When is it okay to give up on a book?

The New York Review of Books asks us: “Why Finish Books?” It’s an interesting question, one which merits some thought. I’m currently laboring through a book, which was highly acclaimed, generally well-reviewed by most major critics, and yet it’s one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. Multiple times throughout, I’ve wanted to just throw the thing away, set it on fire, or throw it onto the subway tracks right before the A Train comes rumbling along, sparking those useless pages into flames.


Something just clicks after 100 pages.

BUT. But I feel so strongly about finishing every book I start because of two books whose difficulty almost stopped me, but which ultimately shaped my lifelong tastes as a reader (and human being): SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION, which begins with almost 200 pages of flora and fauna local to the state of Oregon; and 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE which challenges the reader to move past the similarly named characters and move into the magic of Macondo. Those books, I learned, were worth the initial hurdles of difficulty, so much that the difficulty so vanished, and the readerly pleasure emerged.

Should we be harsher on contemporary novels, though? With classics, we’re at least curious about why the books have lasted so long, have earned their way into the syllabi of colleges and high schools everywhere. The sad truth of contemporary fiction is that most of it sucks. This isn’t anyone’s fault; it’s just extremely difficult to create enduring art. So, dear readers, what say you? How many pages should one sift through in order to thoroughly judge a novel’s merits? Different page limits for new books versus the classics?

Submitted by the Literary Man

42 responses to “When is it okay to give up on a book?

  1. I will keep reading as long as the writing is good and the writer seems to respect me. I also sit through plays until the final curtain as long as I feel the actors respect the play and the audience.

  2. You are a better man than I. While in the Air Force, I enrolled in the Senior NCO Academy Correspondence Course. I had to extend my enrollment from the 12 month initial time for completion to the 18 month maximum time limit. I was never able to get passed the first few pages. It was so terrible, it would put me to sleep every time I would read it. I guess sometimes it is just too bad to read.

  3. When? As with you (or the author) I find I will put a book down. I do not ‘give up’ on books, I finished every page of The Third Riech. (Okay, so I read it only in the bathroom and it took several months…) Still, sometimes those novels touted as being ‘the best’ don’t even tickle my interest. I may pick one up, but if boring, I have no problem putting it down and coming back to it…over several YEARS if need be! When do you give up on a novel? When you’re blind and can’t read any longer…even if nothing redeeming comes from the book! *hugs*…luv khrys

  4. Reblogged this on Reading Today and commented:
    Any thoughts to add? The New York Review of Books’ article is just as thought-provoking as this blog piece. In thinking back to books I’ve dismissed early, books I’ve plowed through and not reached any sense of “wow, this got better” (100 Years of Solitude is for me, unfortunately, in this pile), and books I’ve had to take in stride due to their density but ultimately to find them rewarding (most recently, Thoreau’s Walden), I can’t articulate a specific reason why I did or did not pursue their conclusion. I’d love to hear other thoughts….

    And this doesn’t even get into the type of reader that reads the ending first (I’m looking at you Hubby and Grandma!) and then goes back to the beginning!

  5. If I am bored, I will check reviews. If everyone agrees it is a waste of my time, I will probably donate it somewhere. IF there are redeeming reviews, I may still put it down for a while, but keep it to come back to later, classic or contemporary.

  6. I quit with no guilt after about 50-100 pages if I like a book. I figure if it doesn’t capture my interest in that amount of time I’ve got other books to read. “So many books, so little time,” as Frank Zappa said. That said, I do tend to give classics a bit longer before I decide to be content with the movie version. (What an awful thing for a writer to say!)

  7. *Needless to say, I meant that I quit a book if I don’t like it. (*chagrin*)

  8. Forgot to mention that I willfully stopped reading INFINITE JEST after 800 pages because I felt that DFW was just trying to play a terrible joke on the reader. If the joke had been funny, I might have been more inclined to keep reading. . .otherwise, I feel EXTREMELY guilty about putting down a book before finishing it. Maybe if one passes the halfway point in a novel it’s permissible to put it down and quietly set it on fire.

    • Try Pale King on for size then… I still have not started IJ, but PK does a good job of illuminating why David Foster Wallace thinks that joke he’s playing and nailing home till the nails have nails in them is important and not just funny. Strenuous concentration is what Pale King is about but DFW writes like he’s 60 years older than the guy who wrote Broom of the System.

      And when someone says they put down infinite jest at page 800 I usually assume it was a typo and they actually put it down at page 8. Then again, I for one, am stuck somewhere in the middle of Gravity’s Rainbow, and have been for years. Every time I put it down I forget the page I’m at, then when I pick it back up I only vaguely recall what I read before, usually so vaguely that I can’t really be sure that I’ve read it so I read over this massive block I’m positive I’ve read before… that book is a loop. But I’m still going to finish it, one of these days. You should definitely finish Infinite Jest, just for kicks and reading 800 pages then dropping it is a total waste. Either that or send me your copy as I’m short on cash and want to read it badly.

  9. May I suggest that life is both too long and too short to invest oneself into an activity that is not at least mildly pleasurable.

