Sunday Salon: Why Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

I have a hard time giving up on a book. I always worry that the book will turn around, that after I abandon a book and give it away or return it to the library, I’ll learn that the very next chapter is when the book becomes the fabulous read I was hoping for. After all, I’ve read plenty of books that didn’t impress me initially but that eventually became wonderful.

Sonya Chung’s recent article in The Millions explains the dilemma well, especially when she writes about books she struggled through but was ultimately glad to have read. Whenever I consider giving up on a book, I worry that I’m giving up on a book that would fall into that category if only I would finish it. So how do I decide that it’s time to say good-bye to a book?

First, I follow Nancy Perl’s guideline of giving a book 50 pages or 10%, whichever is greater, before giving up on it. I realize, though, that for some books, 50 pages isn’t enough. If I still see potential at page 50, I keep going. I’ll give up only when I start to feel dread at the thought of picking up the book.

I also consider the book’s difficulty. Books that are difficult reads and require a lot of time and concentration on my part need to work a little harder to sell themselves to me. It’s less of an investment to spend an afternoon with an unsatisfying book than it is to spend weeks with a tough slog. Often, in fact, if a book is an easy read, I don’t even give myself time to consider giving up on it. By the time I realize I’m unhappy with such a book, I’m often nearly done!

Books that are highly regarded or are classics might get more latitude. When a book is a classic, I often want to read it for its cultural significance, and when that’s my reason for reading I may be less interested in enjoyment. That doesn’t mean I won’t give up on a classic or a critical darling, but I’m more likely to give it the benefit of the doubt in the early pages.

Sometimes when I’m on the fence about giving up on a book, I’ll seek others’ advice. When I was slogging through The Count of Monte Cristo, I mentioned my struggle with it on Twitter, and a couple of people said that the book did improve in the final pages, which was heartening and encouraged me to continue. The reading experience did improve in the final chapters (although not enough to make me like the book as a whole). I’ll also check out reviews, something I generally avoid while I’m reading. I’ve found, however, that reviews can help me decide whether a book is likely to turn around in the last half.

One thing I tend to not do is put a book down temporarily with an intention of coming back to it. I know a lot of readers do that, but it doesn’t really work for me. There are way too many books that I want to read for me to want to come back to a book I didn’t enjoy initially. I realize that sometimes my dissatisfaction has to do with my mood, but I’ve also found that, given a chance, really good books can usually transform my mood, making me right for the book. If my mood is truly the problem, perhaps someday I’ll decide that I do want to return to a previously abandoned book, but if I put the book down with that intention, it will haunt me. I prefer a clean break.

What about you? What makes you give up on a book? Does it have to actively annoy you, or will you give up on a book that is merely unsatisfying? Are certain types of books harder to give up on than others? Do you ever return to abandoned books?

Notes from a Reading Life

Books Completed

  • The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov. For the Classics Circuit. Review coming June 28.
  • Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (audio). Only moderately successful as a mystery, but a resounding success as a novel. Hilarious and chilling and so very good. Atkinson is well on the way to becoming one of my favorite writers.
  • The Night Watch by Sarah Waters. For Nicole’s That’s How I Blog podcast on June 29.

Currently Reading

  • The Winter Journey (Morland Dynasty #20) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. I’m just getting started on this, but I’m excited about it because it’s about the Crimean War, and Harrod-Eagles writes great battle scenes.
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. I haven’t read this comic novel since college, and I’ve been wanting to revisit it.
  • One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson (audio). Atkinson’s second Jackson Brodie novel.
  • Waiting for God by Simone Weil. A collection of Weil’s essays and letters that I’m working through slowly. Reading just one or two selections each week.

New Acquisitions

  • The Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitane by Alison Weir. A review copy from LibraryThing’s Early Review program. I’ve enjoyed Weir’s previous forays into historical fiction (even if I wish she’d gone in another direction with The Lady Elizabeth), and my knowledge of Eleanor is almost entirely drawn from The Lion in Winter, so I’m looking forward to this.

