There are currently ten books on my bedside table. It’s a pile made up of historical fiction and stories written centuries ago, literary classics and contemporary YA, a novel in translation and a self-help book aimed at millennial working women (the kind that sits on the Waterstones counter next to the pocket-sized Orwell essays and cartoon collections tailor-made for the downstairs loo). These books are different sizes, different weights, different genres; and yet they have something specific in common: I am yet to finish a single one of them.
My behaviour with this micro-library has formed a pattern: I buy or borrow a new book and eagerly read a few chapters, before running out of steam and placing it bedside my bed in the hope that, one day, I will rediscover my powers of concentration. It’s a gesture that’s become familiar, a habit that’s inadvertently turned my bedside table into a shrine to my own inadequacy. I’ve lost a treasured bookmark to page 53 of ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’, feeling that removing it would be tantamount to admitting my failure as a reader. It is both depressing and perversely optimistic. It is the last thing I glimpse at night before I switch off the light.
I have always thought of myself as a ‘finisher’, someone who can be relied upon to complete the task, to fulfil the promise, to set the goal and meet it. It used to be a point of pride that I would get to the end of any book I started, no matter how challenging or dull the subject matter. But as I creep towards thirty, as the responsibilities pile on and the world at large seems to be going the way of a Cormac McCarthy novel, I’ve stopped powering through. My attention has shifted from the internal glow of finishing to the seductive gleam of starting.
If finishing sounds like the satisfied, involuntary sigh as you read the final sentence of a new favourite story; the light moan at swallowing the last morsel of a hefty meal; the light but deliberate scratch of crossing a task off your to-do list; starting is the crisp hiss of opening a cold can on a warm day; it’s the crack of a book spine as you delve into a new world for the first time or the soft touch of pencil as you write your name at the front of a notebook, reluctant to mark a blank page with something as indelible as pen. It’s the moment when the beat kicks in on a brand new song and you smile against your will, the point where silence ends and something – anything – begins. Starting is all expectation, all possibility. Finishing is loss, as much as gain. It is much more challenging, more intrusive, more hard-won – and therefore more worth the winning.
It is easier than ever to be seduced by beginnings. We open an article, read half a paragraph, spot a link, click it, discover a second article and a third, until we have opened more tabs than we have minutes to read them. We are in the era of the ‘side hustle’. Free time is blank space to be filled, a fresh cast on a broken arm. Urgent tasks are incomplete, hit TV shows half-watched. There is always more, more, more.
I realised I had neglected finishing when I saw how long it had been since I had published on this blog. My immediate instinct was to dismiss my inactivity as a scarcity of ideas, but countless notebooks and conversations and notes saved on my phone betray me on this point. I have never run out of ideas; I had lost the discipline of trying them on for size and following them to a conclusion. I have been caught up in polishing and refining and reaching for an impossible perfectionism, rather than treating this platform as it was always meant to be treated: as my own entirely selfish sounding board. I had forgotten how deeply satisfying it felt to finish something, and so was surrounded by half-thoughts and incomplete ideas, the glow of starting long faded.
So, I decided to revel in endings. To watch films from beginning to end in one sitting; to get books from the library and finish them before the renewal date was up; to get to know the complete arc of the narrative again. I bought Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’ (along with every other human with a sense of millennial angst and a yearning to see it reproduced in print) and devoured it in one weekend. I wept silently during the ending of Call Me By Your Name (that close up! That soundtrack!) and again during the closing moments of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake (the piercing oboe! The palpable agony!). I savoured the final sip of coffee, the lone Malteser at the bottom of a crumpled packet.
There were more serious endings too. I handed in my notice after three years at the same job, an ending I was dreading because it meant starting afresh; new responsibilities, new friends, new water cooler chat. Four months later, that ending seems not only like a brilliant decision but like an inevitable one. That’s the real challenge of endings, of course: they lead to beginnings.
Fear of finishing, for me, I realised, is a paralysis born of perfectionism. If I don’t finish, I don’t have to take on the next thing and risk doing it badly. A minor breakthrough, perhaps, but a liberating one.
There’s still a huge pile of books on my bedside table but there’s an equally large pile I’ve taken to the local charity shop. When I finally finish those books – if I choose to do so – there’s space on my bookshelf to store them. But, equally, I feel comfortable with the possibility that some of them might not be for me. Some things are worth the work and dedication, but there’s something to be said for the stories and challenges that grab us and propel us onwards. The things that remind us they’re worth finishing; remind us how painful endings can be, and how freeing, and how necessary.
The writer would like it to be known that it only took her four months to finish this blog post.