A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.

Image from We heart it

The line above is something that I saw printed on a bookmark while browsing in Fully Booked. It’s a line from someone named Samuel Johnson. I liked it so much that I noted it down and even put it up as a status on Facebook and Twitter. It brings to mind previous discussions about being a responsible reader. Shannon Hale actually has a series of posts on her blog on how to be a reader. She had a post back in 2008 that I really liked and I’d like to quote her here:

“I’ve always believed that as an author, I do 50% of the work of storytelling, and the reader does the other 50%. There’s no way I can control the story you tell yourself from my book. Your own experiences, preferences, prejudices, mood at the moment, current events in your life, needs and wants influence how you read my every word.”

I love what she said because it gives readers a certain kind of responsibility. Liking a book isn’t just up to the author, it’s up to us as well. This is probably why I get giddy at the thought of reading a good book. I’m excited by the possibilities presented by a new-to-me book – am I going to love it and will it end up in my list of favorites? Am I going to be sucked in by the world created and am I going to be able to relate to the characters? Even if the book doesn’t live up to my expectations, I still want to read it when I get positive feedback about it because I want to find out what other people liked. I haven’t discovered the book blogosphere back when I read Shannon Hale’s post so what she said resonated with me because I felt like it empowered me as a reader. This is also one of the reasons why I feel bad when writing negative reviews. One of the main reasons why I don’t end up liking a book is because I can’t connect to the story or the characters, so that’s mostly about me and I don’t blame the author. I always acknowledge that even if I don’t like a book, someone else will probably have a positive reaction about it. The theme of being a responsible reader becomes more of an issue now that I blog about books because I feel responsible for my reviews as well. I’m thrilled whenever people say that they picked up a book because of my review but then I get scared that they won’t like it as much as I did.

To further prove her point, Shannon Hale also tackled the topic of rereads and how your opinion changes when you reread a book. This means that you changed as a person and that’s why your understanding of the book also changed, the book stayed the same. Steph has a discussion post about rereading and Tina has one as well. Check out both because they are very insightful. Have you ever experienced changing your view of a book months or even years after you first read it? That has happened to me several times. There are books that I don’t even remember reading and then enjoy as rereads. There are also some books that don’t get as much love from me as when I initially read them and I wonder what I found so fascinating the first time around. I have a feeling this is bound to happen as I discover more books. The ones that I still love after several times of rereading end up in my favorites list (and it’s a list that keeps on changing as I add and remove books). I think a mark of a true favorite is when you can read it over and over again and it never gets old. I believe that how I see a book changes depending on where I am in my life or even depending on something as fickle as my mood. You know how you sometimes say you have to be in a certain kind of mood to read a book? That certainly happens to me.

So here are a couple of questions that I’m throwing out to those who want to discuss. Do you agree with the line, “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.” and why or why not? Do you feel responsible for your reactions to books or do you think that how good or how bad a book is entirely up to the author? Have you experienced changing what you think of a book after a reread? Are there books that you can reread multiple times and still love? Feel free to comment on anything else that’s related to this topic.

18 thoughts on “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.

  1. I absolutely agree with it. I had an English professor tell me that as long as I could back up my opinion on essays we had to write for poetry critiques, she didn’t take off points because the authors were no longer alive to tell me I’m wrong. I liked that about her–that she was open to interpretation with poetry and reading.

    I also had the reread thing happen to me in the last few years. I loved Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey as a kid. I reread it a year ago and was kind of shocked at the content. How did I miss some of that as a kid? I still love the Pern series and the book, but probably didn’t like the book quite as much as I did as a kid (however, the second and third books in the series were fantastic rereads!).

    One book that I’ve reread and is just my favorite is Life of Pi. I love that book so much that it would be the book I would choose if I was only allowed to read one book for the rest of my life.

    • Your English professor must have been a really good teacher! That’s a great approach not just for poetry critiques but for book reviews as well. It doesn’t matter if you agree with other people’s interpretations, what matters is that you can back up your thoughts and ideas.

      Oh I still haven’t read Dragonflight although I already have a copy of that book. Your comment has made me curious about it. Good to know that the second book is fantastic! I have a copy of that one as well.

      I read Life of Pi when I was younger but I couldn’t really remember the details. Maybe I should do a reread if I find my copy. I will never be able to choose just one book to read for the rest of my life.

  2. Totally agree. And I think that quote from Shannon Hale hit the bulls-eye. How the reader interprets and receives the story depends a lot on his/her preferences, biases, mood and other factors.

    And if I may digress a little, I have to say that I like it when authors “show” instead of “tell”. I’d rather the author show through action, dialogue and description, and leave me to think whatever I may of what is given than be told/explained things. Don’t tell me he’s charming, I’ll be the judge of that, just show me what makes him so charming.

