“It’s Not You, It’s Me” & Other Reasons We Don’t Finish Good Books

the Custom of the Country by edith wharton has been propped up to stand on top of a picnic benchYou’re sitting across from someone you really dig. One of you is fiddling with a napkin edge or straw wrapper, avoiding eye contact. One of you finally says: It’s not you. It’s me. And then the unraveling begins.

One-sided endings are tough, and they occur in more than just human relationships.

Custom of the Country is Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel about an ambitious young woman whose goal—at all costs—is to live high in New York society. And it’s good. Jonathan Franzen even recently sang its praises.

But I stopped reading at page 392. It’s not you, I realized as I closed the cover, it’s me.

Leaving a good book unfinished has always been equivalent, for me, to ending a relationship without proper closure. A haunting follows and I’ll wonder—over and over—what went wrong. Should I have done something different?

Yet British writer Tim Parks believes that there are indeed times when “we might choose to leave off a book before the end, or even only half way through, and nevertheless feel that it was good, even excellent, that we were glad we read what we read.”

My fellow writer friends fight hard to develop worthy endings in their short stories and novels. So have we failed in some way if a reader feels satisfied much earlier? Or is it possible that there is some other reason?Something related to the unique, intimate communication that happens between reader and writer, which varies from person to person?

Getting to the bottom of my Edith Wharton break-up. 

It took me quite a while to figure out why I didn’t finish Custom of the Country. Because I liked the book. I liked Wharton’s writing. Her social commentary was wince-inducing, a train wreck difficult to turn away from, and I was paying attention.

But I was ready to move on.

By the time I made the decision to close the cover for good I understood, on some level, what I was doing. I even felt a certain satisfaction with the novel. I just didn’t have clear words for why I wasn’t pushing through to end.

But Parks does:

To put a novel down before the end, then, is simply to acknowledge that for me its shape, its aesthetic quality, is in the weave of the plot and, with the best novels, in the meshing of the writing style with that weave. Style and plot, overall vision and local detail, fascinate together, in a perfect tangle. Once the structure has been set up and the narrative ball is rolling, the need for an end is just an unfortunate burden, an embarrassment, a deplorable closure of so much possibility.

The idea of an ending as an “unfortunate burden” may be a bit dramatic, but the other idea, that a novel’s possibility doesn’t rest solely on the ending, is an interesting one. Engaging a good story, isn’t—and can’t be—a highly controlled experience. While we writers would like for readers to feel our sentences, interpret our characters and move through the story exactly as we intended, we can’t talk them through the experience page by page. We have to leave quite a lot in their hands. And frankly, when we’re on the other side, as readers, those are the stories we love best, the ones where we’re equipped and then trusted to figure things out for ourselves.

When I think about what I’ve longed loved about reading, it’s the different worlds that scoop me up, my senses fully engaged. The writer, of course, is my guide, but I still have a role to play, too—I’m interacting with the information that’s been given to me. That’s what makes the deepest reading experience. And because this is my story now, too, I might be ready for closure sooner than another reader, sooner even than the author.

Books are never going to die. It’s impossible. It’s the only time we really go into the mind of a stranger, and we find our common humanity doing this. So the book doesn’t only belong to the writer, it belongs to the reader as well, and then together you make it what it is.
—Paul Auster

Reading is a relationship, one that requires something of us just like our human ones—that we are present. But, thankfully, when we decide it’s time to call it quits, there is no yelling and far fewer tears.