Article published on July 29, 2016.
Before this week, in all of the hundreds of books I’ve read, including those I read as a child discovering my literary tastes, as a student having my reading dictated to me, and as a reviewer sampling all sorts of books I probably wouldn’t even have heard of, I could count the number I’d not finished on one hand – one finger in fact. Yes, I’d only ever given up on one book, and for the life of me I cannot remember what it was, which says it all really. It was non-fiction and I have it in my mind that it had a white cover, but other than that I couldn’t tell you the first thing about it. However, this week saw that tally double, as I came across only the second book to have ever defeated me (no, I’m not going to share what it was).
On the whole the books that I’ve read have been pleasant, positive experiences, not all top raters, with a large proportion somewhat middling, but naturally there have also been other books I’ve struggled through, some I’ve been relieved to finally see the end of, but I’ve made it through 99.9% of the time. And there have definitely been some in there that I would struggle to give 1 star to. So why persevere, especially when the signs at the start aren’t good? I know some people have a 50-page rule or similar – if it’s not working give it up as a bad job and move on. There are, after all, plenty of other books out there, so why waste time on the naff ones.
Rightly or wrongly, it takes an awful lot for me to give up on a book. I think in part this somewhat comes down to what I choose to read. Obviously I’m not likely to stick with a book about the history of stamp collecting (sorry any philatelists out there), so inevitably I avoid books that hold no appeal. Having said that I tend to keep my reading pretty widespread. And even in narrowing down books to those I find interesting and appealing, within that will inevitably be a mix of the great, the good and the bad. But when it comes to the bad, I like to give them a fair shot.
For me, unless something is intolerably awful, and by that I mean practically having to keep my eyes open with matchsticks it’s that tedious, personally I choose to see a book through to the end, because, who knows, those first fifty pages may just be the tip of a mightily impressive iceberg. Indeed, sometimes a book that hasn’t gripped me initially or even has me questioning it halfway or three-quarters through has made its mark by the end and I’ve been glad I didn’t give up. For me, it tends to be the last quarter of a novel, not the first, that can really make or break it. Admittedly, a stunning ending cannot undo an utterly appalling beginning, but it can make it more worthwhile. The last part of a book can completely change the landscape of a read and there have been numerous times I’ve been thinking a book is so-so or worse and the final quarter has seen me do a volte-face. Obviously if a book is poorly written that’s a different kettle of fish and little is likely to change across the course of a book, I’m thinking more in terms of plot, pacing and interest here. A book that starts off boring, slow, tepid, confusing can grow in the course of the story into something much more pleasing. Equally, it may not! But also a book that starts off thrilling, pacy, exciting can fade into a disappointment, although we have to reach the end to find that out. So it makes sense to me to also reach the end in a novel that doesn’t start out so appealing. After all, books are written as a finite entity, intended to be read as a complete unit, and only in reading the entirety do I feel that I’ve had the full experience as the author meant it. And by the end whether I judge it good, bad or indifferent, I feel that I can say that in good grace.
Whilst I wouldn’t judge a painting by looking at only a corner, or a play by watching only the first act, requiring the full experience to deem its worth, for me reading only part of a book is a similarly reductive task. Unfortunately unlike other works of art or media – paintings, film, music – in which the finished piece is either immediate or fairly immediate and requires fairly little effort on the part of the consumer, the final product in a book demands time and input from the reader to achieve the overall effect, and necessarily it’s easier to give up on. After all we can skip past a displeasing sculpture in a matter of seconds or easily write off a couple of hours spent watching a mediocre film. The several hours or days it takes to read a book is naturally less forgiving but I count myself lucky that I’m a fairly quick reader and can get through most tomes relatively speedily, so to me it doesn’t seem any particular hardship. And if, by chance, I’m proven fortuitous and the book comes up trumps, well those few hours suddenly seem time well spent. And if not, at least I can say I gave it a go and can make a full, honest assessment. I guess, I’m something of a literary wishful thinker, always hoping for the best, and on occasions it just pays off.
But sometimes that 0.1% comes along, as it did for me with this second non-starter and as much as I wanted to wade through, I had to give up for my sake and the book’s. What I read of the novel – some 60 pages in a novel of 430 pages, a fair crack of the whip, I felt – was well-written and certainly had much promise in terms of plot and characterization, but there was just something about it that made reading it too much like hard work. Whereas I’d normally hanker for any spare minute to pick up a book, I was actively avoiding reading this one, even when I had ample opportunity, it didn’t play on my mind when I wasn’t reading it or have me desperate to keep going. And when I was reading it, my mind was drifting anywhere but on the story. So for only the second time, I gave up on a book. It may be that it just wasn’t the right time for me to read it, and that I’ll pick it up 6 weeks down the line, or 6 months or however long, and it works, or maybe it’ll have the same effect then as it did now and I may just have to write it off all together. But there are inevitably going to be books that just don’t hit the mark and times when it’s right to call it a day. I’m going to hope that this was just a one-off (or a two-off, as it may be), and I can keep up a 99% finish rate. I know I won’t have any problem with the next book, which grabbed me from the first page, but we’ll wait and see whether it turns into a damp squib. Just as I’ll be waiting to find out whether the next ugly duckling of a book has by the end turned into a swan.
[Ed: Personally I think you should reveal this book – if only to save others from making the same mistake!]