Nowadays, if something isn't catching on with me after 75 pages or so, I'm outskis. Sometimes, it's just not the right time or place in my life, and I stow it back on the shelf for further attempts later on. Sometimes, it's clear that the book just isn't that good, and there's no reason to continue consuming something I'm not at all enjoying. Other times, especially when it's non-fiction, I read as far as my purpose is served, and if something gets boring, I skim away until it gets interesting again.
Think about a TV series you're watching on Netflix. If it's not good after a few episodes, do you keep trucking on? Do you consider it a failure to ditch the series and try to find something more enjoyable? Of course it's not a failure! You're just not digging that particular show.
It's the same with books.
And yet we have this little tic that says we have to finish any book we start. Balderdash!
While there's something to be said for finishing challenging books every now and then, there's great freedom to be had in knowing you can call it quits anytime you want.
A few I've given up on recently:
Kickflip Boys by Neal Thompson. A memoir about parenting rebellious, skateboarding teens. It was okay, but just wasn't grabbing me. Tried skimming and getting back into it, but couldn't do it. Dropped it altogether about halfway through.
Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. I already read this once in full back in college, and was going to read it again with our book club this month. I started in, and realized I remembered more than I thought, and put it back down. It was far more journalistic than I remembered, and I personally thought it didn't age too well.
Rough Riders by Theodore Roosevelt. A couple weeks back I mentioned that I had started this and that it was sort of dry. It stayed that way, and I gave up on it.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. This is hard to admit, but I'm currently on what may be a long-term hiatus from Anna K. I got about halfway through, and at times I really enjoyed it. At some point though it just turned into a real slog. I know someday I'll finish it, and perhaps even start over, but I'm leaning into this current biography obsession of mine and taking full advantage of my desire to read 1,000-page bios.
I'd love to hear what you've given up on recently. It's all just a matter of taste.
John Adams by David McCullough
While George Washington led the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison composed much of the Constitution, John Adams doesn't have much to his name. Because of that, he hasn’t been as celebrated as other Revolutionary heroes.
McCullough tries to turn that around, though, and give Adams more credit. While he mostly accomplishes this, there were a couple areas where I believe he fell short (more on that in a bit). What’s abundantly clear is that McCullough can tell a story and keep it interesting like perhaps no other biographer today can do (with Walter Isaacson and Ron Chernow at the top along with him), which makes this is a superb book.
While parts were a little boring (Adams' 10 years in Europe as a diplomat during the war), the most enjoyable pieces to me were the numerous passages taken from Adams’ own letters which illustrated his passionate relationship with wife Abigail, his complex, but ultimately admiring friendship with Jefferson, and his cheery, advice-laden love for his children and grandchildren.
The one thing that has somewhat dogged McCullough throughout his career is his slight tendency towards hagiography; he doesn't quite do enough to address (or really even present) the criticisms or weaknesses of his subjects. That's certainly the case here. There are a few times where I wondered why some leader was calling Adams crazy or irritable or both. McCullough never really provides any context in those instances.
In the end, though, Adams comes across as a mostly admirable Founding Father. He was always against slavery (unlike most the better-known figures from the time), had generally strong and very loving relationships with his wife and kids, never produced anything resembling a scandal, and ultimately contributed greatly to the founding of America.
The only other McCullough I've read is The Wright Brothers, which was also phenomenal. And I have Truman sitting on my shelf, but it'll be a while since I'm going through the presidents chronologically. Next up is Jon Meacham's Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.
That's all for this week. Have any recommendations for me?