What not to finish

In my monthly buy-more-books-than-I-can-possibly-read-in-a-month Amazon binge I made an arbitrary purchase. It was a book called Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death by Otto Dov Kulka. I came across it via Amazon’s recommendation algorithm. It looked decent so I purchased it and I started reading it the day after it arrived. Now it is back on the bookshelf. Unfinished.

I felt guilty about opting out of a book by someone who not only endured the Holocaust, but put their reflections about their experience into the public domain. In fact, the preamble to my decision to not read it anymore was a surprisingly long internal debate about its utility and importance. On one hand, the Nazi concentration and death camps were a terrible and enlightening laboratory which can teach us much about humanity and all its conflicting qualities, so it makes sense to absorb as much about them as possible. On the other hand, there is a limit to what I will compel myself to do when it doesn’t feel right. The latter argument won out—the plaudits the book received for its insight, gravity, poetry, illumination, etc., were not there for me. At all. The only way I was going to finish it was via a love of labour, which is the opposite of what reading is, in my conception, about.

Extrapolating from this episode I realised that whilst finishing things is a superpower, so is knowing what not to finish. In this short thing called life, most things are worth a go—else how do we know what we do and don’t like, what we love and what we hate, what changes us and what can change the world? But only a handful of things—and that handful changes from person to person—are worth the effort required to take a thing from “doing” to “done”.