On My Radar

  • A Short Gentleman by John Carter. A comic novel in which a distinguished barrister tells his life story, leading up to some unnamed crime. Comes complete with footnotes, an author’s note, an author’s footnote, and an index to dogs. I cannot resist a novel with comic errata. Kimbofo at Reading Matters says, “This is possibly the funniest novel I’ve read since I first discovered the joys of Wodehouse back in the summer of 2007.”
  • Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor. Historical fiction about Irish Catholic actress Maire O’Neill who performed at the Abbey Theatre in the early 20th century. I love theatre stories, and I love this period. Kimbofo at Reading Matters says, “I’m not one for making predictions, or backing horses, but if Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light doesn’t make the longlist for this year’s Booker Prize, I’ll eat my hat.”
  • The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann. A collection of essays about strange occurrences, obsessions, and crimes. Rebecca at The Book Lady’s Blog says, “Essentially, these are stories for which the endings remain unknown, and Grann offers multiple explanations for each, allowing readers to construct their own narratives in a kind of grown-up version of ‘choose your own adventure.’” I love essays, even though I hardly ever read them anymore, and I love inconclusive narratives, so this sounds like my kind of thing, even if, as is typical with an essay collection, not every piece is stellar.
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41 Responses to Sunday Salon: Why Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

  1. Study Window says:

    Something that really aggravates me and is very likely to make me give up on a book is if I can see the author in there trying desperately to show me how clever s/he is. I don’t at all object to recognising the strengths of a writer as a result of their work, but when it’s being thrust at me at the expense of the story, the book goes straight beak to the library.

    • Teresa says:

      I can put up with authorial tricksiness up to a point, but only to a point. I may finish the book in such cases, but I’ll complain about it in the review.

  2. BooksPlease says:

    I try hard not to give up on a book, because it annoys me so much, especially if it’s a book I own. I do give up if it gets boring, or incomprehensible but often I’ll keep going in the hope it will improve. Sometimes it’s my own frame of mind but mostly it’s poor writing, stupid characters or silly situations that are my reasons for abandoning a book.

    • Teresa says:

      I hate to give up on books too, but I’m getting less patient these days. I think it’s because I have so many other books I want to read.

  3. I think I sometimes put down a book thinking I’ll come back to it as a way of letting go. I can’t quite admit I’m giving up yet! :)

    • Teresa says:

      I can understand wanting to let go in stages like that. It just doesn’t work for me. I have been known to take a couple of days to decide, but I usually keep working on the book in question until I decide. It’s the book monogamist in me, I guess.

  4. Iris says:

    I have a hard time giving up on a book as well. I like your general rule of 50 pages or 10%, but I think that I might still doubt whether the book wouldn’t turn around in the end. Reading reviews or mentioning it on twitter might work better for me.

    I agree with you that putting a book down to pick up again later doesn’t work for me either. I have done it a few times but I always end up never picking the book up again.

    And can I just say that it is heartening to see that there are more people out there who struggle with putting down any book?

    • Teresa says:

      Iris, I do almost always have doubts if I give up at 50 pages, and I’ll often read more if the doubts are strong. That’s where looking for other opinions helps. Sometimes they confirm my instincts; sometimes they encourage me to keep going.

  5. If a book is horribly bad, I can usually derive some pleasure from reading it and then giving it a fair review. I do my best not to give up on books, because I’m always concerned they’ll turn out wonderful. But if a book truly offends me, I think I’d put it down.

    • Teresa says:

      Clare, I totally get what you mean about getting pleasure from the review. If a book is a quick read, I sometimes keep on with that in mind, but if it’s taking a lot of time, I hate to keep going.

  6. cbjames says:

    I just completed a good sized book that I didn’t really like. I’m not sure why I didn’t give up on it. I typically give up when a book ceases to be good, be that page two or page four hundred and two.

    I have over 200 books on my TBR shelf. There’s bound to be something there that I’ll enjoy.

    I think this point of view has come with age. 20 years ago I gave everything the full 50 pages and even then almost never gave up on a book.

    Not so anymore.

    • Teresa says:

      James, As I’m getting older (and accumulating more unread books), I’m much more likely to quit a book than I used to be.

