When do you give up reading a book?

So, when do you give up reading a book? I mean, if you’ve started it, but realise you’re not enjoying it? Do you push on, telling yourself it might get better in the second half, or do you cut your losses, give it to charity/sell it on eBay, and read something else? Is there a point you have to get to (halfway? quarterway? eighthway? Captain Janeway?) to prove to yourself you’ve given it as much chance as it deserves, or can you really only know a book isn’t for you if you’ve read it right to the end?

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It’s stupid, but I always feel guilty about giving up on a book instead of finishing it, even if it means slogging through pages of prose that feel like wading through mud. Partly because there’s always the nagging feeling that I’d be missing some magical best bit that redeems the whole thing. As in: “You gave up before the scene with the toadstools? But that’s the whole point of the book! It all makes sense after that!” (Because I did find one of my favourite books, A Voyage to Arcturus, a bit like that till the penultimate chapter made me look at the whole thing in an entirely different way.) But on the other hand, there’s that exchange between Will Self and Richard Littlejohn, about Littlejohn’s novel:

SELF: I’ve read 200 pages of it and that is a 200 page recruiting leaflet for the BNP.

LITTLEJOHN: Well, you can’t comment until you have read the other 200.

SELF: Why? Does it suddenly turn into Tolstoy?

It should be obvious, shouldn’t it? If you’re not enjoying a book, give up and read something else. It’s not going to suddenly turn into Tolstoy. But instead, I agonise. I go to Amazon and read the reviews, hoping for justification that I’m right to give up on it. Inevitably, there are just as many good reviews as bad, which makes me go back to the book and give it a second chance. After all, every book deserves a second chance, doesn’t it? It’s been lovingly crafted by its author as the heartfelt, earnest expression of his or her deep-held beliefs, hasn’t it..? Hey, stop that cynical laughter at the back there!

One of the reasons I agonise, I think, is because of whatever it is that made me buy the book in the first place. You read a blurb or a review, or sometimes (I admit it!) just get a glimpse of a cover, and it lights up your imagination. “Yes, that’s just the book for me!” you think. “I know exactly the sort of thing it’s going to be!” But when you read it, of course, it’s never exactly the sort of thing you imagined it being. A good book — perhaps this is the definition of a good book — is always one that’s so much better than your idea of what it was going to be, that it just wipes out all your expectations, and suddenly the book could only ever be what it is, and you’re so glad you’ve read it.

The Magus by John FowlesBut far too often, it’s the opposite situation. The book’s not quite (or no way near) as good as you imagined. But because you’re still hoping (ever the optimist, me), you keep reading. I find that if I put a book down and stop reading it, I’m all too often haunted by that initial idea of how it could have been. And once or twice, after a few years, I’ve even convinced myself I must have been totally wrong about the book in the first place, and started reading it again — even to the point of having to buy the stupid thing again to do so! (I’m talking about John Fowles’s The Magus, here, which I read to the end, was disappointed, then convinced myself to read all the way through to the end again a couple of years later, because I couldn’t believe it really was as disappointing as it had turned out to be… And then realised it was! So I’ve kept it on my shelf as a reminder. (I liked The Collector, though, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman — apart from the modernist bits, which seemed, oddly enough, rather dated.))

The Magicians by Lev GrossmanThe book I’m wavering over at the moment is Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which sold itself to me as a sort of slightly grown-up, grittier Harry Potter. It’s been getting a lot of attention and reviews. I reached page 75 or so and started faltering. Then I got the far better Logicomix in the post and rushed through that in a couple of days. Then I forced myself back to Grossman’s book and now, about two weeks after I started it, I’m still not halfway through. I keep finding other things to read instead. The trouble is… it’s got no life. The characters have no character. One of them, a girl called Alice, is described as being “painfully shy” (that cliché is bad enough) on one page, and on the next is happily speaking whole paragraphs. In fact, however much the writer tells us she’s shy, she rarely acts it or sounds it. And another weird thing is, for a book about magic, there’s no sense of magic at all. No-one seems excited to be in a college teaching magic. The only good bits — the only bits that have kept me reading, so far — are when Grossman talks about his lead character’s love of a fictional Narnia-type world called Fillory, but that’s such a minor part of the book it’s hardly worth reading the rest for. But I don’t want to write a review of The Magicians (I feel I can’t, because I haven’t finished it yet!). Some people obviously like it. I just happen to find it rather lifeless…

There, I’ve admitted it. Now I can stop reading the damn thing and get on with something I might enjoy. Thousands of books are published ever year, but really, really good books are so rare. What makes it worse is that sometimes it seems everyone else likes books which I find limp, dull or shallow. Which means the limp/dull/shallow ones get published and publicised, and the good ones take some hunting down. (Or perhaps — eek! — don’t get published at all!)

