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Throw that book across the room! (Another thing you can’t do with an iPad).

April 6, 2010

Julia Keller: The face of a guilty reader.

NPR aired a discussion the other day with Julia Keller, culture critic for the Chicago Tribune, about the guilt some readers feel at being unable to finish a book. My first reaction: “Are you crazy? Life is too short to read a book you don’t like!”

Amazingly, a lot of readers think giving up on  a book is a moral failure. Keller confronted the issue while struggling to finish Hilary Mantel’s historical novel, Wolf Hall — a literary smash that won not only Britain’s Man Booker Prize  but also the National Book Critic’s Circle Award here in the USA.

“Why did I feel like such a heel for not loving Wolf Hall?” Keller asks in the first of two Tribune columns on the subject. “And why did the prospect of not finishing a book fill me with shame, dread and self-loathing?”

I have to admit I listened to Keller, interviewed by NPR’s Rebecca Roberts, with an amused superiority. Just put the book down! I haven’t finished a book that couldn’t hold me since I was nine or ten years old, in the first grip of bookmania, when I calculated how many books I’d be able to read in a lifetime and arrived at the puny figure of 5,000-7,000.

My friend and colleague Connie Ogle, book editor at the Miami Herald, apologizes in this recent Between the Covers blog post for being unable to finish the new novel by Yann Martel, author of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Life of Pi (2002). But she’s not guilty about it: “Once you reach the ‘I don’t care’ point, it’s time to move on. And so I did.”

Yet, I do know many people who feel that not finishing a book, once started, is a sign of weak character –or, at best, in Keller’s words “unsporting.” Indeed, I have a cousin who finishes every book he picks up, even those he hates. Admittedly he reads sci-fi almost exclusively, at a book-a-day clip, but still, I don’t know whether to be dismayed or impressed.

Keller, who did persevere and finish Wolf Hall, wonders why we feel this away about books:

“We turn off TV shows without a second thought. We walk out of movies on a whim. Concerts and plays? Sometimes, we don’t even wait for intermission. But abandoning a book feels different. It feels shabby and small-minded and short-sighted. Like a character flaw.”

Well, I say let’s liberate ourselves from this kind of unnecessary guilt and anguish. Really, it’s fun! Set a book down quietly, with reverence (and a shudder of revulsion), the way I did, intent on rereading Crime and Punishment, at the end of the first page.

Or throw it across the room, as I did with Ian McEwan’s vilely inauthentic novel Saturday. I did walk over and pick it up again, but only because I was getting paid to write a review. And boy was that fun, as you can see by clicking here.

To some extent, taste is the deciding factor. I relished Wolf Hall, could not wait to return to it, while I have friends who think Ian McEwan is the cat’s pajamas — even though I’ve explained his shortcomings in detail and at length. I’d go over it all again, but they’ve stopped taking my calls and unfriended me on Facebook.

In any case, I’ll never willingly read a McEwan novel, unless I’m being paid to do so. I will likely not finish Moby Dick, or Finnegan’s Wake, or The Sound and the Fury. It’s not a matter of length or density — I got through The Brother’s Karamazov, Vanity Fair, Of Human Bondage. I finished the King James Version of the Holy Bible, for pete’s said (though admittedly not in one go).

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I won’t be reading Twilight, or Angels and Demons, or the next James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell or Christopher Paolini masterpiece.

Please join the discussion: What books have you forced yourself to finish? Or perhaps what books have you given up on? And best of all, what books have you abandoned, only to return to later and find you love? (Mine: Madame Bovary, The Great Gatsby).

31 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2010 11:04 am

    My wife is having trouble finishing Wolf Hall right now, and my daughter set it aside a while ago. Me, I haven’t even risked looking at it.