      I have been known to read a few pages or a chapter before deciding whether I’m interested in a book, so I guess if I don’t read more at that point, I have given up on it. But I don’t really consider that “audition” reading for some reason. It’s like a blind date just for coffee, no strings or intention attached. But once I’ve decided to “really read” a book, I like to give it the full 50 pages.

  7. Steph says:

    I find that if I give up on a book early on, it can be for two reasons: 1) it’s immediately apparent I’m not going to enjoy it (because of writing, poor plotting, etc.,) or 2) it’s a book that I think I might like but I realize I’m not in the right state of mind for it. In either case, I generally don’t read 50pp/10% in order to reach those decisions.

    I have given up on books that I’ve made considerable headway in, simply because I found them so devoid of enjoyment. One example is The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I read about 300 pages into that 500 page book and just found it torture. I realized that the complete lack of enjoyment I was having with the book absolutely mitigated any interest I had in the story itself, and gave it up. I guess the nice thing these days that if one isn’t enjoying a book but still wants to know how things turn out, there are things like Wikipedia to help us. I find that I pretty much never regret giving up on books when I finally cut them loose, but it is something I war with myself about. I rarely give them up at page 50, but instead read much farther before saying adieu.

    • Teresa says:

      Like I said to CB James, I do sometimes “audition” a book before deciding if it works for me, but for some reason I don’t count that as reading.

      I’ve given up on plenty of books that I’ve made lots of headway in. It’s weird, 50 pages is my rule, but that’s rarely actual the point at which I quit. Just a few weeks ago, it was 2017, which I’d read almost 200 pages of. And yes, relief was exactly the feeling.

  8. softdrink says:

    I will occasionally come back to a book, but it’s rare. I don’t like to re-read, yet I also tend to forget what I’ve already read. So if I pick a book back up, usually I feel like I’m starting in the middle of a story.

    I like your comment about reading classics for their cultural significance. That’s exactly why I’ve been trying to read a few here and there…many of the classics are mentioned or alluded to in other books!

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve always loved the classics, so I do try to give them more time to draw me in. I figure they must be classics for a reason. Granted, I don’t like them all, but even if I don’t like them, I like knowing about them.

  9. Jenny says:

    I feel justified and righteous giving up on a book that actively annoys me – with sexism, racism, or some other kind of inexcusable prejudice. When it’s a book a lot of people have loved, and I don’t care for it, I’ll usually keep it in mind to try again some other time. It has happened fairly often that I have revisited an abandoned book and found it wonderful after all; so if someone urges me to give a book another try, I sometimes do it. (Like We Have Always Lived in the Castle!)

    • Teresa says:

      I understand what you mean, Jenny, about trying at another time. I just find that if I put a book down with that intention, I can’t stop thinking about it. “Is now the right time?” “What about now?” “Should I try again today?” So much easier just to call it quits. Maybe I’ll try again someday, but I can’t decide that until much later.

  10. Aarti says:

    I think you’re so right! Sometimes, I will give a book a lot more than 50 pages to get my attention. But sometimes, I can just tell it’s not going to work out. It’s hard for me to give up on a book, and I don’t do it often, but sometimes I do. I rarely set aside a book and then pick it up again. I did that with Ladies of the Grand Tour and it took me like, three years to pick that one up again!

  11. Dani in NC says:

    I used to have a lot of trouble abandoning a book, but since 99% of my books come from the library I had to adjust my attitude. When do I give up on a book? If I spend 2-3 weeks avoiding all reading because I don’t want to pick up that dreaded book, then it goes back in the next library run. I don’t have time to get stuck on a boring book when I have other books in my stack that need to be returned in two weeks.

    • Teresa says:

      Dani, those library due dates certainly do affect one’s habits. But even without the library due dates, I know that sense of dread certain books bring out. For me, that feeling is a good sign it’s time to say good-bye.