But, you know, what if it does get better in the second half? Damn, maybe I really ought to finish it…

Agh!

Comments (6)

  1. M.E. Staton says:

    A great post and interesting topic, I am sure it’s different for everyone but for me I have two answers. The first is: when reading for pleasure, if I am not enjoying the book within the first few chapters I will simply stop reading. I do not see the point in torturing myself with bad prose or a poor plot or badly developed characters hoping that it will get better. That’s not to say that sometimes I’ve been surprised by the Author as I get closer to the end of the book that has not been that enthralling, but generally it’s the opposite case.

    My second rule is that if I am reading a book for a review on someone elses site I have to finish it, obviously. That is only fair to the author to give the book every chance in order to write an objective review. If it’s one I planned to review for myself I use the first rule and do not write a reivew.

    I used to think I was some kind of book snob, not finishing books if I was entirely impressed right away but the truth is there are so many books published every year and so many of them are just not that good by my standard (everyone’s standard is different) that I don’t want to waste precious brain and imagination time reading dross when I could be searching out something more to my taste.

  2. Murray says:

    Cheers, M. E. — I must say, when I did some reviews for another site a while back (i.e., ten years — I’m a reformed person, now), if I got bored I’d start skim-reading once I’d got an idea of where the story was going. I discovered there are certain types of book where you can skip entire chapters and still know what’s going on!

    I’ve actually decided to give The Magicians another go. I looked it up on Wikipedia, and found out that the Fillory stuff — the stuff I like — comes to the fore later on. So, I’m going to plug on!

  3. Jenni Scott says:

    (sent this way by Garen)

    Nice timing – I have just read Magicians! I approached it from a different angle from you in that I hadn’t heard the hype and assumed it would be a tacky piece of cheesy fantasy – but then I was buying it from the bestseller rack in Mexico City airport, just in time for a flight! Given those low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised to see the positive blurbs on the back of the book from people whose books I like (Naomi Novik’s name stood out in particular), and I read it with gusto, practically non-stop.

    I can’t however say that it is a fantastic piece of literature or that it gets better in the second half. I think that if it hasn’t grabbed you by now and if you are more aware of its flaws than its good aspects then no, it’s not going to turn into Tolstoy.

    Reflecting on it after finishing it, I think that your comment about the shy character is spot on (she does develop further in the book but I’d say that even to the end she’s a character in service to the main protagonist, rather than a character in her own right – you know, she’s there to make sure that the right things happen to or with the protagonist). I disagree about the magic – I think the way that magic works in that book, with lots and lots of precision and hard work (so that it’s more like being a scientist in some experimental area of science) is put across quite well. I suppose the main good aspect of it is that it’s quite a good antidote to the Harry Potter type of thing, where someone who has the right birth or whatever just is immediately astoundingly good at magic in a Mary Sue kind of way.

    In fact the mechanics of the magic make me wonder about the Fillory bits. Fillory is very very clearly Narnia, no bones made about it, in a way that would normally put me off for lack of originality. But because a) no bones are made about the reference and b) the writer can at least successfully originate a magical system that works for me as a reader I am more inclined to give him credit for the Fillory bits.

  4. Murray says:

    I think, (for me, anyway) whatever reasons I give for liking or not liking a book, when it comes down to it, the book just works for me or it doesn’t. And, as you say, Jenni, not being exposed to hype and coming to the book with no real expectations can help a lot.

    I enjoyed — if that’s the right word — American Psycho, and was surprised to find out it had a lot of negative reactions because it had been over-hyped. Similarly, one of the best cinema-going experiences I’ve ever had was going to see Jacob’s Ladder without knowing anything about it. I hadn’t even seen the poster. I just had a free afternoon, went in and saw the film. That creepy beginning blew me away!

  5. Forjador says:

    An interesting topic indeed!

    In the past I used to feel guilty -and at the same time annoyed- when the thought of stopping reading a book -that was boring me silly- crossed my mind. It usually finished with me getting a bit frustrated to say the least.

    Nowadays if I don’t like the book I just drop it. I don’t feel guilty anymore as I don’t have the luxury of time I used to have when younger. I tend to read 2 books at the same time, so I suppose that give me a break if one of the books gets a bit stall.

    I had the same problem when watching a film, though because the time length of a movie, I can be a lot more forgiving.

    I’m really pleased I followed the link to this site from Pyroriffic’s blog. One good addition to my own blogroll.

  6. Murray says:

    Thanks Forjador! (Excellent art, by the way.)

    Reading more than one book at a time is a whole nother topic. I usually have one fiction and one non-fiction on the go at any time, to suit my mood. Occasionally I expand that, and have found myself with four or five on the go at a time. (That’s usually a sign that I really want to give up on one of them.)

    I’m glad I’m not the only to feel guilty about the thought of giving up on a book!

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