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On Elisa Gabbert’s Lydia Davis and Completeness

I like to finish things, which is a failure; as James Richardson maintains in one of his (amazing) aphorisms, all stones are broken stones and to pretend otherwise is willful folly. I’ve been a completist my entire life, without ever really wanting to be. An innate genetic aberration perhaps? Or something involving the Protestant work ethic, a refusal to relent until I’d received a form of self-serving absolution? I can’t put my finger on it, not exactly. All I know is that when I was younger I played the video game until I beat it or got bored; I skated the skate spot or skatepark until I landed the trick or got too broke off to continue. When I started to read seriously, then, this vindictive trait of mine continued. Even books I didn’t like—and there were plenty of them—I felt, if I’d started them, the need to make my whole way through. With certain titles, Moby-Dick, let’s say, or The Unnameable, this persistence of mine proved worthwhile. But for a whole slaw of other books, from poetry and essay collections to novels and memoirs, my reluctance to give up proved nothing except its own futility. There’s a school of thought that says one learns just as much by completing the books they don’t like as the ones they do, but with so much meritful work in the world of all types and varieties this school might, circa 2019, be one not worth enrolling in.

As mentioned above, though, this wasn’t always the case with me and about a decade ago, when I was a newly christened graduate student studying at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I remember reading a post on Elisa Gabbert’s blog The French Exit (RIP Blogspot. I believed in you.) stating, in a minorly emphatic manner, that if she didn’t like a book she would actively not finish it, would toss it aside and move on to the next tome with nary a second thought. Reading the post over and again on my 35 lb. laptop that I used as a desktop, this Gabbert postulation stumped me.

At the time I was (close) reading a whole slew of early 20th century Modernist texts—titles aren’t needed; think all the perfunctory names that you already know—and thought it was my duty as a virtuous literary citizen to finish each and every one to the final footnote. Wasn’t that the tacit agreement that writers had with one and other, that we read everything and never quit no matter how bored or aggressively annoyed we became? A few years (or months? The past’s haziness recedes into itself.) after Elisa had written her “give up books if you don’t like reading them” post she and I became internet friendly and when she eventually read at the reading series in Lincoln that I was co-running at the time, I remember clumsily asking her about her reading habits over dinner.

Do you really give up books super easy? Context-free, with no proper setup, the question surprised her, but she was very kind to my bumbling young ignorant self. No, just the ones that I can’t get fully inside of after reading the first set of poems or chapters she, in my memory, said. Or the ones that I can tell early on won’t be able to teach me anything, that were made for different readers than myself. I try and read everything with an open mind but after a few pages I can kind of know, based on my own taste and experience. And sometimes I just read until I get what I need from a book and then stop. It depends. But why—what about you?

She’d kindly asked me this last question as a near-peer, someone who might have his own opinion on the subject and not just received wisdom. I didn’t know how to respond, though, and conversation soon shifted elsewhere. To just give up and move on from a book—the idea quietly shook me.

I was reminded all of this a couple of weeks ago, after reading Lydia Davis’s piece “John Dos Passos at the 92nd Street Y” on The Paris Review Daily. Davis’s short essay primarily centers on, as its title suggests, a reading that Jon Dos Passos gave at the 92nd Street Y in New York on January 18, 1965, one that her father, a Dos Passos fan and scholar, introduced. But my specific interest in “John Dos Passos at the 92nd Street Y” orbits around Davis’s own inability to read him. Talking about how one of the well-regarded early 20th century Modernist’s (yep) texts was her first “grown up book,” Davis states (italics mine):


The Dos Passos book… was also the first, or early, in the long list of books that I never finished reading. A book whose story captivated me, I would finish. A book which, on the other hand, excited or inspired me by the way it was written, I usually would not. I would read just enough to absorb the nature of the book, understand the approach, become excited by the texture of the writing, and then I would put the book aside. I don’t think this was mere laziness, or distraction. There is a real difference between a book unfinished and a book read to the end. A book read to the end gives one a clear idea of the whole of the book, the overall structure and full content, and that is one sense of a book, a more complete sense, you might say. But a book unfinished allows you to feel you are forever afterward still inside that book, that you are part of it, live in it, continue the experience of it, and that its further continuation and conclusion remain forever mysterious. In a sense, you do not have to read more—you have already learned a good deal, enough to change your thinking about the possibilities of writing, in this case the writing of fiction. 


Here, then, is what I might have said to Elisa so many years ago if I’d had the words, what Elisa was, in her own Gabbertesque way, saying to me. “A book unfinished allows you to feel you are forever afterward still inside that book”—and what a way to exist, both of the thing and roundly outside of it.

I have, ballpark, 30 books on my nightstand, each in various states of completion. I have another stack of 60 unread in my closet. And even though I have a library card that I should use more often, I buy books all the time…I can’t not seem to do it. It is highly unlikely that more than 5 of those books on the nightstand will ever be fully read to the end. It is equally unlikely that more than 8 of those 60 books in my closet will ever be completed. This across-the-board lack of closure on all fronts would have been a source of mild strife and lamentation during earlier periods in my life. Now, however, I try to remember what Elisa imparted to me years ago and what L. Davis just reminded me a few weeks ago. Not completely something is never analogous to not learning from it. Sometimes it’s better to simply accept rather than attempt to finish. All stones are broken stones and so much the better—if that weren’t the case how else would we skip our alternately full and empty thoughts and understandings across the water’s inscrutable surface?