Finishing a book is genuinely overrated…

…as evidenced by these well-reviewed, widely recommended books that I started months (years) ago and just can’t seem to finish.  Each boasts a heady subject, complex characters, beautiful writing.  Yet there they sit on my shelf, heads hung and dust collecting while they are not being read and then not being read again.  A solitary and hopeful blue post-it pops up from the middle pages of each title, catching my eye and mind as I breeze in and out of the room, day after day.  That’s a really good book, I tell myself, pulling on capri pants and blow drying my hair. Everybody loved it.  My friends loved it, my sisters loved it, it got five stars on goodreads, it’s All The Rage.  And so, come nighttime, I suit up and sigh and open the book once more.   I just need to let myself get into it, I think as I floss my teeth and file my nails (two activities I have yet to concede are impossible to do while reading.)  I read five pages, maybe ten.  Then the phone rings or the text dings and I immediately answer, guilty that the interruption is so welcome.  My innocuous chatter betrays the swift, deft hands that close the book and place it silently back on the shelf, where it will stand for another six months until I rope myself into this ridiculous charade all over again.

I love–love–to read a good book.  So tell me: why can’t I finish any of these?  (That’s not a rhetorical question.  I really want you to tell me.)

    • Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.  Sweeping family saga set against revolutionary Ethiopia.  Author is a senior asssociate chair at the Stanford University School of Medicine and the winner of bazillion literary awards.  He’s obviously got chops.  And I can’t get into this book.
    • Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder.  True story of a Harvard M.D./professor who foregoes a life of wealth and prestige in America to care for the “poorest of the poor” in rural Haiti.  Author is a Pulitzer Prize Winner.  Tempting, but. I can’t get into this book.
    • The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.  Richly woven tale than spans generations and continents, unlocking the keys to a family’s mysterious past.  This novel is a huge bestseller and all of my brilliant girlfriends have raved to me about it. I’ve started it nineteen times and the blue post-it has barely inched to the right.  Darn it if I can’t get into this book.
    • Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Lyman Bushman.  An thorough and unprecedented account of Joseph Smith Jr., written by one of the “esteemed cultural historians of our time.”  Don’t know why I can’t get into this book.*

Now that’s a pretty impressive list of failed attempts, if I do say so myself.  What do you say?  Have you read–no, finished–any of the above?  And if so, can you tell me what I’m missing?  Thoughtful readers love these books, and I so want to be a Thoughtful Reader.  But even my desperation to sit at the cool kids’ table cannot will me to finish these books.  Can you?  If so, please do.  I’m starting to actually feel bad for those little blue post-its.  (They call to me at night.)  (It’s sad.)  (And kind of creepy.)

Choose interesting.

This summer has been busy.  I’ve had trips to plan, errands to run, housework to do, children to raise and many-an-existential truth to discover.  I’ve raced through my day making meals and making phone calls, checking the mail and checking off lists, driving to piano lessons and tennis lessons and fitness camps and fitness classes.  These are pleasant enough endeavors, and I’m glad to endeavor them.  The problem is that I’m just not very interested any of them.  (Raising children excepted.)  (Sort of.)  My family is healthy and safe and, for the most part, functional.  Yes, life is good, except:  I’m bored.  Busy, but bored.

Let me clarify:  I am not bored because I don’t have enough things to do.  I’m bored because I have too many things to do that bore me.  And worse, things that used to interest me–excite me, even–now just, well, don’t.

Take reading, for example.  Once upon a time, I could think of no better way to spend a day than curled up in bed (or on the couch, or in a lawn chair, or at the park pretending to watch my kids) with a good book.  A really good book would throw me into ecstasies for weeks, and I couldn’t stop myself from telling everyone I met about it with a loud and tacky exuberance that made my children cringe.  The clerk at the grocery store would get an earful as she innocently ran my peanut butter over the scanner, wondering what the devil this random lady was talking about.  I didn’t care; I had a personal responsibility to inform her that she must read this book, and fulfill that responsibility I would.  Nowadays, however, I can never justify a whole evening of reading; I’m too commendably, impressively busy.  And the less I read, the less I want to read.  I fall into bed each night thinking, “Tonight, I’ll finally start The Karamazov Brothers.”  (It’s been on my nightstand since college.) But then Ethan walks in and wants to snuggle and we read Percy Jackson and I fall asleep.  And so nowadays I find myself flipping through Us while standing in the checkout line, hoping to avoid an unnecessary conversation with the clerk or, for that matter, anyone else whom I’ll probably never see again.  It’s too much work.