    The most recent book I put down in the middle was Michael Slater’s recent and very fine biography of Charles Dickens. It wasn’t Slater’s fault, though. I’d just had enough Dickens, which I suspect most anybody can understand…

  2. Tommy Smart permalink
    April 6, 2010 11:41 am

    Keller’s statement about the angst generated from putting down an unfinished books versus abandoning other forms of entertainment is spot-on. Books are different, superior even to other forms. I sometimes think of a book as a person , affording it forgiveness for it’s faults. I am quicker to forgive a book for being “bad” or annoying than I am real person, now that’s a character defect. Books are special to me, so they get treated differently.

    Books I refused to put down gracefully, even though they were an absolute chore to read:

    “Sentimental Education” Gustav Flaubert, “The Orchid Thief” Susan Orleans, anything written by Ayn Rand, anything written by Carlos Castenada, “V” Thomas Pynchon,”Lord Jim” Joseph Conrad, the moral being I am so glad I finished those books because each one taught me valuable lessons.

    So I am one of those guilty faced readers. Recently though, I have been trying to take a cue from readers such as yourself Chauncey and if I am just not “feeling it” then don’t bother wasting the time and effort. I put down “Duma Key” after 2 chapters (and continue to be told how great it is) when I could not bring myself to turn the pages, I am about to walk away from “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (especially if I have to read another page long description of the computer Salander is thinking of buying). I realize though that my boredom with a book has little to do with the book itself in most cases, instead it’s my flakiness that’s to blame. So I try to finish what I start.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 6, 2010 11:50 am

      Yes, I’m glad I persevered through Atlas Shrugged (though honesty compels me to admit I skimmed John Galt’s 60-page radio speech on the ethics of selfishness). Why am I glad? Because now when I argue that Ayn Rand is a fascist hypocrite, I can’t be dismissed simply for not reading the books. I also read The Fountainhead and We the Living, and I’m glad of that, for the same reason. (My eyes! My eyes!). I just have to make a choice not to thing about how awful her writing style is, or all those hours, lost forever….

      Sorry! Sidetracked! Tommy, thanks for sharing some of the books you’ve not finished. I hope others do the same.

      • Tommy Smart permalink
        April 6, 2010 12:33 pm

        My reasoning for finishing “Atlas Shrugged” and the other works mirrors yours, Chauncey. It did not start that way , but quickly moved in that direction. Not only is the writing style jarring, the philosophy is flawed. So she is not just a fascist hypocrite as you put it, she’s was also just plain wrong. Just look to her acolyte Allen Greenspan for proof.

        Sidetracked myself!

        I have also never finished Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” , no reason given other than I did not like the first three chapters.

        I do not think I will ever finish (or even pick back up) Moby Dick, and I don’t think I am alone.

      • byafi permalink
        April 6, 2010 2:19 pm

        I assume you are using “fascist” as a throw-away term, just to get attention, since Ayn Rand believed “So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate…the use of physical force against others. ”

        Your accusation is especially ironic since we are overwhelmed by our government’s use of force to coerce us to pay for one waste of money or another. Perhaps your accusation might be better directed toward Washington, DC.

      • Tommy Smart permalink
        April 6, 2010 2:35 pm

        Okay Byafi, I will take back Fascist. Hypocrite and just plain Wrong stand.

        I am dismayed that this current administration is proving to be more an enemy to the Constitution than the previous.

        I’d like to discuss this more, however this is not the forum. I have made enough off-topic statements as is.

    • rachel permalink
      April 6, 2010 2:37 pm

      I agree that books are different. However, I am not at all likely to give up and walk out of a movie. It would have to be really really really bad. I think I have done it once. And I am even less likely to get up and leave a play.

      • Tommy Smart permalink
        April 6, 2010 2:46 pm

        I have walked out of a theater, it’s rare but it happens. Good thing is most theaters have numerous films being screened so I can just pick something else. I was thinking more of watching a film at home. Films viewed at home have to draw me in within a couple of minutes or they get popped out and never viewed again. And by draw me in I mean really good or really, really bad. I love a horrible movie.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        April 6, 2010 2:53 pm

        It’s so much easier to shed a book, it seems to me, than a movie, play or TV show. After all, a movie or play or TV show is a commitment of a couple of hours. A book is a commitment of days, or even weeks, untold hours. It’s the difference between a flat sprint and a marathon through the mountains….

