Abandoning books, and restarting them

I find it hard to abandon books, once I’ve started them.

Not impossible by any means, but hard. Years ago I read a novel by Aldous Huxley which I loathed so much as I was going through it that I almost didn’t finish it. I pushed on though, and in the last chapter Huxley turned it around for me and with his ending made the whole book marvellous.

Huxley did me no favours with that particular feat. Most books if you hate them by the penultimate chapter will not redeem themselves with the final pages. Hell, most books if you hate them by the second chapter likely won’t redeem themselves.

These days, I’m more prone to giving up and I feel less shame for it. I dropped Julian Rathbone’s rather epic novel Joseph some fifty pages from the end when I realised that I couldn’t bear to spend another page in the company of the protagonist. I don’t read novels for sympathetic characters, I couldn’t care less as a rule whether I like a protagonist, but I struggle a bit when a novel consists of the author being sadistic towards creations he himself made loathsome.

All of which takes me to an old post. Back in January 2009 (ouch, now that is shameful) I posted about books I had started but neither finished nor abandoned. The original post is here and it described seven unfinished books.

It’s been over 18 months since that post, so, how am I getting on with those books?

Well, I finished Zanzibar which was my then current read without any problems. I returned to What I Saw by Joseph Roth two months later and finished that (my thoughts on it are here, in summary though it’s a great little book).

And then there’s the other five. Ahem. Here’s what they were:

  • The Histories, by Herodotus;
  • The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart;
  • Libya, From Colony to Independence by Ronald Bruce St. John;
  • What we talk about when we talk about love, by Raymond Carver; and
  • The Undercover Economist, by Tim Harford.
  • At the moment, I’m clearing out my flat of excess clutter. Part of that sadly means a lot of books going out the door. Two of them are books on that list.

    The Undercover Economist is a good book that just didn’t interest me enough to finish. In essence, it’s a bit like Freakanomics but with a less annoying tone and a lot more humility. If you liked Freakanomics you’ll probably like this. If you didn’t like Freakanomics, you might still like this because it’s better written. The author, Tim Harford, has a great website here and seems a pleasant and intelligent guy. It’s a shame I didn’t like his book better, but that’s a reflection on my interests rather than his writing.

    The other book on the list that’s going out the door is The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart. This is a fair sized book that I got half way through, and then one day I put it down and without consciously realising it I just started reading something else. It’s a well enough written book, it has good characterisation and although the basic story structure (Arthurian myth from Merlin’s perspective) is old Stewart still manages to make it fresh and original.

    This is a book with a lot of fans, and from what I see rightly so. The problem is I just don’t care. Years ago I noticed that my grandfather, Jim, wasn’t using a bookmark for his then book. I asked why not, and he answered that if you couldn’t find your place in a book you weren’t enjoying it enough for it to be worth reading.

    I have a bookmark in The Crystal Cave, but if I didn’t I’d never have known where I was in it.

    So, it gets abandoned. It’s solidly written and a fine readable novel but whatever it is that connects me personally to a book just isn’t there. The near 250 pages I’ve read so far are no reason to read the same again. If you’re interested in retellings of Arthurian myth this is a classic of that niche genre and you should seek it out. If you’re not, well, I’ll leave it to you to form your own view because I don’t have the will to open it to look for illustrative quotes.

    And there we are. What of the others?

    The Libya book I wasn’t that far into and it’s been so long I’ll just restart it at some point. It’s survived the current flat cull though as the subject matter’s quite interesting. As a rule I dislike restarting books but when I haven’t got that far in and don’t remember it well can be worth doing.

    I’m shocked to see how long I’ve left The Histories. I’ll try to continue that as it’s still rich in my memory. A marvellous book that deserves far better than the treatment I’ve given it.

    And that only leaves the Raymond Carver, or as we now know the Raymond Carver/Gordon Lish. I enjoyed the stories I read, and as I write this I find I remember some of them well. I’ll probably start it again from scratch, like the Libya book. Although I do remember it it’s a short work and the stories won’t suffer from rereading.

