On the Joy and Disappointment of Not Finishing Books

In recent years, I’ve gotten much better about allowing myself to put down books I’m not enjoying. It’s still hard. There’s something about stopping a book halfway through that still feels wrong, even though I’ve gotten used to doing it. Sometimes it’s because I’m convinced that if I just stick with it long enough, it’ll be worth it. Sometimes it’s because I’ve already read a hundred pages or more, and not finishing feels like a wasted investment. Most often it’s because finishing books is still hardwired into me, a program that’s hard to overwrite. I’m usually careful about what books I choose to read in the first place, so when—after researching a book, or hearing great things about it from lots of people or having loved something else by the same author—the book still turns out to be bad, it is especially disappointing.

I got much better at dropping books after reading Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees last year. It got a lot of good reviews, which I simply cannot understand, because it was the worst book I have ever read. It was appalling. I have never hated a book as much as I hated this book, and yet, I finished it.  It was written as a fictional memoir and the narrator was horrifying: narcissistic, calculating, thoughtless, racist, abusive, a child molester, and completely unaware of his horribleness. As far as I could tell, there was not one sentence in this entire book that shed any light on his character, that gave me any reason to be anything other than disgusted to be in his presence. The first person narration was so painful to read at times that I could not imagine how the author managed to write it.

I hated every moment I spent reading that book, and yet I finished it, because I so desperately wanted something at the end that would make it worthwhile—some remorse, some redemption, some shred of complexity and humanity. There was nothing of the sort. The book illuminated nothing, taught me nothing, and made me feel nothing except regretful that I bothered to read it. I like dark books with unhappy endings. I like complex morally ambiguous characters. The world is a dark and complicated place; novels should reflect that. But this book was too horrible and one-sided, even for me.

After The People in the Trees, which I considered a true waste of precious reading time, I started dropping books after fifty pages without a second thought. I still finish most of the books I read, but I’m determined not to read another book as terrible, in my opinion, as that one.

Earlier this winter, I was in the middle of reading a short fantasy novel, A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante WIlson. I’d heard a lot of good things about it, so I was determined to give it a chance, but about halfway through, I almost stopped reading it. The writing was middling and a bit clunky, and I had trouble believing the initial love story: in a matter of days, a man falls in love with a soldier on leave from a neighboring kingdom. The world was interesting and relatively well-built, but there were little holes—passages that left me slightly confused, questions about the place and culture left unanswered.

I was bored with it. I kept picking up other books instead—reading comics and blogs, anything to avoid going back to it. It was due back at the library and I still hadn’t finished it. I was about to return it, not interested in wasting any more of my time, but then an old impulse kicked in. I thought: what the hell, it’s only seventy-five more pages, I might as well just get it over with.

Here’s the thing: I loved that book. It was definitely imperfect. But despite its flaws, it’s one of the most satisfying and memorable books I’ve read this year. The ending made it all worthwhile. The ending was so beautiful and perfect it actually made me cry—no small feat, given that I wasn’t deeply invested in the characters until about twelve pages before the end.

I’ll spare you the details because I don’t want to give anything away, but rest assured that the thought that I almost didn’t finish this book makes me feel panicky. What I thought was a relatively mediocre fantasy novel, entirely forgettable, turned out to be big and illuminating, a book of heart and wisdom that I am still thinking about months later. The writing wasn’t incredible. The world building had a few cracks in it. It wasn’t a perfectly crafted novel. But none of that mattered in the end, because the book as a whole was just so good; it was worth every sentence.

I haven’t come up with some sort of checklist for how to know whether or not to give up on a book. I wish I’d stopped reading The People in the Trees. I’m forever grateful that I didn’t give up on A Taste of Honey. Generally, my gut instinct is good, although sometimes my stubbornness forces me to hang onto a book longer than I should. I’m sure I’ll miss some great books by not forcing myself to finish every book I start. I’ll probably waste some precious reading time giving a book third and fourth and tenth chances, and end up disappointed.

The thing that I keep coming back to is how reading continues to be surprising, year after year after year. I’m so certain I’m going to like all the books I read—or at least find them worthwhile and insightful, even if the experience of reading them is hard or challenging. But sometimes I slog my way through a book I think I should like and finish it feeling empty and disappointed. Sometimes I fall in love with a book I initially thought was nothing special. It is amazing to me that even after all the thought I put into choosing the books I read, I still find myself by turns delighted and disgusted, amused and bored with what’s inside them. We can only learn so much from the reviews and the comments and the discussions and the awards. The only way to determine a book’s true worth is to read it, cover to cover.

Most of the time, I give books a chance to have their full say. Sometimes I don’t. Either way, I keep reading.

3 thoughts on “On the Joy and Disappointment of Not Finishing Books

  1. I too drop books sometimes! It’s definitely a skill that takes some practice! I was recently half way through “War and Peace” when I decided to put it down. I just loved “Anna Karenina,” but “War and Peace” just wasn’t doing it for me, so I decided to cut my losses and pick something else up instead.

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  2. I used to be militant about finishing every book I started, even if I hated it. I attribute it partly to stubbornness and partly to wanting to finish something I started. Like you, I also thought it I gave it a little more time and effort the book would improve. I began to have a change of heart when I was talking to a fellow book nerd about a book I was hating but forcing myself to slog through. After I finished my lamenting, he told me he gives a book a fair chance but if he doesn’t like it he moves on to the next book. When I asked him if he felt bad for doing so he said he didn’t because there are too many books out there that he wants to read that he doesn’t waste his reading time on a book he isn’t connecting with. I thought about want he said and realized there was a lot of validity to it. I am a various reader, but I will never get to the end of my to-read list even if I live to be 100. I still rarely give up on a book but I don’t force it anymore and if a book isn’t working for me I move on.

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  3. I felt that way about “Pride & Prejudice”. I finally read it at the age of 57 so I could see what all the fuss was about. It was one of the most boring books I’ve ever read! I don’t understand why so many people think it’s so great.

    I read somewhere about a “formula” for figuring out how far to go in a book before giving up. Subtract your age from 100. So if you’re 30, you should give it 70 pages. Since I’m 58, I should give it only 42. The reason for this is because life is short and the older you are, the less time you have for crap! Makes sense to me.

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