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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.