    So, there we are. Two books abandoned (not counting the anecdote about Joseph at the start of this post), two to be restarted and one to be finished as soon as I’m able. All that’s left is to ask whether anyone reading this has their own views on when they abandon a book, when they restart it, and when they plough on regardless of how little they may be enjoying something.

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    21 Comments

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    21 responses to “Abandoning books, and restarting them

    1. I am using a bookmark with Ulysses. Having inadvertently misplaced it some twenty pages back I didn’ t notice I was re-reading for some considerable time… What your grandfather said makes a lot of sense.

      My attitude to abandoning books has become more relaxed since completing Moby Dick. There is a span of some twenty years between my first attempt and the final successful read.

      For me the trick is in distinguishing between the right book at the wrong time, and a book that is simply wrong for me.

      Have never attempted Herodotus. Does it have to be read in one go, or can you dip into it over the years without losing the sense?

    2. I first attempted to read Patrick Süskind’s The Pigeon fifteen years ago but gave up after about a dozen pages not because it was bad so much as it gave me an idea which turned into a novel. Ten years later I thought I’d order a copy and actually see how it ended and didn’t get any farther. It was only this year I actually read it from cover to cover and I did it in one sitting. Sometimes you just have to wait until the time is right. I’m not sure when the time will be right to return to the second volume of Don Quixote though.

    3. I too used to have a different attitude towards book abandonment, and I took it as a personal failure. Now I don’t feel that way.

      Years ago, I struggled with Eliot’s Middlemarch. Gave up only to return years later. Now it makes my fav. book list.

      These days I give up sooner. Sometimes I wonder if I give up too quickly. I recently tried to read The Perfect Reader and by about 60 pages I began to think I was reading a completely different book from everyone else.

      I also gave on The Quickening Maze.

      I always have a stack of things to read, so it’s easy to move on if I don’t engage with the book at hand.

    4. Moi aussi…I’ve become better at abandoning though perhaps I am still viewing most of them as “not finished not abandoned”. Ashamedly, one of these is Middlemarch! I was actually loving it when I started reading it and got to nearly half way through (ashamed that I hadn’t read it ages ago really) a year or so ago but it’s so long and a read with a deadline came up – probably for my bookgroup – so I put it aside to meet that and just haven’t got back to it. It is the only unfinished not abandoned book that is next to my bed. The rest, probably about 10, are on a shelf in the bedroom where they can watch me accusingly. Some though may soon be abandoned.

      I also have a little pile to be abandoned that were given to me but I’ve never read and can’t imagine ever doing so. They are brand new and I feel very guilty and hence they’ve made it to a pile by the door but haven’t quite yet got out the door. Soon, though.

    5. I agree with a lot of what you all said.

      I tend to give up more quickly now too ; I used to think it a failure when I couldn’t finish a book. But now, I just think life is too short, I don’t have time to waste on books I don’t like.
      Lately, I stopped The Alternative Hypothesis by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt and Quo Vadis? without any regret. Now I’m thinking of abandonning The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami, I can’t get into it. I can’t even keep in mind the name of the main character !

      I tried George Eliot too and abandoned the book (The Mill on the Floss). I should have known before I wouldn’t like it, as I don’t like George Sand. She was so influenced by George Eliot that she chose George for her pen name.

      Sarah, you’re right on the difficulty to find out if it’s a problem of timing or a just a book not written for you. I tried to re-read books I hadn’t liked and my opinion didn’t change, even 20 years later. I still don’t like Wuthering Heights and On the Road. So I tend to think the timing is not so important : a book which “speaks” to me will attract me whenever I read it.

      And when I’m bored by a book, I tend to start another one at the same time. A funny thing happened the other day when I was reading The Confession of a Child of the Century by Musset and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë at the same time. In the Bronte, one of the character crosses the Channel to have fun in Paris to forget that Helen doesn’t like him. Right after reading that, in the Musset, Octave, the narrator, was having fun in Paris to forget his mistress and was complaining about English men who were moping at parties instead of having fun. It was as if my Englishman from the Bronte had dropped by Octave’s party. It’s the first time I was reading two books which were sort of talking to each other.

