Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Essay: Abandoning Books

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

Once upon a time, I didn’t consider myself a voracious reader. And guess what, I didn’t end up reading a lot of books. For the past three years, my New Year’s Resolution has been to read more books. I’m slowly getting there. It’s amazing what you can achieve if you set your mind to accomplishing something—and bearing in mind that goal every single day. At this point, I’ve learned to do something I never thought I would do: drop a book you’re currently reading.

Starting out as a reader, I always had this mentality that if you start reading a book, you should finish reading it. (I practice the same mentality when doing book reviews.) Unfortunately, it does not take into account the quality or content of the book. For a good few years, I faithfully followed that mentality, and personally scoffed at anecdotes by friends and acquaintances when they talk about books they didn’t manage to finish and never picked up again.

Eventually though, my reading horizons expanded. Sure, I read “better” books. But I also ended up reading books that, at the very least, did not appeal to me. Unfortunately, especially when it comes to novels, there is no real “taste test”. In order to judge the quality of a story, you have to read the entire story*. And by then, it’s too late. Perhaps that’s why we rely on word-of-mouth recommendations. Or book reviews. Or blurbs. Sometimes, these recommendations, reviews, and blurbs give us hope when the story starts out slow. At other times however, a story is simply unappealing to me as the reader, whether it’s the beginning, middle, or end.

So how does one wash out that aftertaste after reading a bad book? We move on to the next book. During this time, I wasn’t yet enamored by the art of the short story so all I had to go on was novels. It’s easier to finish a short story, even a bad one, as opposed to a novel. There came a point in time when I was reading a particular novel that was a thousand pages long and didn’t particularly appeal to me. I was slogging through the text and then I said enough is enough, dropped it, mentally made a note to come back to the book in the future (eight years has passed and the bookmark should still be there), and read other books in my ever-increasing “books to be read” pile (the pile grows every year). I never quite returned to that book and along the way, there were some books that made me drop them midway.

So, what causes you to abandon reading a book? Personally, at least in the first book that I dropped, it was because the story was getting nowhere. The conflict hadn’t established itself and the author was focusing too much on the details. There is such a thing after all as characterization and set-up but if I’m two hundred pages deep (easily the size of many short novels) and the content is pretty much the same as it was on the first page, and I know there’s eight hundred pages of this to follow, well, I’m lost.

Of course not all books I stopped reading are bad or even horrible. I simply stopped reading them amidst juggling other books. I fondly remember reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel when it first came out but somehow stopped mid-way. I keep telling myself I’ll return to that book one day but the truth of the matter is, I don’t see an opening in my current schedule.

How about you, what books have you dropped and do you intend to finish them?

*Or maybe I simply had more patience back then. When I started reading fantasy, Robert Jordan’s 7th Wheel of Time book was released in paperback and I did manage to finish the entire series in two weeks during summer break.


banzai cat said...

Well, right now the Millar isn't grabbing me to much. Maybe it's because too-high expectations? It's something I would read on the side but not really focus on. But given I just borrowed it, I might as well as return it to you.

So what was the book you first dropped?

S.M.D. said...

Well, I've quit on two books now. One was Slaves of the Shinar some time back. The writing was okay (nothing special), but I just didn't find the story very believable: a character who has been a slave his whole life doesn't suddenly become an awesome military commander overnight...or even in a couple weeks or months...
The other book I just dropped recently because after 29 pages I just didn't care. The main character was annoying (he frequently went on random rants that had nothing to do with the story or what was going on...both in italics (thoughts) and in dialogue, even though he was the only person there). Then the author went on big telling sprees giving me information about philosophy and other stuff that literally had nothing to do with the story itself...not to mention, these took place all over the place, including in the middle of the action. Then the story itself was basically a rehash of everything that is overdone about fantasy (even to go as far as to have that old language that was all too common in Tolkien's day)...and I dropped it after 29 pages because I didn't really care what happened anymore.

Yeah, so it happens :P

Samuel Tinianow said...

Life's too short to spend reading books you don't like.

Unless you're my girlfriend who can read an entire book in less than an hour, then it really doesn't make that much of a difference.

I may link to this post and start a poll on my blog to see what books people have put down before finishing.

Anonymous said...

I've started and abandoned Chapterhouse Dune more than once, and even reread the entire rest of the series to see if that would help me get through it. I've been told it's not worth such insanity, but I keep coming back to it.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt has gotten set down a few times now, but each section is strong, so i basically have been treating it as a series that I return to over time. Also didn't finish the second book in the Mars Trilogy.

I got confused by the order of 2 Tricia Sullivan books that I got at the same time and couldn't decide which one to read first ... I'm about 50 pages into both.

I'm not sure why I set Spin State by Chris Moriarty aside.

I still need to read the second half of Gene Wolfe's Wizard Knight books.

I got about 300 pages into Quick Silver by Neal Stephenson before abandoning it.

Both "From a Buick 8" and "Dreamcatcher" by Stephen King didn't get finished.

This is a very confusing list for me, because these are all books I'm pretty sure I'd love if I did finish them. I'm sure there are others.