When I was younger, I had a pathological need to finish every book I started, whether I was enjoying the book or not. Probably this compulsion helped me make it through some very long and quite possibly valuable books, such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Caine Mutiny and Moby Dick. But I’m sure it made me endure some real clunkers too, none of which I can recall right now (and with good reason, I’m sure).
But right around the time I turned 30, something changed. I did some mental math, taking into account the number of books that had ever been published plus the number of new books published each year times the number of years I was likely to live. Even assuming that only a small percentage of those books was worth reading, that still meant there were more good books out there than I could possibly read in my lifetime, even if I had copious amounts of free time.
The cost-benefit ratio of forcing myself to finish books that I did not like for the arbitrary reason that I had started reading the book no longer made sense to me. So I gave myself permission to abandon any book that wasn’t doing it for me. Granted, if I got past page 100, I would really try to stick it out to the end, but that wasn’t a hard and fast rule.
And I didn’t have to have a good reason for abandoning the book either. I could abandon National Book Award winners and potboilers indiscriminately. If the book and I didn’t hit it off by the first, second or third date, then I was moving on. No guilt involved.
This policy has served me well. Looking back through my book journal, I can see that the number of books I both finished and really liked has gone up as the number of books I have abandoned has increased. In other words, I’m finishing fewer books that I truly hate (although one or two does slip through on occasion). My reading time is time better spent.
I encourage you to mercilessly abandon books that aren’t doing it for you, as well. If you can’t bear the thought of giving up on a book you paid good money for, donate it to the library or send it out via BookMooch.
Here is a sampling of books I’ve abandoned over the past year and the reasons why:
- A Thousand Days in Tuscany, Marlena de Blasi – I thought it was about food and Italy, but really it was a romance novel in disguise.
- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke – Just couldn’t get into it, despite all the accolades.
- Mostly Harmless, Douglas Adams – Mostly boring.
- The Bottoms, Joe R. Lansdale – This novel reads like a poor copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, except with a murderous goat monster.
- Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi – I couldn’t finish it—no quotation marks. That drives me crazy.
- A Deepness in the Sky, Vernor Vinge – I hate sci fi with unpronounceable character names.
- The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter – OK, a sequel/update to H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, complete with Morlocks? Not for me.
- The Lottery and Other Stories, Shirley Jackson – I love Jackson’s novels but to her stories—except for her most famous one—I could not relate. I found them disturbing and confounding, and I simply did not want to read any further.
- The PIllars of the Earth, Ken Follett – I just found the writing awkward and unengaging, and I had no reason to read further.
… And anyway, reading for enjoyment is what we should all be doing. I don’t mean we should all be reading chick lit or thrillers (although if that’s what you want to read, it’s fine by me, because here’s something else no one will ever tell you: if you don’t read the classics, or the novel that won this year’s Booker Prize, then nothing bad will happen to you; more importantly, nothing good will happen to you if you do); I simply mean that turning pages should not be like walking through thick mud. The whole purpose of books is that we read them, and if you find you can’t, it might not be your inadequacy that’s to blame. “Good” books can be pretty awful sometimes.