    Back to the topic.
    Yes! Most of the time, my opinions change during a re-read. (It may stem from the fact that I miss things from the first read, usually because excitement makes me breeze through books. Re-reading makes me spot things I’ve failed to pay attention to, little details that might be important.)
    Some books I still like, others… well, let’s just say I’m embarrassed that I ever gushed about them in the first place.
    My favorite thing to do is re-read something I haven’t read in ages and see if I still feel the same way. It’s just best feeling when you crack open that book and revisit old memories, old friends; and find yourself loving every minute of it just like that first time long ago. *le wistful sigh*

    • I know what you mean, Diane. I think most of us prefer authors showing characters’ personalities instead of telling us how we should view them.

      Same here! Whenever I read a highly anticipated book, I feel like I just inhale it during the first read. Which is why I notice more when I reread them.

      It’s just best feeling when you crack open that book and revisit old memories, old friends; and find yourself loving every minute of it just like that first time long ago. *le wistful sigh* -> Have you agree with this! I love it when books feel like old friends. 🙂

  3. Wonderful post and this is something close to my heart that I always believe.

    Anyone who creates something and gives it to others to read, watch, look at etc. Once they finish it and give it up, it no longer really belongs to them because they cannot control everyone’s imagination.

    Sometimes I think it’s quite mystical the way you know – some books connect with me. It’s hard for me to imagine how anyone could NOT connect with it.

    We all have different experiences throughout life though, so reading really is a journey and the books you read make you who you are. There are books I read yesterday, that I would hate tomorrow. And there are books I know I’ll hate today, but perhaps love tomorrow…

    If you read book a) you may not enjoy book c) because you read book a) which had such an effect on you that a different book couldn’t compare. Whereas, had I read book c) before book a) maybe I would have enjoyed it more without the comparison. Do you get what I’m saying? Possibly not.

    Anyway – I saw a short kinda film that showed different people reading the same passage from a book differently and how it sounded different each time.

    We all sympathise with different characters perhaps. We all imagine things totally differently – our personal experiences affect how we see things, or make certain passages more meaningful to us.

    If the reader has nothing to do with the enjoyment of a book then… well… what’s the point in reading? We aren’t just things that passively take whatever we read or see and think nothing more of it. Well, some people do I know, barely question anything they read or watch.

    I certainly think re-reads can change how you think about a book. You know the story, the characters, so you can concentrate on reading something else into it. Reading is layered, there’s no way you can notice everything first hand and even if you do, it might come across different the second or third time around. I think that… well… people who don’t believe in re-reading really miss out. It’s like painting a wall – you need to give it a second or third layer sometimes for it to make the room perfect.

    Also, I have read some books considered children’s books – not as a child but as an adult – and appreciated them a lot more I think. Such as The Secret Garden. I would never have read it the same as a child, I would have missed out everything that lies beneath.

    I’ve read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell about 3 times now and each time I see something new, something different and something even better. I want to re-read I Capture the Castle again sometime too…

    Which is why I think that just because you ‘grow up’ doesn’t mean that suddenly you have to stop reading books considered ‘children’s’ because as an adult you get such a different opinion.

    There is a book I have read and re-read throughout so many different parts of my life. Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones. I was nine when I first read it… and since then so many times. In fact, apart from in the last couple of years I used to read it several times a year. And each time… it was still as good. It was like meeting an old friend. I get quite emotional thinking about it actually because… I guess it’s a book that makes me happy, perhaps for no good reason. It is just a book with a good story – hardly deeply meaningful but it is just associated with happiness for me that it doesn’t matter how many times I read it – I enjoy it equally the same each time. Not one grain less. Each time is like reading it for the first time.

    As a child, I was a massive re-reader. I preferred re-reading sometimes to reading a new one. Firstly, I wasn’t confident enough myself to pick out new books and my mum never read when I was a kid and she never got involved or helped me explore. I drifted past books and read them and if I liked them I re-read them. I re-read them even if I didn’t like them that much.

    Nowadays I don’t seem to have time thanks to an overflowing TBR… but I do miss going back into a familiar world and just relaxing. Because when you re-read something you can just relax into it more, there is no pressure or compulsion to read until the end.

    Anyway… I’m sure I’ve babbled on far too much and made very little sense.

    I think that… well why does one book affect me more then others? And I admit, if I see someone has called I Capture the Castle a ‘bad book’ I feel like wiping them off my friends list! How how how HOW????

    Is there then such thing as a bad book if it depends on the individual. I, for instance, would call The Lovely Bones an absolutely rubbish book – and I don’t call every book I don’t like rubbish.. well I might but I don’t always mean it literally. (The Book Thief for instance bored me to tears but it isn’t rubbish, or badly written) so can I ever have a right to write some book of as absolute rubbish?