      Whisperinggums : speaking French ? Nice! I never asked if anyone of you speaks French. So now, I do it : does anyone of you speak French? 🙂

    6. GB Steve

      I’ve abandoned two books recently. One was Maldoror by Ducasse which demands a lot of attention and I wanted something lighter to read (so I read Kersh’s Night & the City instead) and the other was Boneshaker by Cherie Priest which, to a reader who makes any kind of demand on a book, is extremely dull (although not to the majority of its Amazon reviewers).

      I usually find it difficult too but have made a decision to be more picky.

    7. Nick

      As everyone here (it seems) I now give up on books quite easily. At least I don’t consider it outrageous when I do so.
      Last to date was Kafka on the shore. I hated it! At least the beginning… I won’t ever know about the rest.

      I usually give up when the book irritates me too much for me to continue, or when I’m just not up to the effort needed to continue (Ulysses).
      When I leave a bookmark (like for Ulysses), it’s a good but still unreliable sign that I will pick it up again later, much better than when I throw the book as far from me as I can (Haruki?… where are you?)

      Just too many good books out there to be read.

      Ce blog serait-il peuplé de francophones?

    8. GB Steve

      En reponse a la derniere question, il me semble que oui.

    9. Giving up on books is a funny thing, because it makes you feel like the barbarians are claiming a victory, but I think it’s legitimate. As people have observed above, life is short, there’s a lot of books out there that you probably won’t give up on, sometimes it’s best to cut your losses. And a mighty tome like Proust say, is probably best read over years, not in a mad dash, so why not take it slow?

      That said, I don’t think it’s necessarily a reflection of the book should you give up on it, and indeed a different mood or in a different place and time, and you can easily plunder a book with relish that previously was like wading through treacle. I think it took me a two years to complete Iain Sinclair’s ‘London Orbital’, and yet I love it.

      My great bugbear is the choice fatigue I get deciding what to read – only this week an attempt to read Ellroy’s ‘Bloods A Rover’ was abandoned 5 pages in when I started Isherwood’s ‘Christopher And His Kind’, only to have my attention hijacked by Jeffrey Meyer’s ‘Scott Fitzgerald’ biography, before settling on David Shield’s ‘Reality Hunger’ which, due to its brevity, I completed in about a day. This is typical, and is why I’m often given to reading one fictional book alongside a non-fiction piece, so my mood can at least settle on one of two alternate options.

      Unlike Shields, I’m not convinced shorter fiction is the answer to giving up on books, though like him I can’t say a weighty novel like ‘Underworld’ or a long novel like ‘The Corrections’ can ever appear to me initially as anything other than rather tedious work, however great the actual experience might turn out to be.

      Anyway, Max, given the amount of books you get through, as the many ruminations on your blog detail, I reckon your more than entitled to give up on a few.

      R

    10. Life is too short for me to have to plough on through a book I’m not enjoying. I have no problems at all aborting a poor read. Fortunately there are plenty of other books I wish were even longer. Whether I’ll ever complete all six volumes of Remembrance of Things Past is another matter.

    11. Sarah,

      Herodotus has themes, so you can read it in chunks but it’s better I think read in one go. It’s very good though and much livelier than you’d expect.

      Jim and Guy, certainly sometimes there are moments. The occasion may not be right. I just finished the fourth canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and unfortunately I didn’t choose my timing well there. I might well have been better off abandoning it and returning to it later (I enjoyed the first three so I would have returned). I’m not sure I did it any favours by pressing on in fact.

    12. WG, I wouldn’t worry about Middlemarch. Years ago I abandoned Crime and Punishment. That’s much more shameful.

      I still don’t know, to coin Sarah’s test, if it was the wrong book or just the wrong time. I need to give it another go though.

      Bookaround, I love the Musset/Brontë crossover. We should perhaps be glad characters don’t do that more often. Frankly having anyone from William Gibson turn up in Byron would be profoundly disturbing.