  10. I agree with michelinewalker…

  11. thewitcontinuum

    I give up on books all the time. If it doesn’t move me, or is proclaimed to be fantastic then has some disgusting pedophile scene in it, I just have to say no…and so forth. That’s an extreme case I guess. But with contemporary literature, like you said, it’s enduring qualities may be limited unfortunately. If it sucks I don’t feel a shred of guilt putting it down. (Hopefully it didn’t cost $28.95!)

  12. I gave up on Richard Russo’s Empire Falls after a chapter or two. I got most of the way through Jonathan Franzen’s 27th City and then decided I wasn’t enjoying the spiraling mayhem and awfulness. A few that I gave up on, then tried again and ended up loving are: Under the Volcano, Confederacy of Dunces, and Far from the Madding Crowd.

  13. I also drop books like hot potatoes when they start to annoy me. Although sometimes, if the book is extra long and extra annoying, I will read up until the penultimate page, then hurl the book aside simply to spite the author. And that is why I am the queen of my local library.

  14. I felt that I “should” complete “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout because it’s a winner of the Pulitzer. However, it was drudgery to me. Friends raved about the excellence of the character studies. I was bored. Yep, I thought there just had to be something wrong with me. Yet, I finally abandoned it because it didn’t hold my attention. Something in me felt like a literary failure. On the other hand, why spend time on something I really didn’t care for when so many other books were clamoring for my attention? It’s a tough call. I probably read 3/4 of “Olive.”

  15. Crossed the 50 percent mark last night, checked the reviews on Amazon, which echoed my suspicions, officially shelved it for good. Thank you, all, for helping me through this needlessly difficult decision. Now, onto some Julio Cortazar! Long Live the Dead Authors!

  16. a very important question. In foreign rights or in lit agencies for example, you are almost supposed to give up if a book doesn’t grab you. Still, I tend to feel as you do, that the potential for readerly reward is too great to risk giving up half way…

  17. Reblogged this on Vintage Words and commented:
    This is a question I think about often…anyone any answers?

  18. I decided long ago that life is too short to struggle through a boring book. I once hated tossing books aside–now, I think nothing of it. I figure there are a lot of books I want to read before I leave this mortal coil, so I’m not going to waste time with ones that suck!

  19. Pingback: Life is too short to stick with boring books « Simon Read

  20. Pingback: Giving Up? | My poppet blog

  21. Pingback: Cape Cod and Moby Dick | THE LITERARY MAN

  22. The last book that I forced myself to finish was “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn…And while I am glad I did it, I know that I will never get that time back! LOL! I will continue to try and carry on with books like this because one never knows if one will end up with a winner!

  23. Thank you for this blog piece. I loved 100 Years of Solitude but believe his real masterpiece is Love in the Time of Cholera. I agree it was hard to stick with the former, but the overall experience of feeling those people doesn’t leave.
    I have one on my desk right now “By Nightfall,” this book I just put down several months back and never picked up again. I didn’t even make a conscious decision, howevrr, i am not at all curious about what happens to the characters so I haven’t picked it back up. My sister told me once as I was slaving through a contemporary fiction piece that it was “quite alight to move on because there are so many amazing books out there to read.” and while this helped to quell the guilt, I know, always that no matter how many years pass, I will someday finish Michael Cunningham’s novel. This is not quite the same for The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. There is actually a book mark in it, but it has been about 12 months since i read the first third. I was not ready to read another word about the sex trade, my mind and soul were greatly affected by this trilogy, surmounting into actual statistics after acts of violence was quite a crescendo but I spend a lot of days wondering what happens to Lizbeth… how can I give up on her? I can’t, it is impossible.

  24. I really struggled with Valis by Philip K.DIck. I knew that it was probably making my brain bigger and doubtless would at some point blow my mind and come good but I just kept finding myself distracted by other stuff. As someone says above, with a stack of books I was really excited about waiting in the wings I just decided life was too short to finish it at this point. Maybe later! Has anyone else struggled with this or am I just stupid/lazy?!

  25. I guess classics are classic for a reason – I give a book 1 1/2 chapters and if it does not click by then –well, life is too short…..

  26. I don’t know one person who has finished the Booker prize-winning, “The Finkler Question” by Howard Jacobson. Did the judges actually read it do you think or did they just think it was time he got recognition? I can, however, recommend his semi-autobiographical novel, “The Mighty Waltzer”. It is one of the funniest books I have read in a long while.

  27. Once I gave the Xmas gift of the collected novels of John Steinbeck to the mother of my first girlfriend. She had such a pained look on her face as she accepted it. The simple fact that they were bound in one volume made her feel obliged to to read it from beginning to end, page after eternal page. I felt really guilty afterwards.

  28. I just gave up on A. MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees. Got to a particularly (for me) gory part and decided I really didn’t care about the characters or what happened to them. It was our book club selection for May and a lot of the women slogged through it – some picking it up for the 2nd time because it was hard to get through the first time they tried to read it. The fact that most everyone did not like the book sealed it for me. I WILL NOT worry about not finishing it. Time is way to short to spend on something that is not enjoyable. There are too many other books out there that I can spend time reading AND enjoying.

