I love books, but there are so many out there
July 18, 2008 9:50 AM   Subscribe

How do you decide whether a book is worth reading?

I've been a voracious reader all my life. This has caused me to have a HUGE reading backlog. So, I try to peck away at my reading list and often end up finishing books. A lot of times, though, I'll have gotten through almost half a book before I realize it's not for me.

I tried to institute a "if it's not interesting after 50 pages, into the bin it goes" policy, but I always feel like I might be missing that one life changing book that gets started on page 51. I guess what I'm saying is that I need to have some quality control standards here so that I read only the good stuff.

So, I ask you MeFites: How do you decide whether a book is worth reading, and when do you decide to abandon a book if it's not for you?
posted by reenum to Grab Bag (39 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
Usually if you get sucked into it while still at the bookstore/library/whatever, that's a good sign.

I also look to friends for recommendations. Amazon recommendations sometimes does a good job too.
posted by o0dano0o at 10:05 AM on July 18, 2008


Cover appeal. Seriously. It's where I start. A publisher that is willing to put money into good graphic design and cover art believes in the book. There's few good books out there with really crappy covers (I am sure people can disprove this, so don't derail the question proving me wrong).


And then I look at the cover blurbs, see if any authors I know blurbed it. I read Stven Erikson's "Malazan" books because they had a Glen Cook blurb. Some authors will blurb anything though, so some aren't worth trusting.

And then I read the inside jacket, back cover copy, and the first few lines. At this point I either buy it or not.

This is all assuming it's an unknown author that I've no prior knowledge of (like reviews or word of mouth).

Life's too short for bad books. I also have a huge backlog of books to read, so I will move on to something else.

I loved the first 100 pages of Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash." But the next 100 pages sucked so bad I quit reading it. I've been told the last 100 pages make the book worth it, but it's a 600 page book. I'm not going to slog through 400 pages of crap to get a good ending. I'm also not going to read a book that is 2/3 crap.

My point is I will quit reading once I know the book isn't any good. I quit reading Heinlein's "Fear No Evil" with only 30 pages to go. It was horrible. And like you, I kept expecting it to get better, I kept thinking "this one might change my life." And then it dawned on me, that even if it did get better, it was too late. One of the only books I can remember throwing. And I like Heinlein.

I also love recommendations. This way, if the book is bad, you have someone to hold it against!
posted by cjorgensen at 10:10 AM on July 18, 2008


I read the first page and then a random page further into the book. As far as books which don't pick up by page 50 - by that point I start peering for reviews of said book, and if the reviews say something along the lines of, "it starts out slow, but then you start screaming because the book gets better," then I'll keep going.

Other times, if a book is boring, but I'm already 3/4 of the way through, I'll keep on rolling just to do it, with the maybe irrational rationale of, "well, maybe it wasn't very good, but at least I'll finish it."
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:11 AM on July 18, 2008


Judge it by it's cover.

Actually, I enjoy finding recommendations within books I already like. For instance, Slaughterhouse Five (one of my all time favorites) had a character tell Billy Pilgrim to read The Brothers Karamazov, so I did. I think Vonnegut was also the readon I read Bradbury's Illustrated Man.
The Brothers Karamazov was great and included some high praise and numerous citations for Schiller, so next time I'm in a poetry phase I'll be looking into that... I wonder how long I can ride this...?
posted by shadowfelldown at 10:11 AM on July 18, 2008


I don't have a set rule for when to stop. Picking some arbitrary number just seems a bit crazy to me. It doesn't take into account the total length of the book. Just grabbing a few off my shelf, this is how much of each book you'd be reading.

- The Once and Future King: 7.82% (and you'd only have to get 1/3 of the way down page 53 to finish that chapter)

- Musicophilia: 14.41% (break on 55, chapter on 86)

- A Clockwork Orange: 26.05% (chapter ends on 56)

- Grimm's Fairy Tales: 9.84% (that story ends on 56)

For me, I stop reading a book when it stops holding my interest. If that's in the first few pages, then so what? I'm not going to labor through something that I'm not enjoying if I'm reading it for fun.

