Ask a Book Critic: Should We Abandon Books We Find Boring?
We've all no doubt at some point in our reading lives found ourselves at the point where we realize that the book we're reading is not up to scratch. It doesn't matter whether it's a novel by an author we've always previously liked, a book foisted on us by an overzealous friend, or an intriguing debut we picked up because it had a great cover. Maybe there's a part of you that knows within a paragraph (or, worse, a sentence); perhaps it takes 50 pages, or a 100, before you start to ask yourself the question: is this a book I should abandon? But what is it that makes a book abandon-able?
Well, obviously, there are those books that are "difficult". Not for nothing is Ulysses amongst one of the most abandoned classics. I'm sure there's room on that shelf for Thomas Pynchon's V, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star as well (although as a person who rarely abandons a book, I take an obscure, if masochistic, satisfaction in having finished all of these). But really there's no shame in saying that a book is too difficult. Not only is it an acknowledgement of your own limitations, which in itself is a kind of wisdom, it's also a kind of challenge, an admission that a book is too much for you now but might not be in the future (I was this way with the Bible. It took me three tries before I finally made it all the way through).
Challenging reads are probably a small niche within the abandoned book-stacks. I'd hazard a guess that the main reason people abandon books is because life is too short. Of course there’s also the books that simply disappoint. There’s also those books you read purely because everyone else is reading them (I haven't yet succumbed to Fifty Shades of Grey but I've had enough people tell me it's as bad as Twilight to know I'm not missing anything. And I’m never going to read either of those books, under any circumstances). Which I'm sure makes me sound like the worst kind of book snob – but we're all book snobs, whether we admit it or not. Choosing one book over another is a kind of snobbery. It's all about our choices. The sad thing is that those choices sometimes, possibly frequently, let us down. Whether we regularly abandon books or not, we all, from time to time, find ourselves lifting our heads from the book (or screen) we are reading, to gaze out of the window and sigh. This book wasn't what we hoped it would be. But then there's the hope, isn't there? That the next book – or the next book – or the next book – will be worth every bit of time we invest.
Now, I know at this point some people may be thinking: “But I spent money on that book! And it wasn’t cheap either! Won’t it just go to waste if I don’t at least finish it?” And here’s the thing: I prefer to believe that books never go to waste. Believe me, I know the frustration of spending $35 on a hardcover and then have it turn out to be shit. Which is why I would stress and encourage two things: 1) Visit the library more often, so the variable of wasted money is eliminated, and 2) Choose the books you buy more wisely.
If you’re 100% certain that you are going to love a book and will want to proudly display it on your shelf, then go for it. But if you aren’t sure that you’re going to love it, and it might not bring anything to your bookcase, check to see if the library has it. And in the worst case scenario, you can always keep a book you bought but didn’t like in perfect condition so you can give it as a gift, or you can merely give it away to a friend or donate it. Books are like cats—they have even more than nine lives, so don’t worry too much about the life it has with you. Worry more about spending your reading time wisely, since in a world where there is so much demanding our attention, it’s important to focus, not just on the right books, but the right books for you. (Children are wiser; they pick books that they are sure they will love and follow their own tastes. That is why they so often finish what they’ve started, and we struggle to turn the page. Children have more good sense than we do).
When I look back at all the books I have abandoned, most are failures of aspirational reading. These would be novels or non-fiction bought in acts of doomed hope — that I will finally be riveted by three-volume biographies, or develop an affinity for a writer whom I’ve never warmed to before. It’s much like those readers who buy that Booker-winning novel every year, only to abandon it because what they really, secretly wanted was a rousing crime thriller bristling with corpses.
As many of you already know, I read for a wide variety of reasons. I beta read draft manuscripts for authors, I read books for fun and for review, and I also read when I edit and proofread work that is sent to me by college students (this tends to be more non-fiction than fiction). I also read for writing contests, and literary jurors, and so skimming or not finishing a book is unfair and unprofessional for me. (Which can get to be a bit of a headache at times as you can imagine the load of bullshit that I am required to trudge through).
When you’re reading for pleasure, though, how unromantic it is to slog your way through a book that doesn’t suit you, just to cross it off like an item on a to-do list. It’s just not worth your time to force yourself to invest in a book that you aren’t enjoying, but it’s most definitely worth your time to find a book that you are going to enjoy, no matter how long it takes to read it. And if reading for pleasure is the ultimate goal, then obviously if your not enjoying yourself it no longer becomes pleasurable reading. At which point, much like a blowjob from a toothy freshman, it’s time to move on to something a little more enjoyable.