      • Tommy Smart permalink
        April 6, 2010 3:10 pm

        Yes! The commitment level is part of the difference. Which is why it is much more difficult to abandon a book. I have made a commitment, I am now emotionally entangled and invested in the lives of the characters. How could I ever walk away, with out reading the conclusion? I could read the last chapter, but that is just… just… Evil.

        This young woman gets it:

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 6, 2010 11:43 am

    Jon, nice to hear from you. If you want a quick and fun take on Dickens, try Les Standiford’s The Man Who Invented Christmas. It’s not a thorough biography, by any means, but it’s very well done. I learned things I did not know. You’ll get probably about all of Dickens you can stand from it.

    I’m scratching my head as to why anyone would have trouble with Wolf Hall — Mantel’s novel takes something I’d long since grown bored with (anything to do with Henry VIII in particular and the Tudors in general) and revived my interest. And then some.

    But I stand by my point: Life is too short to read a book that’s not holding you. And you don’t have to feel guilty for setting it aside.

    What’s your wife read lately that she liked?

    • April 6, 2010 12:03 pm

      Thanks for the Standiford recommendation. I’ve heard of it, but haven’t read it. Wendy and I both really dug The Lost City of Z, and I’m in the middle of Brad Gooch’s wonderful bio of the one and only Flannery O’Connor…

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 6, 2010 12:07 pm

    Jon, excellent recommendations. I named The Lost City of Z one of the best books of 2009, and sometimes soon, probably this week, I’ll be writing about David Grann’s new nonfiction book, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, here at blog central. So you’re liking Gooch’s O’Connor bio, eh? I’d heard mixed things about it. But he was impressive in his appearance at the Miami Book Fair last November.

  5. Connie permalink
    April 6, 2010 12:41 pm

    As you know (and thanks for the shout-out) I agree 100 percent about finishing books you don’t like. Unless you’re reading it for a class or getting paid to review it, what’s the point? Sometimes I will struggle through for a review: Much as it pains me to admit, I did not like Ian McEwan’s new novel at all – Chauncey, it would make your head explode – but I felt it was worth noting. Disliked Kazuo Ishiguro’s last book, too, but finished it so I could write about it. I suffered greatly to finish John Irving’s Until I Find You (surely the worst book he’s ever written and one that finished him with me for all eternity) because I thought he was a big enough name readers should be warned. But I wouldn’t have finished any of these books had I not had to weigh in on them.

    For the record, I quit watching “Lost” the second my impatience with it outweighed my enjoyment of it. Why should reading, one of life’s great pleasures, be any different?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 6, 2010 2:18 pm

      Connie, just between us professional reviewers, let me mention one of the great pleasures of adult life: Forcing myself to finish a book I loathe just so I can experience the joy of writing the review. That’s another reason, on top of money or a good grade, to read a book you don’t like. For the record: Ishiguro lost me with The Unconsoled (1995), which would have been a great novel at about 200 pages. Alas, it runs on (and on: ha-ha-ha!) to 533. I was ready to claw my eyes out. Irving likewise lost me with The Cider House Rules (1985), a loooong, turgid novel filled with infuriating characters that tries to have it both ways on the central theme of abortion. Irving lured me back with A Widow For One Year (1998) — not a perfect book by any means, but with some worthwhile sections. But with writers like, say, Irene Nemirovsky or Machado De Assis or Sholem Asch waiting for me to get to them, I don’t think I’ll trouble Mr. Irving again in this lifetime.

