Quitting While You’re Ahead

I took a vacation last year, a long one, involving hours and hours on an airplane and days and days during which I needed neither to cook nor clean. Perfect time for reading, right? I’d carefully curated a list of titles on my Kindle (I need choice, for precisely the reasons you’ll read here) but planned to start with Wolf Hall. However, when I opened it and saw the family tree and the lengthy list of characters, I knew it wasn’t Kindle/vacation reading.

I started, instead, I Couldn’t Love You More by Jill Medoff, and it was so bad, I finally gave it up. (I know you’re going to ask me so I’ll just say this: nothing about it was believable, from the characters to the situations—that is, the plot—and the writing only compounded the problem; it could have benefited from some decent editorial, but apparently got none.*) I wasted an entire Atlantic Ocean flight on it before I packed it in. (sigh)

Before last year, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’d bailed on a book. (Ken Follett’s World Without End springs to mind. I think it is the probably the single worst book I’ve ever read half of.) My upbringing was of the rah-rah-don’t-be-a-quitter variety, so in the past I’ve persevered through almost every book I picked up.

This has its rewards, of course. We can all name books that were slow to start but were fantastic in the end. (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, for example. A quick canvas of my reading friends also turned up In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, A Quiet Vendetta by R. J. Ellory, and Chabon’s Wonder Boys for the Worth It List.)

But last spring my friend Beth spent some time with writer (and book reviewer) Maud Newton. Newton’s working on a novel and has published short fiction all over the place. She blogs about books, too, to such a degree the Paris Review says she is “required reading for readers.” Maud Newton knows from books, kids.** Later, Beth wrote about all this. Including:

As a reviewer, Maud Newton asks herself, “Does this book feel like it will be for me; will it be edifying to me in some way?” If the answer is no, she puts it down, never to pick it up again. “I’m really a selfish reader.”

Well, that was an epiphany.

The fact is, the time I have for personal reading is finite. Not every book is for me. I know this now, although I didn’t have my breakthrough right away.

I started The Book Thief—great reviews and Beth’d raved about it—and hated it. What is wrong with me? I asked her. “I give you permission,” she wrote, “to stop.” (I did. Later I picked it up again and finished it—and although I still can’t say I liked it, I’m glad I persevered.) In addition to the Medoff, I gave up on two other books last year (Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which had come highly recommended, and Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, for which I’d had high expectations).

Now I carry this Message of Hope and Freedom to family and friends, one of whom recently posted on Facebook that she’d begun skipping sections of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. “I would say ‘starting to skip’ is where you’ve realized it’s not for you,” I told her. “I assume the problem is me,” she said. “I’m missing something and if I keep on I might find what that is.”

No, dear one. It’s not a personal failing. That book’s just not for you.

The beauty of this is, of course, there’s always another book.

*I don’t mentally edit every book I read. I don’t. My personal reading is pleasure reading. But when a book has been badly or barely edited, I can tell; you probably can too.
**It’s interesting, also, that she avoids negative reviews. Although I understand it; when I’m excited about a book (see: Wolf Hall) I want to talk about it to everyone. I’ve written about this before.

 

UPDATE: Brought to Newton’s attention on Twitter, the post above occasioned this response: “Even [Jorge Luis] Borges advocated not spending time with books you don’t love!” Which settles it definitively for me. :)

Tweet: I wasted an entire Atlantic Ocean flight on that bad book before I packed it in.
Tweet: The fact is, the time I have for personal reading is finite. Not every book is for me.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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18 Comments

  1. Ramona Richards says:

    Wow. I hate that it took you so long to realize this. I have an entire bookcase of half-read books, most of which will find their way to McKay’s one day. I think my first one was in my late teens, and the ones since have included bestsellers, the highly recommended, and the award-winning. Probably the most notorious was The Two Towers, which I struggled an entire summer to read, only to find out that I had mono and part of the problem was the illness. But I never went back to it.

    No matter how “good” a book is, it’s not for every reader.

    • Jamie says:

      Part of the reason I took so long to figure this out is I know my own reading habits pretty well; I don’t make that many book-mistakes. (I’m quite skilled at all other mistakes, however.) So I’m just not experienced with giving up. But I’m learning!

  2. Michelle Ule says:

    Gee, this looks all about me. :-)

    My father never reread a book because he said life was too short.

