On giving up on books
Another post on the theme of reading a little less…
Just when is it reasonable to give up on a book? This used to be something I almost never did, at least not deliberately, and I would somehow persuade myself I would come back to them. Naturally, there were books that I put down and not picked up again but I always held out that I would return. Nope. Now I’m older I have come to terms with the fact I won’t finish them and I am more than willing to give up on books.
Sometimes they are just not for me. No hard feelings.
I don’t have a rule on the point at which I give up as I try to take into account the context. I think it is different between fiction and non-fiction for sure. It certainly varies between genres. And I have to take into account my own state of mind. Am I tired or distracted? I can have periods of days/weeks like that but usually I can identify a style/genre that will get me through those days. Maybe I’m in need of something light-hearted and funny and that book on disaster capitalism isn’t going to work. But I’ll try to go back to a book if I think that might be the case.
There are more fabulous books than it is possible to read in a lifetime and my willingness to persist is inversely proportional to my increasing age.
I’ve got more brutal about giving up on books that get stuff wrong. I was reading Alan Rusbridger’s book News: And How to Use It and found a Latin phrase that helps describe how this feels. It’s a legal phrase: falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. Untruthful in one part, untruthful in all. I suspect this might be more to do with witness testimony but it is just as applicable to the presentation of facts. It is all about trust, as Rusbridger frequently points out. If you have specialist knowledge in an area and you realise the author is getting it wrong, it becomes much harder to maintain the willingness to accept what the author is saying on other areas.
The most egregious example was a book I was reading about drugs written by an American author. At one point, quite early, the book stated that fentanyl was also believed to be involved in the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury in the UK. It might have been, for about five minutes, and it was very apparent, very quickly, it was something very different. If you don’t know you can Google it. Which is all the author had to do. You will quickly learn just how shockingly, teeth-itchingly, wrong this is. In a heartbeat, my trust in the other facts in the book collapsed. I went on for a while but I realised that it had destroyed the book for me. There was simply no point in continuing.
Ah, good grief. Reading a book and just read a statement that is so spectacularly wrong that I can’t continue. I just don’t have any confidence that anything else is true, though it is likely fine. What a shame.— Euan Lawson (@euan_lawson) November 30, 2020
“In 2018, a former colonel in the Russian army named Sergei Skripal was poisoned in Salisbury, England, along with his daughter. The poison was reportedly fentanyl. Skripal had been convicted in Russia of spying for Britain years earlier but was sent to the United Kingdom as part of a “spy swap,” an exchange for sleeper agents in the United States. Both he and his daughter survived. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov denied Russian involvement.”
The incident with Skripal happened on 04 March 2018. On 12 March the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, gave a statement in the Commons that it was a chemical weapons attack using a Russian-produced nerve agent, novichok. The book was published in the UK in September 2019. It is spectacularly wrong and the fact-checking has utterly failed. For me, that book is unreadable.