  6. April 6, 2010 12:57 pm

    Man oh man I need this lecture — thank you, Chauncey! I definitely have some sort of Swedish-Protestant-whatever guilt thing about finishing books, even those I am not enjoying. I try to subscribe to superlibrarian Nancy Pearl’s 50-page rule (which switches to 100 minus your age once you’re past the age of 50) but even that’s tough. My sympathies are with Connie, though — I didn’t even like Life of Pi, especially once they were on the boat. But I did finish the damned thing. I’m not going near the new one.
    On the other hand, I loved Wolf Hall — but I’m a Tudor junkie plus I had read Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety last year so I kind of knew what to expect. In that one she’s juggling THREE main characters plus zillions of minor ones all of whom get referred to variously by titles, first name, last name, nicknames — and they’re all French. Wolf Hall, by contrast, was a cakewalk.
    Does your McEwan animus extend to Amsterdam? I really liked that book. Whereas I thought Enduring Love was so-so. Haven’t read the others though now I’m kind of curious …

  7. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 6, 2010 2:27 pm

    Sorry, Nan, while I do not abominate Amsterdam the way I do Saturday, neither do I think much of it. If you’re interested, here’s a link to the review I wrote, back in the fat and happy days of 1998:

    Congrats on your good taste in liking Wolf Hall. But otherwise, say to yourself over and over again, like an affirmation, only negative: “Life is too short to read bad books. Life is too short to read bad books…”

  8. rachel permalink
    April 6, 2010 2:35 pm

    I used to make myself struggle through every book. And I did feel as though I was a failure for not wanting to finish. But like you, Chauncey Mabe, I have come to the point where this is simply not true anymore. I was reading “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and I forced myself to finish it. I despised it. I was not enjoying it in the least, and yet I made myself finish it. And what do I get for my hard work? I get to be mad and upset and critical anytime someone mentions the book! So I decided, at the end of that wretched, wretched (wretched) book that life was entirely too short to read books that I hate, or that I am simply not enjoying. But this is a fairly recent thing for me, within the past two years. I am not as superior as you, Chauncey Mabe, and I can sympathize with those who struggle to finish books they dislike out a sense of obligation.

    I do think that sometimes in the beginning of a book I have to give myself a little bit of time, time to wait it out and get over the hump. Otherwise I would miss out on some good books. And that is a fine line, the waiting to get over the hump / wasting your time on a bad book line. I had a difficult time with “The City & The City” at first, and it so frustrated me that I did not look forward to reading it, and I almost threw it across the room once. The main reason I persisted was because I had it on good authority that it was an amazing book. And I was glad that I gave myself the chance to get over the hump. Because it really really is an amazing book. So I guess the moral of the story is: don’t throw it across the room five minutes before it gets really good.

    • Tommy Smart permalink
      April 6, 2010 2:51 pm

      I like your moral.

      Still looking forward to reading “The City & The City”. I really want to give Mieville a chance to redeem himself after “Un Dun Lun”, which didn’t even excite hatred or frustration (which is good, as long as the author is touching me, no matter the emotion), just boredom.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 6, 2010 2:56 pm

      Ah yes, don’t leave before the miracle happens. Sometimes I have to reread a book, at a later date. I hated Madame Bovary when I read it t 22. Loved it at 35. I’m glad I went back. It is true, Rachel, that you have not reached my level of superiority, but you are struggling nobly and in the right direction. Be assured.

  9. Connie permalink
    April 6, 2010 2:44 pm

    Rachel (as always!) brings up a good point: If I struggle at the beginning of a book but someone has urged me forward (someone I trust, anyway), I’ll muddle through a bit longer in hopes of changing my mind. That’s not to say I’ll finish it. But I didn’t much like the opening chapter of The Corrections, but had so many people urging me forward I stuck with it and was rewarded (or so I thought). The City & the City is another good example.

    And you are so right on the pleasure of bashing something that has caused you pain. I took no joy in trashing Ishiguro (I haven’t read The Unconsoled, but I do love Never Let Me Go, Remains of the Day and others) or McEwan (I don’t like Amsterdam much, but loved Atonement). But I was so angry by the time I finished Irving’s Until I Find You I wrote the review in less than an hour. Not even Widow for One Year could soothe my ire.

  10. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 6, 2010 3:02 pm

    I hold no brief for John Irving, that’s for sure, though you bring a smile to my lips with your raw anger over Until I Find You. But really, if I never read again about wrestling, or motorcycles, or polar bears, or prostitutes, or Vienna (or, especially, Viennese prostitutes), then I will be fine, just fine.

