Abandoning books

People have rules about this kind of thing: I always finish the book; or I only read books by women; or I can’t be bothered with books that are more than 100 pages; or I only read when there’s an R in the month. One friend says, ‘If I start a book I always finish it.’

Books byAurelia Lange.

Books byAurelia Lange.

Seriously – why finish every book? Why make a rule of it? Why do readers think they need to, unless they think they should carry on? It’s an irrational position, an act of faith.

Finding the hidden treasure

Part of me understands that every book might have some hidden treasure. And I can see that if I stop reading, I’ll never find it. I like to be sure of the treasure in the book from fairly early on. If I don’t see it then the book gets tossed aside. In truth, that means it is left in the pile of books on bedside table, slowly sinking to the bottom, and moved on to the Oxfam books pile when I decide to tidy up. Or returned to the TBR shelf to sit awhile. This is what has happened to The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I’m not yet sure whether I have abandoned it or not.

130 TBRSome people I know borrow library books so that it they want to stop reading them they haven’t wasted money buying them. Kindlers can use the first few pages sampler.

Letting it go

Abandoning a book is a pretty serious action, an indictment, a judgement. So I don’t do it lightly. I decide when I don’t believe the book will get any better. Usually it happens when I fail to feel any interest in the characters. It’s rare, but it happens. If the characters are boring, or lacklustre or facing dilemmas that just don’t seem very important, well I can’t see any point in continuing. There are better things to do and better books to read.

130 D&sonI’m not going to identify the books, because I have no reason for drawing attention to them and my evaluation of them may not be yours. Except I will mention Dombey and Sons, by Charles Dickens, which just seemed to go on and on – but I may get back to it one day!

Not letting it go

Some books contain pretty nasty characters, in whose company you are really not very comfortable. I think of the main character in Money by Martin Amis. He is gross. But that is really the point. Or take Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. The book is full of very selfish characters who behave very badly towards each other. And it doesn’t even end happily. Of course, just because the characters are not sympathetic, it doesn’t mean the book is not worth reading.

Going back

Recently I posted about hard-to-read books. Some of those were originally abandoned, but then I managed to get back to them. For example, I found it very hard indeed to read the novella Chasing the King of Hearts, by Hanna Krall. It was one of my five World Book recommendations this year. I am really glad I did return to it. You should read it if you haven’t yet.

Throwing them out

Perhaps it’s the same people who never give up on reading a book who keep every book they ever bought. I wouldn’t have space in my cottage for my cat and my piano if I had done that. The unfinished, the duplicates, the unwanted gifts, the read-but-happy-to-give-away, the unreturned loans, the out of date non-fiction, the painful reminders – all these can go. Other readers can take them in. Perhaps they will make different judgements.

I like this take on the issue from the Guardian Review in May 2014 by Tom Gauld.

My Library by Tom Gauld

My Library by Tom Gauld

What other people do

Goodreads listed the top 5 most abandoned books in July last year (from a straw poll – ie what follows is not to be considered as proper research):

  • Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
  • Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James
  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  • Wicked by Gregory Maguire

I notice that these books all had big reputations, so perhaps the abandoners were not their natural readers. And some people perhaps were put off by authors who use two initials in place of a first name.

And the 5 most abandoned classics – same source

  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (?really???)
  • Lord of the Rings by JR Tolkein (there you go again!)
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Goodreads suggested that 38.1% of readers will continue reading to the end. The writer Peter Wild when he reported on the Goodreads statistics, wrote that these people think that abandoning a book is a kind of heresy. Others quit after a chapter or (this may be a joke) 100 pages minus the reader’s age.

But whatever our practice it’s good isn’t it that readers don’t say, ‘I was disappointed by a book once. Never read a book again’!


Do you abandon books that disappoint you? If you stick with a book, tell us why!

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Filed under Books, Libraries, Reading

15 Responses to Abandoning books

  1. Helen Ashley

    Yes, I’m afraid I’ve abandoned books, sometimes because I’m critical of the author’s style of writing. Sounds arrogant, I know, but if the text doesn’t flow well, then I find it irritating and it gets in the way of the story. I remember once getting hung up on one sentence where I thought: ‘If only the author had put those two clauses round the other way, that sentence would have had much greater impact.’.
    I need a story to show the author’s passion for their subject matter. There are some books on subjects which I might have found off-putting, but they’ve hooked me because of the quality and passion in the writing. Tan Twan Eng’s ‘The Gift of Rain’ is one such.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment. I agree, some books might have been saved, or not abandoned anyway, by some good editing. The quality of writing really does matter. I don’t know the book you mention – Tan Twan Eng’s ‘The Gift of Rain’. Another one for the TBR shelf! Thanks Helen.

  2. I sometimes abandon books if they become too violent (an example would be the bestseller’Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts), or if the sex seems gratuitous and unconvincing! Right now I’m enjoying Isabel Allende’s ‘House of the Spirits’, but can feel a little voice niggling and wondering whether to persist to the end. I probably will – because I’ve read enough to ‘trust the voice’ even if the story at times loses my interest. Interesting post, Caroline, thank you!

