Unfinished Business

It’s basically a test of endurance—how long can I go without completing it?

Happy New Year! To ring in 2018, we’re showcasing staff members’ New Year’s resolutions. Caitlin O’Neil, Chris Power, Claire Jacobson, and Theophilus Kwek have already submitted theirs to our special New Year edition newsletter (subscribe here if you’re not already on our mailing list). Today, South Africa Editor-at-Large Alice Inggs reckons with the unfinished books on her shelf, resolving to read them before the year is out.

There they stand, with bookmarks at various points of incompletion, like paper tongues sticking out in gentle but persistent mockery: the books on the shelf that I have bought but never read or, to be precise, never finished reading.

It is at least a universal trait, this type of unfinished business, judging by the many part-read books in secondhand stores, marked with a receipt from a now-closed chain of stores, or a faded family photograph, a bubblegum wrapper, or a dog-eared page. Once, midway through a secondhand Elmore Leonard, I even found an airplane ticket—it was from 1982 and marked “non-smoking”.

Why don’t we finish books in which we’ve invested money and time? Why stop halfway like that non-smoking Leonard dabbler? Or on page 120 of 388, like I did with Nobel Prize-winning author Mo Yan‘s Frog? Well, in this case, I packed Frog, a present from Christmas 2014, into a box and only recently rediscovered it, along with several other half-read novels. Is this really an excuse, though? What about the many very visible reads-in-progress on my shelf? I decided to get them out, stack them up, and take their measure.

The Third Reel by SJ Naudé follows a young man on a consuming hunt for the missing reels of a German film from the 1930s. I stopped on page 88 of 346, bizarrely right at the point where the protagonist’s search begins. The tone of the book, this far at least, is obsessive, its persistent subject matter being as it is about the drive to resolve, or to…well…finish something. Of course, as I have discovered after recently re-entering this story, is that the idea of completion is a fantasy, a way to offset loss. But surely something is lost when not finishing a book?

I began grappling with Neil Bennun’s exhaustively researched and beautifully crafted The Broken String: The Last Words of an Extinct People in 2012. The book explores the songs, oral histories and myths of the /Xam-kei !ei (the San or Bushmen) through the Bleek-Lloyd archives, in which are recorded the last accounts of the first people of southern Africa in the extinct /Xam language. I often return to this book for reference in my own research and have read most (if not all) of the chapters, although not in sequence. Does this constitute completion? Is it really necessary to read a book “in order”? Reading this particular book in this way has a certain logic in that the narratives of the /Xam-kei !ei are not chronological, in fact they resist a linear conceptualization of time. What might be gained by reading books out of sequence? Perhaps a lot, especially for people like me who treat some books like serials, sometimes leaving years between finishing chapters.

I started Ivan Vladislavić’s The Restless Supermarket in May 2015. Vladislavić is a master stylist and the levels of language play at work, particularly in Restless Supermarket which takes its title from wrongly worded signage, seem limitless. The narrator, a phonebook sub and prolific writer of (to his mind) witty letters to the editor of a local newspaper, reveals the stubbornness with which a comfortable, calcified middle class clings to outdated systems during periods of change; the author deftly using language structure and slippage as metaphors for the transitioning political order in South Africa during the late 1980s and early 1990s. It seems wrong, even shameful, to have set this book down at page 142 of 300. But I know why I did it. I’ve never wanted to finish this book, never wanted to be “finished” with it. Every so often, I’ll pick it up and get through a page or two, reading every sentence twice, or even three or four times, often laughing out loud at the brilliance of a bilingual pun (“empty Wessels” was a particular favorite) or gasping at the guillotine-sharp edge of a well-executed full stop. Then I’ll stop. It’s basically a test of endurance—how long can I go without completing it?

Vladislavić has, coincidentally, written a book that deals with the inverse—the narratives writers never finish; the stories forgotten, abandoned part way or just never written at all. The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories, created from incomplete thoughts and missing parts of more successful narratives, is a meditation on the art of writing. Surely then, unfinished books on a shelf should explain something about the art of reading.

There is, as The Loss Library suggests, a lure attached to the incomplete. And every loss may yet be recovered. Is not finishing a book the same as giving up on it? I don’t necessarily see it as such. I always intend to return to an unfinished read, to (as Vladislavić puts it) settle the account. Plus, you may finish with a book but a book rarely finishes with you, which is true both of books you actually complete and books you don’t. I’m not suggesting that there’s no point in finishing reading a book, but rather that completion is no measure of the depth of impact or type of impression a book can have on a reader.

I was given Patti Smith’s M Train as a gift at the start of a three-week road trip in early 2016. I’ve picked it up many times since then, always when on the road, and have never got more than about three quarters of the way through before the journey ends and M Train goes back on the shelf or into the cubbyhole. This book has been to every province in South Africa, as well as to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania (with a brief stop in Zanzibar) and even Rwanda. I recall all those journeys through it and lines or scenes often come back to me, strangely overlapped with my own memories, like a double exposure. The frequency with which I’ve restarted and reread almost all of M Train, as well as the meditative circularity of Smith’s narrative, lends the reading experience a sense of familiarity, which is maybe why I didn’t ever feel the need to read right to the end. Nevertheless, it is the first book from my list of unfinished books that I completed; ironically not at the end of a journey but at the start of one: my resolution is to finish (at least some of) my stack of not-completely-read books before the start of the new year. I would encourage any reader to do the same with their “unsettled accounts”, keeping in mind, though, that beginnings need not start at the beginning and endings are seldom final.

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  • Linda

    What a smart, wry -hottie-! #thosebangstho