  29. I find it very difficult to quit a book for good. I’ve putten books down for months at a time, and then went back to them, part guilt, part curiosity. But I never lament myself for any time I spend on any book.

  30. I think that the amount of time one spends on a book that is unsatisfactory (which is, of course, quite distinct from difficult, or challenging, or even frustrating) depends on one’s own age. In my twenties, I read everything from cover to cover, with no thought that there were more books than years. Now I am a lot older, I feel that the library is constantly expanding as my remaining years shrink.

    On the other hand, I often re-read books that have moved me. I note a little Alice in Wonderland in the first paragraph above, and that is one book that can not be read too many times.

    Thank you for dropping in on my blog.

  31. I will confess I’ve grown to be alright with giving a book up after 50-60 pages. I used to be one of those have to finish every book no matter how much I hate it people. Sort of like how I used to read more books out of guilt. (I’m still working on that issue.) But there are too many books out there I want to read, and even favorites I want to curl up with and reread on a bad day.

    I think the first book I gave up on was Focault’s Pendulum. I tried to read that thing every year from middle school until after I graduated college. It sounded so interesting, and the reviews so good I was sure it was something I’d eventually grow up enough to care about… Never happened.

    I work at a bookstore and see so many books that look interesting every day and all those advance readers (we used to get) that it just doesn’t seem worth the investment of time I could be using to start something else!

    I have a few people whose suggestions have always been wonderful and they know my tastes well, so their books get an extra hundred pages or so ;)

  32. I struggle to leave a book once I’ve started. I can’t bear it. But sometimes, life is just too short to be ploughing through something that’s simply painful. These half-read books sit on my shelf and continue to haunt me.

  33. It took me ten years to read HANTA YO. That was about respect, not interest…I had that obligatory feeling of attending an important funeral and so I just kept on going. I think I had two children in school before it was all over. After that, something snapped in me and now I cannot make myself read a thing that doesn’t hold my interest.

  34. The term ‘giving up’ on a book can go out the window along with ‘guilt’ and ‘should.’ These veiled moral judgements are about crowd control, not right and wrong.

  35. I’m just facing that very question with “Cyberabad” by Ian McDonald. I read three chapters (28 pages of 600) so far, mere environmental painting, setup, forced action killing – don’t like it. With so many more important tasks to do every day, I simply can’t give this book a high priority; with so little space in my tiny room, I can’t give it a home long enough to get finished. Knowing that now – I might as well give up on it right away and pass it on at a free exchange box in the city library…

    • update: that’s exactly what I finally decided yesterday – I gave up and the book away, hopefully to someone who will appreciate it

  36. I used to finish every book I started, fearing that something good would catch my attention just around the next page. Then, as I got older, I realized that it’s ok to give up… whether for good or with the intention of picking it back up at a (much) later time to try again. I put down CATCH 22 and ATLAS SHRUGGED three different times, each time picking it up a few years after I had tried it the last time, and I finally concluded that those books are simply not for me. I gave up on AURORARAMA with only 20 pages left go. That book had so much potential and pissed me off so many times by not living up to it that I just dropped it and walked away with no interest to find out what happened at the end. And that was no easy read!!

    I say life is too short for crappy fiction. Drop it like a bag of doodie and never look back!

  37. Among other reviews, I was once asked to critique a book from a first (self-published) author, who wanted one of my blurbs on the back cover. I had always loved to read, and would undertake just about anything. Suffice it to say I became genuinely pissed off at this writer for his first 119 pages of I, me, mine. Every page was poorly written in every way as well as unbelievable, and, worse, there seemed no plot for that 2/3 of the book — unless it was to give me the unique experience of wishing to run over a book with earth-moving equipment. My ex-editor (who’d so *kindly* passed off this gem to his assistant ed) called me an ice princess after I wasn’t exactly supportive with the author, though I had not mentioned a backhoe to either one.. I reviewed the young man’s second book and gave a blurb, but it wasn’t honest; I was simply that relieved to have lived through it.

    Now, especially at my age, if there seems potential guilt in putting down a (non-classic) book after a few attempts (or popping out a lousy movie after a half hour), I just go stand in the aisles of any library or book store (or movie rental venue) and smell the freedom!

  38. So many books, so little time….so I created the 100 page rule. If after 100 pages I hate it. I quit. I totally agree about 100 years of solitude and it was that book that made me create my rule. When I was done, I threw it across the room I was so mad. I have been wrong, though. I picked up “Freedom” after putting it down for a few months and was glad I finished. Great topic!

  39. Some books require a running start. It took me a few tries with 100 Years of Solitude, but it became one of my all-time favorites. I cannot get into Love in the Time of Cholera, but I know, as with the others, not to blame the text. I put books down knowing that I can come back to them when I am ready. With books we have relationships. Different readers bring different issues along with them as baggage. Every book is another Rorschach test.

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