    Sometimes a really good book teaches us how to read it in the first few chapters. And it used to be, though it no longer is (publishers don’t have this kind of patience) that a writer could be seen still learning what he’s doing in the opening chapters of an early novel. I almost gave up on John Gardner’s Nickel Mountain because the first few passages seemed amateurish. But I loved Grendel so that I persisted, and was duly rewarded.

    Oh, God. So many books. So little time. Let’s all quit our jobs and read all the time.

  11. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 6, 2010 3:08 pm

    To Tommy and Byafi: I use the word “fascist” in regard to Ayn Rand as a very slight exaggeration. Very slight. She may not have advocated outright violence, but her refusal to use the power of the state to aid the unfortunate amounts to close to the same thing. Only in a pure meritocracy would her Objectivism have a moral leg to stand on. But no society consisting of human beings will ever be a pure meritocracy. LIke Tommy, this is not the place to argue politics. At least not today. Maybe some day we’ll have a “Bash Ayn Rand” party here. Wow. That could be fun.

    And Tommy, I agree the Obama administration is disappointing, from a liberal point of view. But it’s no where near as oppressive of civil rights as the previous administration.

  12. Connie permalink
    April 6, 2010 4:30 pm

    I just thought of another recent novel I read one chapter of and tossed aside: Peter Hedges’ In the Heights. Hedges wrote What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, a book I liked well enough to propel me to pick up the new one. The first chapter was about a harried Park Slope type mother, a pitifully easy target on the best of days. Mommy track books use a set up I could not possibly care less about. Perhaps the book went on to greater and wider heights, but there was no way I was suffering through pages and pages about overprivileged white brats and their neurotic parents.

    I understand why some novels start more slowly than others – the opening chapter of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo does not even come close to touching on the best parts of that book – but sometimes I just simply am not going to follow. Authors: Proceed slowly at your own risk!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 6, 2010 11:09 pm

      This is one area in which I admire genre novelists in a way I seldom can literary novelists — craftsmanship. They know how to open fast, they know how to open slow (give Ken Follet’s The Key to Rebecca a look), and maintain interest either way. And then of course sometimes a book pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes it pays off when I’m 15 and sometimes it pays off when I’m 40. My thought: Say I miss a classic that would change my life? Sheesh, who cares? There’s a bajillion books on this planet. I’m not going to read all the good ones if I live 1,000 years.

  13. Candice permalink
    April 6, 2010 7:43 pm

    I always finish a book, whether I like it or not. I don’t know why. But I’m also very famous for misplacing books when I have only a single chapter to go to finish it. I was nearly done with “Lolita” when I left it in an Indian restaurant in NYC. I did the same thing recently at the YMCA. Sure enough–somebody picked up the book and I never got it back.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 6, 2010 11:13 pm

      Humbert gets arrested for driving on the wrong side of the road. The end.

  14. Candice permalink
    April 7, 2010 8:17 am

    Thanks, Mr. Chauncey Mabe. Who needs the book when I have you?

  15. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    April 7, 2010 8:38 am

    Aw shucks. You’re just sayin’ that.

  16. April 7, 2010 5:21 pm

    Walked out of only one movie, Virtuosity with Densel Washington!

    Have no problem not finishing a book, too many more where that came from.

    Started Time Traveler’s Wife 3 times and guess three times was the charm because I ended up enjoying the whole.

  17. Ami E. Bowen permalink
    August 23, 2011 8:46 pm

    Wow, this is so like me. For some reason I really hate not finshing a book. It feels like I am failing to keep a promise to myself. My sister, an avid reader herself even with the duties of a stay@home mom to a trio of kids under the age of twelve, on the other hand would completely agree with the sentiment that life is too short to read a book you don’t like. Maybe someday I’ll be able to feel the same but for now I’ll continue to read cover to cover every book I decide looks worthy of my time and effort.

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