In college, I had a running argument with a close friend that had to do with finishing books. A rigorous, attentive and voracious reader, she was of the mind that one should read every book that one has started to the final page. The very least a responsible reader could do was to offer respect to the author by considering his or her full work.
I argued the opposite — that when you’re not excited by the prose, or interested in the plot, or engaged with the characters — well, then, give it up. Life’s too short. Find another book. It’s an argument that comes to mind with increasing frequency now, but it is no longer just about reading.
The mantra to finish what you start — whether a plate of food, a book, learning to play an instrument or speak a foreign language — is the steady drumbeat of childhood. Most of us were probably raised with the idea that the discipline involved in concluding a task has inherent merit: You acquire a skill, gain a sense of fulfillment, build character.
Maybe. Sometimes. The fact is, though, I’ve spent much of my life suspecting that this idea is overrated and that it may represent nothing more than some kind of misguided rigor. It even seems tinged, at times, by a bit of puritan sanctimony.
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Stick-With-Itness Is Overrated
Equating completion with accomplishment has always seemed arbitrary and off-base to me, but it’s only with age that I can truly defend my position.
As a lifelong swimmer, I know that water is what gives me comfort. Whether I am in a pool or a pond, ocean or river, slicing across the surface, my breathing in synch with my strokes, gives me an uncommon peace. Immersed yet buoyant, I find that swimming confers a sense of profound alignment with the physical world.
Recently, though, I encountered a new technique that involves a different manner of breathing, propulsion and body position. Said to increase efficiency of movement and reduce the body’s drag, the method seemed worth learning. I thought I should give it a try — not necessarily because I was trying to excel in speed or form, but because it just seemed like a challenge to do what I love a little better.
But gone almost immediately was the meditative equilibrium that water delivers to me. The effort to lower the position of my head and readjust my breathing turned my restorative mornings in the lap lane into a drill. My swimming became a rote exercise in which I found myself counting laps and measuring stroke lengths, and what had always been a natural, instinctive rhythm was replaced by a belabored self-consciousness. And so I gave it up.
Could I have mastered the new technique? Probably. Was it worth the effort? No.
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Know When to Fold 'Em
The decision to let the endeavor go was easy, intuitive and guilt-free. The manner of swimming I had been practicing for decades has been deeply sustaining, and I knew there was no need to replace it with something more efficient. I’m not competing, nor am I in training for a triathlon.
And it occurred to me that being able to recognize the futility of sticking with something for its own sake — and then act on it — is a gift that usually comes only later in life. At a certain point, you recognize the logic and intelligence in abandoning a thing that isn’t working for you. You’re not giving up because you're distracted (or a slacker) but because with coolheaded rationalism you see a bigger picture and know exactly what you wish to expend your time, energy and effort on.
There’s an awareness, too, that you no longer have all the time in the world. It wasn’t out of sheer, unmitigated laziness, an indifference to world affairs or waning intellect that a friend of mine has given up reading — from first section to last — the Sunday newspaper. He quit because the time gained allowed him to get up off the sofa and out of the house and to use the free weekend time in a more active and energetic way that was more gratifying.
At other times, it may be a matter of not succumbing to pointless ambition. After my friend Polly had planted 60 of the 100 tulip bulbs she had bought (on a zealous whim), she put the rest aside in a dry, dark place. “It’s a lot of work to dig one small hole for one little bulb, over and over and over,” she said. “I’ll just get to the rest later. Whenever I want.”
All of which makes me think that the passage of time brings with it an ability to distinguish those experiences, skills and tasks that are worth doing and finishing because they are exciting, challenging and sustaining from those that are not. Or perhaps it’s just that what defines fulfillment changes. What matters isn’t finishing everything; it’s about finishing what matters.
I know now that I am unlikely to ever get beyond the first few pages of the two-volume Mastering the Art of French Cooking given to me years ago by a friend. I always assumed I would one day find my way to it, but it’s become easy to see that I can live without Burgundy matelots and saucisson truffe au foie.
I would argue that age gives us permission not only to put down the book but to walk out of the movie, give up learning to speak Italian and even, occasionally, to leave behind a friendship or two (or marriage, or job). There is a broader issue here that has to do with accepting the imperfect. At the end of it all, the uncompleted things in our lives will always be knitted in with the completed — there are relationships that will always be in flux, words that will always go unsaid, gestures that will always remain undone. I find myself increasingly familiar with — even warmly responsive to — the idea that unfinished business is an inevitable part of life.
And reading my way through the complete works of Vladimir Nabokov is increasingly improbable. I have read Pnin and Speak Memory, but the other masterworks have eluded me thus far. Whether written as satire or surrealism, the child porn of Lolita has always put the book beyond my reach. I may yet get to it and all the others. Then again, I may not.
I sometimes imagine I have Nabokov’s tacit approval to abandon him. He may understand better than anyone the appreciation for the incomplete, having once said himself that “Existence is a series of footnotes to a vast, obscure, unfinished masterpiece.”
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