  12. bookmagic says:

    If the writing is bad I will give it 50 pages. If I’m just having a hard time enjoying it I will slog on for at last another 50. Sometimes I put a book down, knowing I have no plans to pick it back up. Sometimes I will stop and wait for when I am more in the mood for the book. No hard and fast rule except for the bad writing one

    • Teresa says:

      Now that I think about it, it is usually bad writing that causes me to give up at page 50. I have put up with bad writing for longer than that, but there has to be something else there.

  13. Nicola says:

    The 50 page test. If I can’t get into it after that point I give up with no qualms. When I was younger I’d struggle on to the end but I now take the attitude that life’s too short. It is annoying if it’s an expensive book but that’s the risk you take!

  14. Frances says:

    I also find it very difficult to give up on a book. Will rationalize why I should continue in the most illogical manner. A little embarrassing actually. Sometimes wonder if it speaks more to compulsion than biblio love.

    The thing that will make me give up on a book is when I cease to care what happens. There can be no redemption in the end for me in those cases. When I cannot imagine an ending that would carry any appeal to me. When I am just tortured by the thought of having to finish.

    • Teresa says:

      Frances, I do think for me it’s as much about compulsion as anything else. I like to see things through. And like you, I find apathy is the thing that makes me quit, that and feeling dread when I look at a book.

  15. litlove says:

    There wasn’t a single part of this that diverged from my own preferences and habits! I make exactly the same choices as you, Teresa.

    If I give up on a book, the chances are it’s turned out unexpectedly to belong to one of the styles/genres that I don’t get on with so well. Or else it’s hugely depressing – I don’t deal well with the unredeemedly tragic.

  16. Deb says:

    I follow the 50-page rule: If nothing has grabbed me by page 50, I give up. Just as you can’t like every type of food and you can’t always eat everything on your plate, so you can’t like every writer or every book you acquire. Nobody wants to grit their teeth and push on to get to the end of a book, reading in a resentful, grudging way. Life’s too short.

    • Teresa says:

      So true, Deb. None of us can expect to like everything. I try to do a good job of choosing so I don’t start something I won’t like, but you can’t always be sure until the book is “on your plate” already.

  17. JaneGS says:

    Like you, I generally don’t give up on a classic because I am often reading as much for cultural signifiance as for entertainment. I will abandon a book if my mind is wandering every time I pick it up, and I find other things to do than read so that I don’t have to read it. Those are sure signs that it is wrong book at wrong time. I did this with Orlando by Virginia Woolf, Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin (which got rave reviews but I found dreadful), Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and The Historian. I’m actually thinking about giving The Historian another go because I had just finished Dracula when I started it and needed a break from the genre.

    • Teresa says:

      Oh I will give up on a classic, Jane, if I’m really miserable about reading it, but I do give them more latitude. I have to be actively miserable, rather than just not enjoying myself much.

  18. Jeane says:

    The steeper my TBR pile gets, the more likely I am to give up on a book that’s just not grabbing me, even after just twenty pages. There are so many other books out there I’d rather be reading one that I enjoy. Sometimes I force my way through if I feel it might be worth it, and occasionally I’ll go back and try one again. But I rarely feel guilty anymore for tossing a book aside and trying a different one.

  19. rebeccareid says:

    I’m with you on the fact that if it’s a short read, I’ll just persevere and get through it. My most recent read, for example, I hated (Hunger Games if you must know) but I was more skimming it by the end. Actually, since I’ve been reading only classics lately, I’ve not been abandoning many books. And most of them, I feel had a purpose in the end.

  20. Pingback: Books About Sunday Salon: Reading, Read, To Read #25 Books About

  21. Christy says:

    I’m totally with you on using reviews to help decide if I should continue with a book. I was reading Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness and was not really liking the protagonist and other aspects. Then I saw several reviews on goodreads where readers said that they didn’t start getting into until about the 100-page mark. I was so glad I kept going because I ended up enjoying it a lot.

    But I do definitely give up on books, especially I just don’t care what happens anymore.

    • Teresa says:

      Christy, I’ve had the same experience with checking others’ reviews before jumping ship. And I’ve had it go the other way too. I was really hoping for a turnaround when I read 2017, but so many people on LibraryThing said it was a slog all the way to the end that I felt okay about giving it up.

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