Reading a book can be a deeply personal experience. Some readers enjoy reading the last paragraph or page of a book before starting, others refuse to read jacket copy, and then there are those, like Melissa Cistaro, who simply never finish the books that matter most to them. In her memoir, Pieces of My Mother, Cistaro explores the impact that her mother’s absence had on her childhood and her life. After discovering a trove of letters her mother addressed but never sent, she says:
“I am afraid to read my mother’s letters all at once. I suppose a kind of measured self- control defines my nature. Similar to the way that I never finish some of my favorite books – because I don’t want the story to end and I don’t want the characters to leave me.”
Here, Cistaro shares which books she’s never finished, and why:
There are particular books I choose not to finish—not because I dislike them, but because I love them too much. This habit began decades ago when I first bought a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I packed this slim paperback into my suitcase prior to leaving for a study abroad program in Salamanca, Spain. I wanted to read a novel set in Spain as I traveled by rail through the countryside.
This was my first time in a foreign country and every sight, sound, and flavor enchanted me: the vibrant yellow paella with saffron threads, sweet red sangria, ancient architecture, towering church bells, bull-fighting broadsides, and bitter coffee. I wanted to remain in this fresh and exciting world—just as I wanted to remain caught in the time and place of Hemingway’s Spain. I immersed myself in the art and intellectual atmosphere there, imagined myself an expatriate like Lady Brett wandering the worn cobbled streets.
In choosing not to finish The Sun Also Rises, I could linger in the dry heat of Spain for a longer period of time. If I finished the story, it might mean I was finished with Spain and I wasn’t ready to let go of my new experiences.
There is another book I love and never finished: The Winter Vault by Canadian author Anne Michaels. Her first novel, Fugitive Pieces, remains one of my favorite (and finished) books. When The Winter Vault fell into my hands, I felt as if I were holding a sacred text. The prose is utterly evocative and moving, the story steeped in history and loss. I read 3/4 of this book and added it to my stack of unfinished books. I am wholly satisfied with where I left off and often reflect about how the story might ultimately unfold. I am left wondering. And for certain books, I want to hold on to this sense of wonder.
Books deserve to be finished. As a bookseller and an author, I know this. But sometimes I don’t want the stories I read to end. They continue to linger inside of me and have a life beyond the small black dot on the last page.
I also have to confess that I have not read every story in one of my favorite collections by George Saunders, The Tenth of December. This, too, is out of love. There will come a time when I need a George Saunders fix and his stories are there on the shelf of loved, unfinished books. They won’t leave me. They are simply waiting.
In some ways, these books are like the letters my mom wrote and never sent. She left our family when my brothers and I were very young, and it was during the final days of her life that I discovered this folder full of “letters never sent.” These letters were the unfinished pieces of her past. I keep her letters in an archival box now, and when I need to hear her voice, I know where they are. Her words and stories are there waiting for me.
If my mother hadn’t left when I was a child, would I have this habit of not finishing books because I love them so much? I don’t know. But I do know that what Anne Michael’s character (who has lost her mother) says in The Winter Vault resonates strongly with me: “My life formed around an absence.”
Right now there is a book on my nightstand that I don’t want to finish. It’s a novel coming out this September by Bill Clegg called Did You Ever Have a Family. This one I will have to finish by summer’s end when the book debuts, but I’m not ready yet. I want to keep the characters Clegg has created with me for as long as I can. They are people in deep conflict and I’m thinking about their predicaments and how they will unravel, or not unravel. One in particular is a mother who lost four people in her life from a tragic accident—including her daughter, her lover, and an ex-husband. She has isolated herself in a remote hotel on the coast of Washington state (not far from where I spent time with my mom during her final days). Part of me is afraid of what will happen to June Reid and part of me wants ample time to grieve along with her. These are fictional people, but I know them. I am with them. I don’t want them to go away. And so I choose to live with them for a longer stretch of time: sometimes months; sometimes decades.
If I ever travel back to Spain, I will pack my old copy of The Sun Also Rises and consider reading it to the end. I might just be ready to finish reading those final glorious pages of the story I started so long ago.
Melissa Cistaro is a bookseller and events coordinator at Book Passage, the legendary San Francisco Bay Area independent bookstore. Her memoir Pieces of My Mother is an Indie Next Pick releasing in May.