Sunday Salon: To read or not to read on..
I wonder if you have conversations like this in your household. They’ve happened a few times recently because some of the books I’ve had on the go have been rather disappointing.
Me : This book isn’t grabbing me
Mr BookerTalk: Find something else then .
Me: Maybe it will get better – I’ll read a couple more chapters
Mr BookerTalk: Why bother if you don’t like it
Me: It’s had good reviews. I could be missing something
Mr BookerTalk: Really????
Me: I’ve read half of it already. Seems like a waste of time now not to finish it…..
Mr BookerTalk: But you’re going to waste even more time if you finish it and you still don’t like it….
Does that sound familiar at all? I know some readers operate a rule that if a book hasn’t grabbed them by about page 50 or so, then they’ll give it up as a lost cause. The page number seems a bit arbitrary – some people operate an 80 page rule and others about 100.
My own rule of thumb varies a lot. Sometimes (as in the case of The House at Riverton) I can tell within about 10 pages that’s it’s not worth going any further. Other times it will take me to around about the 80 page mark.
But in the case of my recent experience with two novels published in 2013 I was half way through and having trouble making up my mind.
Dilemma number 1 was triggered by Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I had such high expectations for this having read multiple reviews which called it ‘astonishing’ or words to that effect. Being made to wait almost 3 months for my library reservation to come through, just meant the expectations got higher and higher. Which made the disappointment even greater when I started reading it and found the experience under-whelming. The first 40 pages were intriguing enough to keep me reading but it felt very fragmentary. I was hoping that if I continued to read I’d find it would develop into a more cohesive narrative but it didn’t. I battled on purely on the basis that I’ve enjoyed all her previous novels, and this has been lauded as her best, but at around 200 pages, I decided to give up. I remembered having the same feeling about this book that I’d had when reading The Time Traveller’s Wife which I’d read through to the end but wish I hadn’t bothered. So back to the library it went.
Dilemma number 2 was over Colum McCann’s Transatlantic which was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. I was curious about this one because it’s his first since the award-winning Let the Great World Spin which I’d enjoyed in part. Transatlantic is written in a similar vein in that it begins with the dramatisation of an actual historical event (in this case, the first non stop flight across the Atlantic) and then proceeds through several inter-connected stories. The section dealing with Alcock and Brown’s flight was wonderful but McCann’s narrative didn’t sustain that initial impetus and got dragged down in some cliched writing and some rather pedestrian characterisation of an American politician trying to broker a peace deal to resolve the Irish conflict.
In this case I kept going purely on the basis that the synopsis of the book mentioned a narrative strand that hadn’t yet materialised. And fortunately in this case I made the right decision because the last third of the book was back to the same quality as the first third.
But I still don’t have a clear rationale for when to abandon a book or when to persevere. Maybe there isn’t such a thing, maybe it will also be a subjective decision. How do you all resolve this question – any suggestions on approaches??
20 thoughts on “Sunday Salon: To read or not to read on..”
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I quite often put a book aside after 5 pages but it’s unusual for me to give up when I’ve read more than that. A rare example is recently I read half of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I really enjoyed the opening chapters but as it went on, a combination of the depressing content and the lack of any emotional grip on me made reading it increasingly a chore. It did feel like a waste of a week but I think stopping was the right decision.
I have no suggestions to offer, but i can commiserate with your situation. It takes a lot for me to put down a highly praised book. Just 50 more pages, I might be missing something, it will surely get better … are all excuses I use. Recently I put down THE LUMINARIES only to find out days later that it won the Booker. Was I missing something? Yes, the writing was wonderful but it was also just so detailed. I read a good 500 pages before I gave up, but I couldn’t take it!
Ive heard similar comments about the Luminaries Tanya that it was very detailed and had a large list of characters which made it challenging. I got it from the library but realised that no way would I be able to read it within the allotted 3 week loan period. Mind you, if I had read 500 pages I think I would have continued through sheer doggedness rather than enjoyment
Oh such an interesting question. I tend to go through periods when I just don’t seem to engage with whatever I’m reading. I think oh it’s me. Or conversely, everything — even if it’s not well written — poses a question/problem to me. And again I think it’s just me. (And it may well be.) I tend to finish books but may never return to an author. I am going to go back and read your Life After Life review. Just finished this one and liked it — just liked it. No more. No less.
You won’t it though – I haven’t got around to writing it yet…
So far I haven’t had a major slump for about two years which makes me afeared that I’m due for one soon
I take abandonment on a book by book basis. If it is a big chunky book I might give it longer than I would a slimmer book. Sometimes within the first twenty pages I just know, sometimes I waffle for a while. I generally make my final decision around the 1/3 mark. I figure if I make it halfway there is something going on that got me that far so I keep going to the end.
Fair comment, chunksters would understandably take longer to get going
It varies for me according to what is putting me off. If it’s the writing style then I will probably not even reach the magic fifty pages. If it’s a plot weakness that can take longer to show up and so I’ll get further in. The one thing I will never do is feel guilty about making such a decision. Life isn’t long enough for books I really don’t want to read.
Absolutely with you on the the writing style issue. I can’t bear to read anything that is badly written or just full of cliches. Sometimes I’ll keep going just to find out what happens. Good point about not feeling the guilt. I shall give myself a good talking to…
The barometer I use is “Is returning to this book each night something that I look forward to or something that I dread?” If the latter, then I know it is not worth spending the little precious time I have on the book. I used to make myself finish books out of guilt, but a friend reminded me that pleasure reading is not pleasurable if it feels like a chore.
Thats a great question to ask Cecilia. If my heart sinks a little at the thought of reading something, that;s a good signal to give up (unless I have to read it for a course). If it’s a book club read I suppose it’s a bit more difficult, I feel I have to read enough of it to at least explain what I didn’t enjoy but I do resent the time spent on that
An interesting question that for me does not have a straight forward answer. If I dislike a book from the beginning I tend not to read very far before I ditch it, there are times when I am not sure how I feel about a book until I get a bit farther along in the reading of it. Generally if I do not like a book I have a very difficult time finishing it,
You’re so right that there is no hard and fast answer. Partly it depends on the mood I’m in at the time ..
I try a lot of books on for size and set them aside if they don’t work for me as a reader. I used to feel guilty about my wide-ranging curiosity and the fact I’d pass on a book if the first fifty or so pages didn’t hold my attention but these days I reason that actually, I prefer to try a little of everything and keep my wide tastes than restrict my tastes just to more known entities which are less of a gamble. 🙂
Thats such a good point Alex about keeping options open. One thing I’ve enjoyed about blogging is that it gives me ideas for authors I’ve never read before – I never know whether one of them could turn out to be as good if not better than the ones I’ve enjoyed before. Thats where the beauty of second hand shops and libraries come in because you can dip into books/writers without feeling any guilt pangs about spending too much money.
I havent given up on a review book (yet) but have ditched plenty of other books in my time. My motto is: too many books, not enough time. In the end the only person I have to answer to is myself and if it turns out I missed out on something then you know what? another book will come along and replace whatever void it might have created.
Love the sentiment Nordie. It’s a reading equivalent of the ‘plenty more fish in the sea’ mantra
Oh, I do hate disliking a book enough to toss it…and I tend to give a book lots of my time before doing that.
Sometimes I slog along to the bitter end, if it’s a review book. However, others tell me that they simply send an apologetic e-mail to the author or publisher….
And I did do that on one of my reads this year. If it feels like so much work, with no pleasure in sight, I do have to ask myself: “Why bother?”
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Indeed that is the key question Laurel – if it doesn’t give you pleasure then what really is the point.