  3. Eileen

    Ah – is it about guilt? At my convent it would have been a sin to abandon a book. And it is interesting that you have used the word abandon – like leaving a little child out in the snow. Now thank goodness I have giving up guilt in all walks of life and if I don’t like a book I just stop reading it. Just as I would stop eating a cake if I didn’t like it – but hey, another guilt trip – eat all the food that is on your plate. What upbringings we had.
    Thanks for writing this Caroline. A great read and I like Tom Gauld’s classification especially books for show and one’s I’ve pretended to read.
    Yours, E B Carnell.

    • Caroline

      The guilt/religious aspect appears to be strong in this theme about abandoning books. Thanks for picking it out. I don’t feel guilt about it (or much else as i think you know). If a book is not holding my sttention and interest I will let it go. Sometimes this is a struggle if I am reading it for a book group. Otherwise – be off with you!
      Not you. Thank you for your comments as always.

  4. Maggie Butcher

    You sound surprised that Catch 22 tops the list of ‘most abandoned’ classics. I couldn’t finish it, and thought perhaps it was a ‘man’s book’ but in our largely female reading group the only other person who found the book unreadable was a man considerably younger than me.

    • Caroline

      Yes I am surprised that Catch 22 tops the list. I often forget that people like different books. That one was so significant for me when I first read it. I have probably made up for the abandonment by you and the man in your reading group – I’ve read it several times. Even refer to it (Dunbar, specifically) in Retiring with Attitude (and I hope that this revelation will not put anyone off our book!)
      But I think that list included books with a reputation, so people felt they should at least try them. They might be the most read books at the same time!
      Thanks for the comment Maggie.

  5. Elizabeth

    I used to finish every book I started out of principal – I wouldn’t let a book defeat me, though the rule didn’t apply for anything that was badly written. I used to be disappointed quite often. Now I have so many books I want to read, and there are so many great writers out there that I refuse to persevere past three chapters if I’m not enjoying something – even if everyone else is raving about it. (I also loved Catch 22 and you must read Tan Twan Eng – winner of the Man Asian prize.)

    • Caroline

      I agree – so many books to be read. They have to earn the attention I can give them. Was there one particular book that changed your ideas about not being defeated by books?
      Thanks for this comment Elizabeth.

  6. Can certainly identify with people giving up on The Lord of the Rings or Moby Dick (though I did plan through to the end of that one).
    There’s research somewhere about unfinished business being more likely to stay in the mind – so there’s a payback for finishing even books you hate. On the other hand, with the world having far too many good books one could reading one’s lifetime, I’d say move on.
    But I am finding it a little awkward in relation to books I’ve been sent by a publisher for review – I do feel some commitment there, especially if I’ve requested the book, though I have given up on a few.

    • Caroline

      Interesting about the lingering nature of unfinished business. I think I feel I have finished when I make a decision to abndon a book, to stop reading. That’s probably why I can so easily stop.Always interesting Anne. Thanks

  7. I do abandon books these days. It used to be important to me not to: I was in the camp of “respect the author who put in all the work writing this” as well as general guilt – I also hated the idea of having spent money on something then not getting full value by reading it.
    But these days, I’ve relaxed. I don’t finish food that I’m not enjoying, because it’s just a different kind of wastefulness – putting in calories that I’ll then want to work off. And finishing books I’m not enjoying, well, it’s using my very precious time on something I’m not getting a return on, and there’s too much that I really do want to read, so I’ve stopped pressuring myself.
    Funnily The Luminaries was on my list too – I tried so hard, but couldn’t make progress, and it was stopping me from reading anything else, because I felt I should be finishing that. So it’s gathering dust, but a few people whose opinion I respect say it’s amazing, so maybe one day I’ll return to it…

    • Caroline

      Thanks Helen for these comments. How did you get to be so relaxed?
      I can see that wanting to finish bit not getting on with a book does get in the way. I’m struggling with a book for a reading group at the moment. I’m not getting on with it, and my ‘to be read’ pile is growing daily. Perhaps I’ll settle in front of the fire this evening for a session.
      Drop by again please!

  8. Nicki

    Interesting to come across this post just as I am within the last 100 pages of Oryx and Crake which I haven’t enjoyed at all – yet Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite writers and in fact I did like The Year of the Flood (which I think was the sequel). If it wasn’t by her I think I would give up and should have given up some time ago! Also ploughed through Moby Dick a couple of summers ago and wonder why I bothered, ditto Don Quixote. Managed Ulysses on my second attempt but only because I started it when in Dublin! I think it depends when you read some books. In my teens (some time last century) I didn’t really want to read anything other than classics – all Jane Austen devoured in an omnibus edition when I was about 11, and I think I also read Dombey and Son then. Somehow I missed Lorna Doone at the time, and struggled to read to the end of that within the last few years. From now I will stop, I hope – there are so many books I do want to read that it is pointless to waste time on something that’s not engaging or enlightening in some way. O&C is a dire warning – the bleak vision of the future is all too possible but I do think it could have been a shorter book!

    • Caroline

      Hi Nicki,
      you seem to have put yourself through some difficult reading marathons. I find Margaret Atwood too wordy, and can’t get on with her futuristic stuff (even including The Hadnmaid’s Tale which is probably second only to To Kill a Mocking Bird as a most-loved book from the school curriculum book). And Dombety and Son remains with its bookmark somewhere near the end of the first 200 pages. I agree. Too much good stuff to read without getting mired down, or made to feel guilty about reading that which you are not enjoying.
      I’ll almost certainly never read Ulysses and probably not Moby-Dick either. Good on you.
      Thanks for the comment,.

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