On not reading a book & the fear of failure

“It is necessity and not pleasure that compels us.”

– Dante, Inferno, XII. 87

It’s official.

For the first time in a very long time, I’ve failed to read a novel from cover to cover.

I feel bad. Unnecessarily bad, to be honest.

When I was five, I once smuggled a Granny Smith apple out of my neighbourhood supermarket while on a grocery run with mom. I didn’t mean to, but instead of placing the fruit in the trolley, I had absentmindedly slipped it into my drawing class tote and somehow managed to walk out of the store without setting off its anti-theft alarms. Unable to stomach my Adamic guilt, I ended up chucking the forbidden fruit straight in the bin.


In fact, this guilt I felt back then is on par with what I’m feeling now: I have robbed a book of my attention, and with that, I have let no one but myself down, since the book itself, unless subjected to my anthropomorphic fancies, probably couldn’t give two shits.

Cue first world problem hash tag, I know.

To some of you reading this, my lead-in may come across as:

  1. Hyperbolic, pseudo-bathetic, making a mountain out of a puny molehill
  2. Hilarious, slightly bonkers, just Jen being classic Jen
  3. A non-event, so trivial as to be not even worth writing about
  4. The symptom of a ‘compulsionist’

What’s a ‘compulsionist’?

Compulsive (adj.): an irresistible urge to do something repeatedly

Perfectionist (n.): a person who is displeased by anything that does not meet very high standards

A ‘compulsionist’, then, is someone who does something repeatedly in order to meet ‘very high’ standards. Granted, what counts as ‘very high standards’ can be subjective, so a more specific description would be ‘self-prescribed expectations and goals’.

Compulsionist (n.): a person who follows a regular pattern of behaviour in order to meet self-prescribed expectations and goals

Back in university, some of my friends commented on my lifestyle as that of a compulsive Puritan weighed down by Catholic guilt (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one!), given my passion for libraries and lack thereof for libations. When I was a student, I binge-read secondary criticism because I believed in it as the key to academic success; now, I binge-read novels because they afford emotional solace, as fiction itself has become my stronghold against the setbacks in life and a lodestar that has helped keep my blues at bay.

But of course, there have been times when I chanced upon the occasional dud of a book, one whose dryness rivals my balmless, blistering lip on a cold winter morning. Whenever this happens, I tend to roll with the punches and slog through the book anyway, but then the reading process ceases to be fun for the period of time I’m stuck with that damn book.

Still, only very occasionally would I resort to half-way abandonment, and when I do, a sense of shame always sets in, as if I’ve done something wrong or let someone down.

What bothers me most though, is how bothered I am by such an insignificant act – that of not wanting to finish a book before starting a new one. Honestly, to anyone still reading this, you’re probably baffled as to why I’m still banging on about such a non-topic. Just get the hell on with life already – what’s the big deal?

The problem is that I see the completion of every reading process as a testament to success, to a step forward in my path on self-improvement. Every undertaking is a race, and the moment I stop running is when I will have lost my orientation, and with that, my sense of self.

The finale of each narrative is the finish line of a marathon (or a sprint, depending on the book length), and to drop out mid-way can only imply the failure of my will, which is then impressed on the ego as a reminder of my ‘weakness’.


It’s like the final scene in John Updike’s Rabbit, Run – one of my favourite novels, when the protagonist Rabbit Angstrom, “tripped” by an “illusion”, runs with abandon towards the unknown:

“…his hands lift of their own and he feels the wind on his ears even before, his heels hitting heavily on the pavement at first but with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.”

(p. 264, Penguin Modern Classics edition)

rabbit run_final

The final page of Updike’s Rabbit, Run

Perhaps I should follow in Rabbit’s footsteps, and flippin’ throw my hands up and say ah fuck it and be okay with ‘not being perfect’ once in a while. It’s not the first time I’ve found a book boring, and it definitely won’t be the last either, so why am I trippin’?

My annoyance is symptomatic of a mind that thinks in ‘all-or-nothing’, ‘black-and-white, ‘either-or’ terms, but now that I’ve come to terms with my pathological dualism, I’ve at least gained some perspective on my perennial fear of failure. It’s more often than not an irrational fear, and to hijack Lear’s words, a “nothing that comes of nothing”.

rabbit trilogy

For all his descriptive disturbia, Updike is arguably my favourite 20th century novelist

Besides, I suspect that things such as not being able to finish reading a book, not getting a certain point across to my students, waking up at 11 am instead of 6 on a particularly lazy Sunday, bailing on a weekly jogging session ‘juz cuz’ etc etc etc are all part and parcel of being human – an experience in which ups and downs abound. And that’s okay. What constitutes ‘failure’ is largely subjective anyway, and to count every lapse in my ‘compulsionistic’ routine as a red mark in Miss Jen’s School of Life is no way to live.

At the end of the day, I suppose it’s good to live with goals in mind, but when one begins to live solely for the purpose of hitting goals, that’s when too much of a good thing comes into play.

The book in question, by the way (all the rhymes – oh my days!), is George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air. I don’t care ( – see what I did there? Ok I’ll stop now) I don’t care how much of a big dog Orwell is, any author who spends 30 plus pages on why fishing is the best activity ever does not get my vote. Or maybe my lack of patience is a sign that I actually need to learn more about the Zen of fishing. Hm, tricky.

On that note, I don’t think I ever finished reading Moby-Dick either. I’m not exactly a pescetarian when it comes to my taste in books, no. And I’m happy for it to stay that way.


Here’s a fishy CNY blessing for you all: 年年有餘, everyone!



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