      Alas I don’t speak French. It’s a particular shame as there is a great deal I want to read in the language, probably more than in any other. I work too many hours to have time to study, so it’ll have to be a retirement project for me.

    13. Interesting to see both Nick and Bookaround bouncing off Murakami. I really like his work, though oddly enough The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is the only one of his I ever started and didn’t finish.

      What was the Kersh like Steve?

    14. Richard,

      I read about one a week, by blogger standards I’m a lightweight.

      I can see London Orbital would require revisiting. I printed off an article by Sinclair a while back on Hackney and it took me around four goes before I could read it. Brilliant, but rich and dense.

      Reality Hunger is covered at your blog isn’t it? I’ll drop by and see your thoughts. It’s a shame with blogspot there’s no equivalent to the wordpress feature where one can sign up to be emailed notice of new posts. I keep missing stuff at yours and when I see it it’s a bit late to comment. I need to be more regular clearly.

      Tom, re the Proust, keep at it! I’m hoping to start volume 2 shortly. I’m hoping to be blown away.

    15. Max, I’m equally lightweight – 3-4 books a month is what I achieve.

    16. Nick

      I read around 6 books a month (depending on the size – it’s still lightweight) but I’ve got the advantage to move to a new country every now and then and thus reducing very effectively the number of friends that might prevent me from reading (I’m trying to be really optimistic here).

      Plus I don’t watch TV.

      I have The Wind Up Bird Chronicle with me so I will probably give it a try. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t a present…

    17. It’s official, after 274 pages I’m giving up the Win-Up Bird Chronicles. I can’t make myself read the 600 pages left.
      Thanks Max for the comment, it seems The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is a special one in Murakami’s literature. I’ll try another one.

      I’m also a lightweight, one book per week is the best I can do with a full-time job and 2 kids (and without watching TV) But it’s good to balance interests too.

    18. I have trouble abandoning books. I’d skim once in a while, but abandoning just scares me. There’s the financial side to this too: I bought the book, might as well make it worth the money. Then again, there’s always a part of me that hopes it all gets better. Near the end. Somewhere.

      Having a new job — and the too-regular hours that go with it — have given me comfort re abandoning. Lately, if the book wasn’t working, I’d set it aside, promising to go back to it. If I hated it, I’d stop. If I was feeling Meh, I’m off to another book. It’s hell on my OC tendencies, but there’s nothing like being pressed for time to make me value good books even more.

      That said, my past reads [since I decided to abandon] have been awesome. Maybe this is partly conditioning, haha. But I’ll forever be thankful that I let go Bulgakov for the meantime to pick up Ethan Frome. :]

    19. Nice positive spin there Nick, but I can see how the moving would be a pain. No TV would certainly help.

      bookaround, I also enjoy films, listen to new albums, play computer games. Fitting stuff in is a constant pain. All that and I have a job too which takes more time than the rest put together.

      Still, better than having nothing to do by miles. I liked Lee Rourke’s book, but I’m not ready to embrace inactivity and boredom just yet.

      Sasha, I think it is worth sometimes giving a book a chance. That Huxley did surprise me. I do understand the reluctance.

      Time pressure had much the same effect on me as you. Oddly, I think blogging has lead to my thinking more carefully about what I read which means my hit rate is now pretty good. It’s rare these days I don’t read something that I at least find interesting even if I don’t much like it.

    20. My problem is, if I’m not captured immediately by a book, I get distracted easily. So, I usually end up abandoning it for several months, or possibly a year, before attempting to finish it up. I started a book, Audrey’s Door, last Christmas, but didn’t finish it until the spring! And, I have plenty of unfinished book sitting on my shelf because I’m simply “not in the mood” to pick them up right now. I should challenge myself to re-visit those discarded books…

      Great blog!

    21. Hi lollipop,

      If I abandon that long I abandon full stop or restart. A gap of a few months is too much for me.

      I see you’ve covered some Croation fiction at your blog. Seriously cool. I’ll be dropping by to see your thoughts.

      And thanks!

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