    • Whoa, thank you for the long reply, Fiona! It really is a mystery how books connect with some while they don’t work for others. I think it’s a matter of discovering the right kind of books that work for you and looking for more of those.

      You know what, I don’t think I’ve ever read The Secret Garden. I know I watched the movie and cartoons but I should pick up the book one of these days. I still haven’t read North and South although I loved the BBC adaptation (I ♥ Richard Armitage). I haven’t read Dogsbody either but I hope that I’ll get to read all of DWJ’s books in the future. I have a copy of I Capture the Castle already but I don’t know when I’ll be able to read it.

      Same here, I used to reread my favorites a lot but ever since I started book blogging, I’ve acquired more and more books. Now I have such a big TBR that I don’t have time to reread anymore. Maybe when I’ve whittled it down to a more reasonable size, I can go back to rereading.

  4. I like the Samuel Johnson quote. It is a good reminder that we should never be lazy readers, particularly for those of us who write reviews. When I have a negative or a positive reaction to a book I always think about the book first in terms of my connection with it. I do think we are doing a disservice though if we don’t also think of the structure and the part that plays. There is such a thing as bad writing. While a good deal of a reader’s interaction with a book is subjective and that MUST be acknowledged when you write a negative review, there are objective standards for good writing as well. When I review a book the objective standards are what I try to hold the book up to first. When my negative reaction is due to lack of a connection I do try to find things the writer did right in the construction of the story and mention those things along with my own opinion and why it didn’t work for me. If my negative reaction is due to poor construction in the writing I tend to be a little less…..nice. The books that I reread over and over are going to be the ones that are objectively well written and that I connect with.

    • Brandy, you have a point there. The writing is also a factor that I neglected to mention. I meant to bring it up but then the post was already too long so I forgot about it. I think bad writing can bump you out of a story easily so in a way, it’s still connected to how you feel about the book. I guess this proves that I’m more subjective in my reviews rather than objective although to be fair, I mostly pick up books that have been recommended by other people so I kind of feel like the badly written ones were already filtered out.

      • I think I tend to read with objective criteria always in my mind because, as a teacher, that’s how you grade writing. I will never be able to get rid of it. 🙂 You’re right though, when you go on recommendations a lot of times the badly written ones are already weeded out. But not always because sometimes an author is selling an idea so many people want to buy into that the bad writing is overlooked or explained away.

        Thanks for starting this discussion. I’ve really enjoyed reading everyone’s responses.

      • Oh you’re a teacher, so that’s why! I guess reading objectively comes with the territory. I know, there are still some cases when I don’t end up liking a book even when it comes highly recommended by other people.

        Thanks for replying! I enjoy having discussion posts like this and I appreciate the replies that I get.

  5. Do you feel responsible for your reactions to books or do you think that how good or how bad a book is entirely up to the author?

    I think it’s up to the reader. We all get different things out of books. What appeals to one reader might not appeal to another. So I do agree that the writer sets the stage, and the reader is the one that gets a different experience. Ugh, I hope that makes sense. I know for me, I consistently dislike books that other people love. I mean, really enjoy. I don’t call the book bad because I didn’t like it. I just get a different experience. I take books personal and judge it based on the emotions it invokes. Others don’t let stuff bother them.

    I don’t reread many books, and I won’t mention the book that I did read more than I care to admit, but I do think of books a long time after I am done with it. I have changed my ratings based on lasting impressions. So, feelings could change even without a reread.

    Great discussion post Chachic. I’m pretty sure I did a junky job at answering the questions and succeeded at rambling nonsense. But at least you made me think!

    • Peep, I feel the same way. There have been multiple instances when I didn’t end up liking books that came highly recommended by other people. I know that it’s because we have different tastes.

      It’s so hard to rate books for me, which is why I don’t have ratings here on the blog. But I do change some of my ratings on Goodreads when I feel differently about books after some time has elapsed.

      LOL that’s the idea of discussion posts – they’re there to make us all think!

  6. I certainly agree! Once I finished reading a book, it feels like I accomplished something. I guess that’s what most authors feel as well. It would be their greatest accomplishment when the readers finish the book they started and give reviews. Can I borrow the quote coz I want to put it on my facebook status? hihi. I like quotes like this about reading, authors and books. I get so excited to discuss it! 🙂

    • Readers certainly feel like they’ve accomplished something when they finish reading a book. Sure, go ahead and post the quote as your status. I didn’t come up with it. 😛 It just served as an inspiration to this post.

  7. I truly like that quote,its so true. A writer completes a book and a reader finishes it 🙂 I truly enjoyed reading the articles in this blog. Very Nice

    Best Wishes

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