Once again, the BBC has been repeating the Mickey Spillane quote, “No one reads a book to get to the middle,” and I feel like a creep at the back of the class who raises his hand and says, “Please Miss, I do.”
The risk of repeating this quotation is that eventually, people may believe that the purpose of reading a book to is find out what happens on the last page. The book can then be thrown away and, ultimately, we have no literature at all. Why would anyone read Henry V when we all know what happens at the end?
Do we stop at the restaurant to ward off hunger or to enjoy the taste of the food?
There are many books that I read, hoping never to get to the end. Bleak House, Treasure Island, Great Gatsby, the Waste Land, Ulysses. But there are also books that I read simply to get to the middle.
Two examples are Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice and John Buchan’s Sick Heart River. Both these are well written, well constructed books that were great hits. In A Town Like Alice a young woman uses a windfall to make some sense of her war experiences by helping a community. But my love of the book is the relationship between the old and boring solicitor and the woman. That subplot would get in the way of the second half of the story and we hear little about it, so when I return to the book it is to read the first half. That is what I get out of the book so, at least, someone does read the book to get to the middle. In Sick Heart River, Sir Edward Leithen (one of my favourite characters) comes to terms with his own death, in the first half, and sets himself an adventurous challenge, coming close to the meaning of life, in the second. The light touch of the first half, considering a heavy subject, is something I come back to every year. Again, I read the book to get to the middle.
I’m sure that it’s not lost that one of the cornerstones of crime fiction (Mickey Spillane’s genre) is a book that people can only ever read to get to the middle: Edwin Drood. And, finally, what about the work that is the foundation of English fiction, if not English Literature. It was written more than five hundred years ago, and has been studied in depth and read by millions over centuries. But no one has ever got further than the middle. Canterbury Tales was left unfinished.