Rule of 50 for dropping a bad book

Russell Valentino

There's a way in Russian of saying that you've read something without specifying that you've completed it. Think about how nice a distinction that would be to have at one's fingertips! Did you read that book? Yes, I did. (Da, chital, which, I suppose, if you want to get technical, would mean something like, "Yes, I engaged in the activity of reading," without particular reference to one stage of it or another, especially its completion.) Would being able to say that to others and to oneself make it any easier to stop reading something before the end, I wonder? I've often been surprised at the--sometimes quite elaborate--rules people come up with for how much of a book or essay or story they are allowed to read before moving on to something else. Allowed by whom?

Here's a system that I just read (engaged in reading) about:

I really like the part about subtracting your age from a hundred once you get to fifty in order to give yourself permission to read (in the sense of complete) less of a book before deciding to quit. At 51, you can read 49 pages without feeling guilty. At 52, 48 pages. See what I mean about elaborate?

In editorial circles, I've heard a variety of rules and guidelines. You should read 80 pages of a manuscript, I heard one editor pronounce. If you don't like what's happening on page 80, it's too late. The first page of a story is enough to know, someone told me. If it doesn't have your attention by then, discard and pick up the next one in the pile. These are survival techniques to some extent, but there is also responsibility and, for many people, plenty of guilt here as well. It's depressing to say no over and over again.

I think that Russian form of the word "read" (past tense) is in fact the norm for editors. They engage in the activity of reading most of the time, without particular reference to the completion of it. Imperfective aspect, it's called, which is not to be confused with the imperfect tense in, say, French, by the way. Though it is certainly an imperfect way of reading, one premised on a ready "no" that only once in a while gets out of the way long enough to allow you to read something to the end.