    I’ve reached the same conclusion about books I don’t enjoy early on. If you can’t keep me in the first pages, no thanks.

    Thanks for permission to let famous best sellers go!

  3. Matthew says:

    Yeah, I was always the same way. My motto was if you start something, you finish it, including books. However, within the last year or two I decided that there are way too many books out there for me to struggle through a book I can’t stand.

    A few months ago I tried reading Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and couldn’t get past page ten.

  4. I will ditch a book without a qualm. We’re not Girl Scouts trying to earn a badge. Although I do think it’s helpful to discuss books you’re glad you kept going. That would give me pause.

    “Not my flavor” is the term I use to describe books I don’t like because it’s open ended and taste is subjective. I have not read “50 Shades” and never tried because I’d heard enough to know “Not My Flavor!” same thing with the Twilight books.

    It’s also helpful when a person is gushing about and pushing a book which YOU HAVE TO READ but I’ve already read and loathed. “

    • Jamie says:

      One thing I’ve learned in talking about books with people is—like ice cream—not everyone likes the same flavor. Mint, for example, is wonderful in hard candy but leaves me cold (hahaha) in ice cream.

  5. Ah, I, too, am a reformed “gotta read it.” The Time Traveller’s Wife……OMG……three pages in, and the book traveled right back to my shelf.

    Knowing this about readers reminds me to be a better writer.

    • Jamie says:

      It’s so interesting to hear what people didn’t like—and there’s no accounting for what moves or doesn’t move someone. I ended up loving TT’s Wife … but that’s because I concluded early on I couldn’t possibly keep up with the dates at the beginning of each section. Once I quit reading the dates and trying to place them on a timeline, my enjoyment was enhanced.

      Bottom line, though, is not every book appeals to every person—for whatever reason!

  6. Jan Thompson says:

    “No, dear one. It’s not a personal failing. That book’s just not for you.”

    Thank you! As an avid reader, it used to pain me that I made myself finish reading a novel regardless of how bad it was. I felt sorry for the author — he/she had spent so much time writing that book — that I felt it was only polite if I finished reading it, hoping it will somehow, someway improve. It rarely did.

    After a few years of that, I grew up. My local libraries shelve buckets of new books every week. There are so many to choose from, and so little time to read them all, that I have to be choosy. If the back cover or jacket blurb doesn’t appeal to me, if the first page or chapter is blah, I don’t read that book. I might come back to it later. I might not.

    I stopped looking at the NYT top twenty, and just read what I want to read. Bliss.

    • Jamie says:

      I still mourn (briefly) the loss of reading time when I set a book aside. But then a weight is lifted—mitigated by the excitement of starting something new. :)

  7. mcgrimus says:

    I was 200 pages into Ulysses before I realized I had no idea what was going on. So I wisely set that one aside rather than struggle through the next 400 pages. I try not to quit on a book, but in the end you’re giving yourself more time for books you will like. (BTW, I loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay!)

    • Jamie says:

      Re K&C — I know, I know, right? Lots of people did. It won the Pulitzer, for heaven’s sake! But while I was still guilt-ridden I looked around. Some people didn’t like it too. So I stopped beating myself up, stopped skimming, and just stopped. :)

      The flip side of this is I no longer tell people “you’ll LOVE this” no matter how excited I am, because I’ve learned, over and over, that books I’ve loved are not always loved by the people I love. Now I just say: I really liked it! Maybe you will too! :)

  8. Jamie I’m so relieved to hear that you gave up on Chabon’s Kavalier & clay, too. I just wrote about that today on my site!
    I picked it for my last book club read based on a high recommendation & the Pulitzer medal. So I was dismayed that no one else in my book club could get through it either – and I still think it’s a great book and he’s a great writer. Thanks for making me feel it’s ok to quit while we’re ahead.

    • Jamie says:

      The friend who recommended it to me LISTENED to it as an audiobook. When I discussed this with her she thought perhaps the acting was so good that that’s what kept her entertained. Basically, though, it is written in a style of writing that was popular during the time it’s set. It’s very clever, really. I appreciate that. But … it wasn’t for me. :)

  9. Mari Adkins says:

    I totally won’t spend time with a book (or anything or anyone for that matter) that doesn’t grab and keep my attention. I have better (and more important) things to do with my time. (I used to have a button that said Life’s Too Short to dance with Ugly Guys!)

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