That being said, I always try to finish a section or chapter.

The only three books that I've stopped reading are Grimm's Fairy Tales (by the end you've basically already read that story earlier in the book), Musicophilia (going home from college for the summer messed up my routine), and The Divided Mind (lots of technical stuff that isn't exactly good for reading before sleep).
posted by theichibun at 10:14 AM on July 18, 2008


Cover, usually, but otherwise, first chapter.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:16 AM on July 18, 2008


If I'm at a bookstore, I'll read the synopsis on the back or inside flap then open the book to the middle somewhere and start reading to see if I like the author's style. If a random middle page hooks me, then I'll read the first page or two and make a decision.

I generally avoid books where the author's name is written in larger font than the book title, and one's that have snippets of glowing review quotes instead of a synopsis.
posted by hoppytoad at 10:20 AM on July 18, 2008


I read the last chapter or two before I buy it or check it out of the library. If the last chapter doesn't end how I think it should (after reading the summary), then I don't even bother. I also tend to stick to authors whose writing I love. Also, if the book starts out good but then fizzles, I'll skip to the last two or so chapters and read them.
posted by TurquoiseZebra at 10:25 AM on July 18, 2008


Unlike plates of food, they won't rot if you put them back on the shelf for a few years.

In fact, they may ripen. ...Or you may; something about Gravity's Rainbow repelled me for half a decade after I bought it, but now, if you wanted to put me under oath, you'd be wiser to have a little bit of bright orange on another thick book peeking out from under that Bible.
posted by jamjam at 10:29 AM on July 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


How do you decide whether a book is worth reading, and when do you decide to abandon a book if it's not for you?

I read it, and immediately.
posted by box at 10:31 AM on July 18, 2008


At the bookstore or library I will look at random pages for agreeable style and pithy content. Unlike other posters here I will start to read at around chapter 3 as the opening chapters are often exposition (especially biographies).
posted by canoehead at 10:32 AM on July 18, 2008


I always feel like I might be missing that one life changing book that gets started on page 51.

For me part of deciding what to read and what not to read is disabusing myself of the notion that such a book exists. Also for me there is no such thing as "the good stuff" though there are various reasons I might want to read something and each comes wth its own "when do you give up" timeline.

- friend recommended it, want to talk to friend about it
- want to learn what it's teaching
- need to pass time (esp when travelling)
- want to read everything some author puts out
- book is very popular, useful to read for work (I'm a librarian)
- book is about local stuff, want to learn about community things

I watch my own reading habits and have a few patterns

- I try not to be in the middle of more than a few [3-4] books at a time. If I'm getting more than that on my night table, I bring some back to the library.
- I can basically say "yeah I know I should finish this book but I'm watching myself NOT READ IT" so if it's not getting read, it's not the book for me
- I try to alternate types of books so I'm not in a rut. I'll work harder to finish a denser book if I've been having a run of really light fiction for example, but not too hard.
- I keep a list of books I've read which is a little extra incentive to finish a book that might not otherwise be getting me

At some level, since I'm not in school anymore, anything I read is just for me, for whatever reason so I'm pretty okay with the "hey if it's something worth reading, then I'll read it" approach.
posted by jessamyn at 10:41 AM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've been asking myself this question a lot lately. I was feeling guilty for starting and not finishing books. But as a writer I know that because of deadlines, my ending often gets rushed. I find that if a book starts good but then fails to hold my attention in later chapters, I take it back to the library and start on the next book I've been meaning to read.

For me, the litmus test for giving up on a book is when I would rather surf the net than read the book.
As soon as I find I'm avoiding reading because the book just isn't that good, I'm wasting valuable time that could be spent on a really good book. I probably start more books than I finish. But I do often hit can't-put-it-down books that I read cover to cover.

