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Life is too short for reading books you’re not enjoying – except, of course, for Proust

Not every book is everyone’s cup of tea, but you should be allowed a free crack at the first 20 pages, writes Phil Brown

Feb 12, 2024, updated Feb 12, 2024
Bell Shakespeare theatre company Co-Artistic Directors Peter Evans and John Bell inspect a rare Shakespeare folio dating to 1623, at the State Library of NSW, in Sydney, Tuesday, April 22, 2014. Tomorrow marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

Bell Shakespeare theatre company Co-Artistic Directors Peter Evans and John Bell inspect a rare Shakespeare folio dating to 1623, at the State Library of NSW, in Sydney, Tuesday, April 22, 2014. Tomorrow marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

If you start a book, do you have to finish it? Even if you’re not enjoying it? That’s masochism.

I mean life is too short and it’s not getting any longer. I am carefully calibrating my reading habits now with the view that time is precious and I don’t want to waste a minute of it.

So, if I’m not getting anything out of a book by at least page 20 I jettison it and move on to something else.

Mind you reading 20 pages can be helpful because at least it allows you to get the gist. I sometimes just read bits of books so I can see the author’s style without having to ingest the substance. Why not?

You don’t actually have to finish every book you start. I guess if you have purchased it, you feel like you should but really, why do it to yourself?

My reading is all over the place and I dip into books hither and thither, often non-fiction titles with only a couple of chapters of interest.

I set myself the task once of reading Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu. Remembrance of Things Past it used to be known as, but now the accepted translation from the French is In Search of Lost Time. This seven-volume novel is a masterpiece of world literature but the first time I tried to read it I got to page 50 and gave up.

Then I was at Riverbend Books at Bulimba recently and I saw a lovely hardback version of one volume, Swann in Love, which is touted as a stand-alone novella and I read that instead.

That was just a slice from the whole pie but now I feel I can say I have read Proust. Is that cheating? Well never mind if it is.

I do love a slim volume. I will read a longer book if I feel it is worthwhile and that’s generally something canonical.

I’m trying to catch up on books I feel I should have read and Moby Dick by Herman Melville is on the list although it is very long. But I did once see the great Australian Shakespearean actor John Bell do a one hour, one man Moby Dick on stage in Noosa Heads. The production involved him severely abridging the epic tale. Having seen that and the famous movie starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab maybe I don’t need to read the book at all, come to think of it.

And if you want to pretend you have actually read a book even when you haven’t you will find many a synopsis online to help you fake it. Tell them I sent you.

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