Sometimes, there are books that I speed through from cover to cover. A gleeful devouring, if you will. Other times, reading becomes a chore, no matter how hard I fight it.
When reading is a chore, it absolutely sucks. I like to finish things and finish them thoroughly, and not finishing a book, in my mind, feels a bit disrespectful to the author. To stop reading a book would be to act as if there is nothing the author could possibly say that would redeem their writing in my mind. This is particularly worse when I pick up a book by an author I love, only to find that I am dragging my feet to read the next page.
Such was the case with Tolkien’s commentary and translation of Beowulf. The Lord of the Rings is, and will always be, among my favourites. Of course, I know that LOTR is not synonymous with Tolkien. But my entire undergrad honours thesis focused on the Old English roots of the names in Rohan (every race in Middle Earth had a source culture and language; Rohan’s linguistic base was Old English), and how the context of the roots as found in Beowulf directed the fate of the Rohirric characters. This is a thesis I still want to return to, and while I think I’ll never have it published (100 pages into a thesis and I still think there’s more to discuss), when I saw Tolkien’s commentary published, I knew I had to have it.
I purchased my copy in a foreign language bookstore in Shanghai. At the time, I was working as a teacher-librarian and at a librarian’s conference that year. The sight of this book stopped me in my tracks. Here was what would have been an invaluable resource to me in my honours year. As it was, being published several years after I had already graduated, I could only hold onto it and wonder if maybe, just maybe, I would ever be in a time and place again to research Tolkien’s writings to my heart’s content. When I purchased the book, the man at the counter bound my book carefully. I swear my eyes were sparkling.
More than four years later, I finally began reading. I am no scholar of Old English, but I do love Tolkien’s voice, and I heard his voice reciting that great tale of Beowulf. I skipped ahead to “Sellic Spell” and loved how he filled in the blanks of the story. But I became bogged down in the commentary and I hated myself for dragging my feet. This was Tolkien! This was everything my thesis could have used! If I didn’t finish this, how could I call myself a fan of Tolkien? I’d even read all his letters!
To be fair, reading a commentary takes serious commitment to the text and I wanted to stop. But I wanted to finish, too. Of course, the question is why I want to complete. It’s partially a completionism mentality. If I just do what makes me happy, even though reading is for leisure’s sake and all, I feel as though I’m demonstrating a lack of principle. My father is all about principle, and I suppose that’s left quite the impact on me. But I also keep hoping things get better. I remember being annoyed initially by Rogowski’s Handmade, and yet as I kept reading and it really did just get better and better. It’s experiences like that that make me want to complete reading.
My current solution is to read multiple books. There are a few books that I can’t seem to burn through too quickly at once, but by reading a chapter (or even just a few pages) at a time, I realize I’m enjoying the changes in voice and topic, am more attentive to the text because it stays fresh, and I’m still making steady progress throughout. So? How do you read when you don’t want to read? Do you plod on or chuck the book?”