Shiralkar: The guilt from reader’s block is misplaced

Columnist Parth Shiralkar realizes the notion of a good-quality book, but also the difficulty of reading from start to finish. 

Parth Shiralkar

The page count of the average mystery novel is anywhere between 250 to 500 pages. These pages are enough to develop a story surrounding a murder or a marriage or some similar crime, including adequate exposition to let the readers start placing their bets on the identity of the perpetrator(s). Agatha Christie, perhaps the best mystery novelist of her time, aimed the “Hercule Poirot series” at a wide audience — the books were short, had fun accents, told the story concisely and managed to be entertaining at the same time. And the average reading time for one of her mysteries? A few hours at best.

In contrast to long, winding novels like the “Lord of the Rings” book series, shorter novels are much, much, easier to consume. The payoff at the end of some of these books is huge (I had to start meditating after finishing “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”) and, really, the characters can be absorbed at a leisurely pace as small chunks of their personality is fleshed out over the entire series. And therein lies the rub: most novels that are part of a long series don’t have to be long.

Readers across the globe have trouble finishing books that they started reading. Reasons could range from the simple onset of ennui to the untimely loss of energy in general. The 2013 Pulitzer winner by Donna Tartt was victim to some of these reasons — according to e-bookseller Kobo, only about 44 percent of the British readers who bought “The Goldfinch” actually finished the book. Despite being one of the bestsellers of that year, half the buyers never got to the ending. Isn’t that interesting?

Other research suggests a more direct link between the page count of the literary work and the completeness of its consumption. Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, came up with the Hawking Index in 2014. A fun concept, he explains, named after the book everyone claims to know of but not many have read fully, “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking.

If the most activity in an e-book is at the beginning of the book before being abandoned, it goes on the Hawking Index, so on and so forth. “Ulysses” by James Joyce is at the top of the abandoned tome pile, followed closely by another lengthy, dense novel: “Les Misérables.” Urban fantasy novels are following in this vein, with book series like “The Kingkiller Chronicles” averaging about a thousand pages each. The world building in these immense volumes is truly astounding.

And we would all have already read these fantastic tomes cover to cover, but for the simple fact: coming into possession of a book is not the same as committing to read it all the way through. This column is meant to assuage the guilt of some picky readers: it’s OK to leave a daunting book halfway, two-thirds of the way or even at the first chapter. If a book simply doesn’t resonate well with the reader, so be it.

I’ve tried to read “Infinite Jest” thrice — I never get past the first few pages. Sure, there are “essential” novels, acclaimed masterpieces that have survived the test of time over decades, but nowhere does it say that they must stand my impatience. Palette cleansers like a quick whodunit or a fast-action novella or a nice chic lit getaway are absolutely fine, and readers should not be ashamed to read them. Books are awesome. Wash your hands and wear your mask.