Friday, August 31, 2012

The Art of Reading: Read to the End vs. Move On

The Art of Reading: Read to the End vs. Move On

All bibliophiles have at least one thing in common: the love of books. Still, as I'm reminded every time I talk to another reader, that doesn't mean we express our affection for the written word in exactly the same way. I'm referring to how we read.

This post's theme: reading a book to the end versus moving on. Do you always read a book to the end? If not, at what point do you decide it's time to move on? What makes you put a book aside...permanently? In what case might you make an exception and push through a book that isn't really holding your attention?

I always read a book to the end. Not that it's always easy. I try to think of it like a painting. I wouldn't critique a painting when I'm positioned so I can only see half of it. A book is also a work of art and I prefer to view the work as a whole before forming a final opinion. Of course, depending on how carefully I look, I usually gaze at a painting for less than a minute to perhaps half an hour maximum. Most books take me at least three hours to read, usually more. Given that extra time investment, whenever I finish I book that I wasn't particularly enjoying and discover the ending's just as "bleh" as the rest of it, I find myself much more annoyed than if I had spent five minutes staring at a painting that didn't appeal to me.

I do find books that win me over by the end, repaying me for my commitment. TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan is one example. While I did enjoy the novel, for most of the story I found myself wondering "what's the big deal?" When I reached the end, I got it; it's tragic and cruel and heartbreaking...and wonderful. A more amusing example is LIRAEL by Garth Nix. I adored the first book the series, SABRIEL, and I was loving LIRAEL until a certain event that made me so angry that I threw the book down and abandoned it for quite a few months. Recalling my dedication to always finish a book I started, I eventually picked it back up only to discover a few chapters later that the event...well, didn't happen. Er, that's to say what made me so angry didn't really happen. I felt a bit sheepish for my reader's tantrum then. For one more example, take LABYRINTH by Kate Mosse. It took me so, so, so long to appreciate that book. At 528 rather fine print pages, it's a tome, too. I must have been a little over three fourths of the way through when the story finally grabbed me. Intensely. While it took me months to sift through the first three quarters, I tore through the rest of the novel in one very late evening and now consider it one of my many favorites.

Not all books do redeem themselves, though. Often when a book isn't hooking me near the start...or the middle...or nearing the end it doesn’t have a magical ending that makes everything fit together. And when that happens, I find myself frustrated with the book: I took a chance on it, I even gave it a second (and a third and a fourth) chance by turning the page time and again rather than setting it aside, and it never paid me back.

Another part of why I keep reading to the end is a fear, perhaps childish, that the book is just about to improve the paragraph or the chapter after I want to quit. At what point should I give up?

I rarely meet other readers who have the same mentality as me on this. Most simply put a book aside without a second thought if it's not winning them over, and I certainly can't blame them. However, I have met quite a few who have a "test": if the book hasn't grabbed them in (x) chapters or by (x) pages, it fails the test and they move on. Not a bad idea, except I could still never settle on exactly how many chapters or pages to allow the author to convince me I made the right choice in plucking their book from my towering stacks.

What about you? Anyone else out there who always tries to finish every book they start? Anyone with the chapter or page number tests? If not, when do you decide a book isn't going to be worth the effort of finishing it? Feel free to share examples of books that you couldn't finish or, better yet, ones that did pay off when you stuck with them until the end.

June 2017 Update: Worth mentioning that, 5 years since I wrote this post, my stance has changed. I stop reading books now. I finally jumped aboard the "life is too short" train (or more accurately, a really terrible book chased me aboard). I give it approximately 50 pages, and I'm generous. If I'm liking the book at all, I keep reading. If by 50 pages I am still incredibly bored or hating everything about the book, then I'm done.


  1. Great question! I always, always TRY to finish books. But in very rare cases, the need to stop reading overpowers my preference for finishing. I've suffered all the way through books that I plainly didn't enjoy (hell, I read all 3 Hunger Games books for Christ sake). But when I tried reading Norwegian Wood, I hated it so much that I shelved it without really thinking much of it. I guess what counts for me is that immeasurable difference between "it doesn't grab me, but I'll just finish it for the satisfaction" and "this literally makes my skin crawl, get it away from me."

    You made a great point when you mentioned the "worth my time" factor. If I stand to gain something from finishing a book, even just the ability to contribute thoughtfully to discussions about the book, I'll read it. If I feel like I will have nothing to show for the time I spent reading something except misery, there's just no point to going on.

  2. Actually, I didn't mention it in the post, but the one book I gave up on was MOBY DICK. I actually made it pretty far, too; I reached about 3/4 the way through the descriptions of all the different kinds of whales before wondering, "Why am I reading this?"

    There are plenty of classics that I adore, but that's one that I simply do not understand why it's so beloved. And, yes, I have multiple friends who cite that as their number one favorite book, so there are going to be some gasps to this comment!

  3. The only books I'll try to finish even when I'm bored/unhappy with them are book club books (and even then I'll probably feign illness and give up on them anyway). Once I've read a sample, paid for the book, read further and realized it's not meeting my expectations, I start keeping track of pros and cons. If my reasons for reading on (say I like the author, the premise is amazing, and the protagonist is female) outnumber my reasons for stopping (e.g. the writing is clunky and nothing seems to be happening), I'll keep going until I come up with several more cons, and then I'll stop. If I already like the author, I'll read a lot further than if the author's new to me, though.