Cooking’s another example.  I used to enjoy finding unusual recipes, buying good ingredients, and spending some time in the kitchen getting it just right.  I even, in a land long ago and far away, used to have people over for dinner.  I loved pretty, well-prepared food; I loved giving it to my friends.  I still do, but not quite enough to go to all that trouble.  Too much work.

And did I ever tell you I once loved to play the piano?  I took lessons as a child and even, a few years ago, as an adult.  I am not spectacular at it (don’t ever ask me to play in public–I’ll die), but it was always fun for me.   Especially the adult lessons; it was such a luxury, to sit and study a piece of music for no other reason than the fact that I wanted to.  But a few years ago I-Got-Too-Busy and quit.  How could I justify the half hour a day for practice? There was housework to do, errands to run, children to raise!  I couldn’t call myself a true martyr mother if I shirked those responsibilities to dink around on the piano.  Besides, what was I ever going to do with my piano playing?  Nada.  So it was therefore determined to be:  too much work.

It’s funny; I’ve spent the last decade of my life dreaming of the day my kids would be older and I’d have time to develop some interests, and yet I find myself with less time–and less interests–now than I had then.  And I’m pretty sure this is nobody’s fault but my own.  See, when the kids were little, free time was so rare and precious that I had to beg, steal, and swap for it, and I made the most of every minute.  Learning something new was a balm for my isolated, toddler-haggled brain.  Now, however, I am in-and-out-in-and-out, all the noisy day long, and by the end of that day I just want to heat up leftover taco meat and watch Season 4 of The West Wing.  (Which, despite all claims to the contrary, is not an intellectual exercise.)  I don’t seem have the energy for passions, or interests, or even hobbies anymore.  Too busy.  Too tired.  Too much work.

In other words?  Too lazy.  Beneath the crammed calendar and the endless to do list, I’ve gotten–I’ve allowed myself to get–shamefully, mentally lazy.   All that crammed calendar means is that my body arrives in ten different places each day and my mind arrives exactly nowhere.  Because after making all that manual effort, I certainly don’t want to make a mental one.  And the less effort I put into the things that once mattered to me, the less they matter to me.  I keep telling myself that, with age, my interests are simply changing, but the truth is, they’re simply fading.  Tired of being ignored, they finally got up and left.  And I miss them.

Whether it’s people or passions, absence does not make the heart grow fonder.  Absence makes the heart indifferent.  The less we learn and grow the less we care if we learn and grow and lately, I haven’t cared much about either.  So here I face one of the Great Crossroads of Middle Age, and here I have a choice.  Because developing interests–and thus becoming an interesting person–is, in fact, a choice.

I can’t always change my family’s schedule or limit their needs to provide more “me” time, and nor do I want to.  But I can make more of the time that I have (and I do have it–we all do) by choosing engagement over complacency.  I can make the mental effort.  Though it seems less than interesting now, The Karamazov Brothers will probably get interesting once I start actually reading it And cooking for company will probably get fun again once I start (a) cooking, and (b) having company.  And I may remember just how satisfying playing the piano is when I start, um, playing the piano.  Because I don’t think walking by the instrument every day and throwing a glance at the dusty music books underneath is going to reignite the rapture, impressive as such an effort may sound.

I may not (I will not) have time to pursue all my loves all at once, but I could forfeit the next decade of my life to tabloids and Netflix if I don’t at least try.  So last week I exercised a little faith and finally, ceremoniously, opened up The Karamazov Brothers.   And guess what?  It’s pretty doggone interesting.  Sure, they don’t talk as fast and loose as the cast of West Wing, but I don’t think that’s Dostoevsky’s fault.  I think it’s the multiple Russian nicknames that are slowing things up.  (I wonder if Aaron Sorkin could make a teleplay out of this book?  Now that would be interesting.)