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The annual gift orgy has once again come around. Books will be a percentage of the presents given this year, in any of the many forms they take now.

Many readers might like to go back to paper, parchment or some other natural product, now that has been revealed that technology is spying on the harmless leisure reader and finding out they are not finishing books. This is shocking, even deplorable.

The e-readers can detect when a book is not finished. If readers knew they were being evaluated for endurance and fortitude in completing their books they might hack the devices to send back bad data. It might be time to revive hand-written parchment or scrolls, even if just as a gift-giving gimmick. Those medieval fantasy series might boom if printed on vellum.

Anyway, it shouldn’t be a surprise that some books aren’t finished. Lots of things are unfinished, even in refrigerators and sometimes for months.
These unfinished books are titles that people think they ought to have, a status display, and they earnestly start but find, that after 500 pages of intricate storytelling, it’s all a bit much and weekend zone out of a series on DVD is the type of story telling they prefer. So the vaunted book, praised in all the right papers, is left on the shelf. Or it remains unopened in a reader.

Somehow this factoid is meant to prove that some authors are not as good, or popular, as they might seem. A similar game occurs in Hollywood with actors’ fees measured against box office: schadenfreude for the envious. But leaving a book unread is not the same as a big short fall in opening weekend receipts.

Finished doesn’t mean done, or accomplished forever. Many authors say a book is not finished, it just reached a justifiable pause at the time. Back in literary theory it’s said readers complete books, they close the circle of meaning initiated by a writer. In that sense it’s a dialog which can be continuous and intense for a period of time, and like many conversations run for years: things are put to one side for a time and then resume. Between friends conversations can twist and turn, stray and bend into other directions.

Even books, when one interlocutor has committed all they will ever say to words permanent and fixed, the other party, the reader, enters another phase of the dialog when they resume the book. A month later, a few years even, and it’s a different experience.

The words, the intention, are not the same as the previous time it was read. This is most conspicuous with those books we were all forced to read at school. In particular the plays of Shakespeare which were dreaded, but perhaps later the sonnets and the plays are understood afresh.

It’s not just books that languish unfinished. Anyone with older relatives knows they will sit down to the TV and within five minutes drift off, rousing a half hour, or later when the show is over. A friend and I thought of starting a special movie series which would comprise maybe the opening five minutes of a hundred classic films back to back in the knowledge that the typical senior viewer would put the disc on and without a doubt be battling heavy eyelids inside the first act. In my own case I never admit to not seeing several popular classics that are often quoted as I have never managed past the opening; forget the end, the opening drains away all my will, so these culturally quoted works remain unknown to me.

Really, we should all relax about endings and whether we get there or not, especially for those important books; after all, the ends don’t necessarily qualify the means.

Guy Cranswick
14th December 2014