On finishing a story
I am an avid reader. I absolutely love books and if I had more time I would probably read even more than I do. Despite being incredibly busy, I read daily and the amount I read varies wildly depending on how much time I have. Still, I manage to read an hour or so a day depending on how I’m feeling. So far this year I’ve read 19 books with a goal of hitting 30 by the end of the year. I would’ve gone for the whole book a week thing, but that felt like too much pressure for something I enjoy doing as a hobby. The problem with all that reading is inevitably stories end.
I love sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or anything in that realm. I’ve enjoyed a lot of the classics, Frankenstein is probably my favorite and I try to read it once a year because it’s such a good story. I’ve also read Dracula (which is awful in my opinion), The invisible man, Twenty thousand leagues under the sea, Journey to the center of the earth, The picture of Dorian Gray, The mysterious island, basically all the classics that we get our cultural references from today. I also read a lot of current literature too, especially now that I’ve run out of classics. It’s been a good shift because most classics are standalone novels, while there has been a push (or what feels like a push) to create work spanning several novels.
The nice thing about that trend is that once you read those last words, find some sort of conclusion, and close the book, you have another waiting. Another new story ready to pull you back into that universe. I’ve read stories of alternate histories, stories with magic, stories with rich characters that develop over the course of the books. The problem is that they all have one thing in common, eventually they come to an end.
There’s always a twinge of sadness when I close a book and know that I’ve crossed an invisible threshold where I can no longer visit that world and find something truly new. Sure I can, and do, go back and visit, but there’s nothing quite as magical as the first time you read a book, no matter how good the story. To help stave off this feeling I’ve found stories that span an increasingly large number of books.
First it was just reading long books. For example I absolutely loved Johnathan strange and Mr. Norrell. It was definitely a long book and read almost like a history book (footnotes and all!), but it was an amazing story (in my opinion, like all that I’m discussing). It wasn’t enough, so I went and revisited the Hunger Games books since the fourth (a prequel) had recently come out when I read them (and wrote about revisiting here). Soon after, I got sucked into a very particular genre of books, books about libraries.
Yeah, I’m that kind of weirdo that likes stories about magical libraries because frankly that’s not too far removed from reality in my mind. Libraries are magical places that should continue to be the cornerstone of our civilization. Even with the information age and the internet libraries are needed. There’s nothing like walking into a library and seeing the size and literal weight of the knowledge contained inside. It’s the difference between me writing out $10,000,000,000,000 and seeing it in real-life. The later is far more impressive than having it written out like that. You can touch it, feel it, it’s an experience all on its own, even if you can’t take it home with you (the money that is, the books you can, for a time anyway).
The love of library stories led me to the Hell’s library series, a “short” three book series (here) which I’m eagerly waiting the release of the third book and the bittersweet conclusion to the story. Then I found The Great Library series which was a satisfying five book long story (here). But that wasn’t enough, so I found The Invisible Library series which promised seven books and an eighth in the works (here). Shared in case anyone is interested in picking them up, don’t worry I don’t get anything from the links, no affiliations or kickbacks, just my pure love of a good story and wanting to share that.
While two of those series still have books that I will eventually read, I’m always sad when I hit the end. You immerse yourself into this alternate world so thoroughly that it feels weird coming back up and visiting somewhere else, even when there is the promise of a return. There’s a sense of finality, maybe even of loss. Or at least there is for me, I think loss is a good way of putting it. You get so attached to the story, characters, and world that you’ve invested time and energy into and with a few words on a page it’s over.
Sure, on the scale of horrible things happening in the world, it ranks in importance up there with mildly stubbing your toe, but as someone who deals with serious mental health issues, I have spent a good amount of time reflecting on this phenomenon. Yes, I finished another book, felt that familiar sadness, and thought today I would put it into words. It’s more than just finishing a book and never getting to see more of the characters though.
It made me think about the fate of my blog do once I’m finished with grad school and close that chapter of my life. Sure, I could blog about being a postdoc (assuming I actually make it, that’s to be determined), or maybe about industry. I could switch gears and focus strictly on helping people again, that was after all the original purpose of starting this blog. I could just fade away into the digital ether and leave this behind as incontrovertible proof that I was here on this planet and had these thoughts.
The end of a story doesn’t mean that there aren’t other choices to be made. It’s not the ultimate end. It’s just a stepping off point, a transition to something else. Yes, I feel a sense of loss for the characters I will no longer watch grow and change. But that’s because they’ve suddenly become as static as my previous writings, there to forever visit. Unchanging, although still insightful and offering something new when you visit. Yet, finishing a book means there’s also the chance to open a new book. A chance to meet new characters and to explore new worlds. To go on new adventures, now there’s a thought.
Stepping out of a familiar world is jarring and I think that’s because humans find comfort in the known. I know these characters, I know the rules of the universe they live in, I know the things they’ve done and the people they fight with. Even if I haven’t finished the series these are my friends, not strangers. The parallels between the emotions I feel switching books and making big choices in life are similar, which is proabably because change is scary.
I’ll leave you all with one last antidote that feels appropriate to talk about. It took me a considerable amount of time to finish my undergraduate degree, like eight years considerable. I then spent another year in the same school for my Masters degree. So for almost a decade of my life, I spent most of my time in a single building at my school. Then moved cross country to do my PhD. I suddenly found myself in a new city, a new state, with a new school, and in a bought a new home (without setting foot into it, which was incredibly scary all on it’s own). It occurs to me that the feelings I had when I closed that book were the same feelings I had when I walked out of the college building that I had spent so much of my life in. Sad, scared, nervous, but somewhat excited.
I knew if I ever set foot in those halls again, I wouldn’t be the same person I was walking out of them. Sometimes people wonder why I read, it’s because the person you are when you finish a book is never the same person you where when you started. There’s something magical about being able to get all that, from just a little book.