In book club we are often faced with reading books we would not normally choose to read as they are not our normal taste in books. We do vote for book choices, but sometimes your choice isn’t the winner (even if you’re the organiser). I always ask at the beginning of a book club meeting to see a show of hands of how many people finished the book. There are always a few who didn’t finish, and maybe one or two who didn’t bother to read it (yes, also true even if you’re the organiser).
Over my reading life I’ve struggled with either giving up on a book I don’t like or persevering to the end. Readers at book club drift between two camps: those who absolutely must finish any book they’ve started, and those who are perfectly happy to abandon a crap story for something else. Some people are firmly ensconced in the extreme of either camp, and some say it depends on how much they hate or don’t hate the book (and if they’ve got something else to read or not). Others vary by author or genre where they’ll always finish a type of book or one author’s book, even if it’s not so great.
Perhaps the wider question involves how to balance precious time against the mountain of books out there that one would like to read. I’ve noticed that I do spend a lot of time reading pointless drivel on the internet. Well, OK it’s not all drivel – there is good stuff out there that I do get value from reading and am glad I have read. But as we move into an era that does not value facts or truth and everything is evaluated on its entertainment value, I wonder if I am spending a disproportionate time on meaningless things. Let’s say a conservative estimate of time spent between ‘meaningful reading’ vs ‘junk food reading’ is 50/50. That feels like too much time on junk. I need to get it to at least 75/25, 80/20 if possible. Am I counting things that I read as part of normal stuff I need to do for personal admin or work? No, this is just how I spend free time reading both books and the internet from any and all devices.
I always want to give a book a chance, even if on the first page it’s not looking good. I find that I can keep going if I choose a page limit, say 100 pages (50 if it’s a shorter book) and just plow ahead till I get there. Recently I had to finish a book I didn’t particularly like for book club. We read The Peripheral by William Gibson and it did not get off to a good start at all. I forced myself to get through the first 50 pages or so and yes, it did get better and I was able to finish the book on the day of book club. Upon reflection I would say the choice to hang in there till it got interesting (can’t say that for every book) and switching from my kindle device to kindle on my iPhone were both helpful. Importantly reading on my phone meant that instead of scrolling through news sites I read a book. I don’t know why I resisted doing that for so long but finally I’ve given in. As for the book itself, it wasn’t super popular at book club. If you’re interested, my very brief review is here (no spoilers).
There are books that I just could not finish, even though I did get through 100 pages. There are three that stand out in recent memory as particularly annoying and wastes of time.
- The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith: I was excited to read this book because Zadie Smith had received so many awards for her first book, White Teeth, and I wanted to see what was so good about her as an author. I should have read White Teeth, because this novel was such a dud I couldn’t struggle through it. Why choose to write in the voice of a Chinese-Jewish man who collects autographs? I mean really? It felt like the author was saying ‘I can totally write in different voices, watch this’. I found absolutely nothing relatable about this story and neither did book club members. I hit the 100 page mark and promptly moved on with my life and never felt worse for having skipped this terrible story.
- A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole: This was a suggestion by my former book club co-organiser, and it looked like a good story. This was the one book written by the author and it remained unpublished when he committed suicide in 1969. His mother finally got it published and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. I’d much rather read a story about that then this pile of nonsense. I don’t have any idea why it was prize-winning as it’s a rant that goes on and on and on. Many of the guys in book club liked it, but few if any of the women did. Maybe you need a Y-chromosome to enjoy it? Not my cup of tea.
- Catch 22 by Joseph Heller: A classic of 20th century literature and lauded my millions as a masterpiece and a must-read, but I hated this book. Couldn’t understand what the hell was going on and when I did figure it out I didn’t care. I wanted to like it as so many people (mostly men though, hmmmm) were telling me I’d love it. I did not. It did not prompt me to want to see the movie either. When I tried to watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest last week I was reminded of this book. Both seem to be 1970s classics that men keep telling me to read or watch and I do not find them entertaining whatsoever. If we’re going for strange timelines and absurdity, I much prefer Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut or JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Both are male voices but I really got into these stories as the voices were part of the plot, not the sole reason for its existence.
There are a few more: Martin Amis’ Money, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (I wanted to like it for its title alone) and Flash Boys by Michael Lewis (I loved The Big Short but this just bored me). I even tried to listen to Melville’s Moby Dick as an audio book but it didn’t grab me. My ‘gave_up’ shelf on GoodReads has 15 books on it, although one of them I will probably go back to (Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise; I started it and shelved it to read a book club book).
I have decided that life is too short to finish a book I don’t like so I expect the ‘gave_up’ list to grow, but let’s hope it does slowly.