Also, I usually have three or more on the go, so it becomes a battle of the books. Which do I want to read today? If one book keeps losing the battle, I take it back.
posted by Brodiggitty at 10:44 AM on July 18, 2008


I read about seven books a week, which is insane, but even I have to draw the line somewhere. And yes, if I'm not sucked in within the first fifty pages, I'll usually drop the book. In fact, I need to be sucked in on page one, or at least to see a bit of potential there.

Rules I have:

1: Do not. EVER. Read cover copy. This is because the plot synopsis on the flap or back cover often either (a) gives away details I'd rather not know or (b) is just plain poorly written, since it's always written by someone at the publishing house and not the writer. You can't get a sense of a writer's style through cover copy.
2: But do look at the cover. I find that books I'll like often have similar cover art, a similar style, as if to say, "We're trying to be Margaret Atwood," or "We're trying to be Meg Cabot." It's not a fool-proof method, but it does weed things out a bit.
3: And yes, look to see if authors you respect have blurbed the book. That's a good sign. Good, but not perfect.
4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10: Read the first page. If you like it, read the second page. Get through ten pages. If those first ten work for you, buy the book. Seriously, do not ever buy a book at the store unless you've already gotten sucked in. There are too many amazing books out there, just waiting for you to read them, to waste time on stuff that won't capture your imagination.

Other rules: Don't read something because someone says you have to. Some people think A Confederacy of Dunces is brilliant; I think it's brilliantly boring. Don't read something just because it was on display and thirty percent off at B&N. DO read something if the first sentence of the book leaps off the page and tries to strangle you with its brilliance.

Some of these rules, except for number one, can be ignored at times. As a reviewer, I'm constantly getting stuff with mediocre covers. And a lot of the time, I'm like, "No. No way. This is going to be awful." But it turns out the author just had some really bad luck on the art front. Other times -- and these are pretty notable -- I'll get 100 pages into a book and think, "This is going nowhere," only to discover on page 250 that something incredibly amazing and brilliant has finally happened, and that the book has changed my life. Again, those reviews that say "It started out slow, BUT ..." are worth looking for.

Anyway, I generally have a rule that if I've made it halfway into the book, I can't stop. But that's my own silly hang-up, and I wouldn't encourage it in others. If you've got the guts to say, "No! I can't take it any more!" then you should most definitely follow your instinct.

Happy reading!
posted by brina at 10:49 AM on July 18, 2008


I read the first page followed by the last page. If there's nothing seemingly missing from the middle (ie the last page makes complete sense without having read the book), I don't bother. Unless it's by an author that I love, or nothing is supposed to happen. I read about 4 books a week, and have decided that life is too short to read rubbish.
posted by car01 at 10:50 AM on July 18, 2008


I'll usually quit at about 1/4 of the way through if it hasn't grabbed me by then. If an author can't get something decent going in the first 25%, I assume they won't have much to say in the last 75%.

I've read approximately a zillion books. Not one has truly changed my life. There are quite a few that have made me stop and think, and that I remember for years afterward, but truly affecting my outlook on life? Zero. So I figure the odds of missing out on a life-changing book are slim to none. I'd rather look for a good book that hooks me in the first few chapters than keep plowing through a dud in the hope of finding it's a great book later on.

Disclaimers: I read pretty fast and I get most of my books from the library so I don't have much invested in them, and little incentive to finish if I don't enjoy them.
posted by Quietgal at 10:55 AM on July 18, 2008


Like many of the others, I do the cover check, read the blurbs (if any), and check the synopsis. I also typically go twenty to thirty pages in, read 5-10 pages, and, if I feel like the book fits into something I would enjoy reading, I buy it. Why not, you never know when you might have a spare moment to read that book, right?

As for the fifty page rule, I feel that's a bit too fixed. If I had stopped reading Atlas Shrugged at page fifty (which, arguably, is before things even really get moving), I would have been 5% in. Applying this logic to other forms of entertainment like a movie, you would walk out of a 2 hour film in the first 6 minutes. Even being generous, if you read fifty pages of a 300 page book (16.7%), you would walk out of the same 2 hour movie in twenty minutes. I say read until you feel that you want to finish. If that feeling doesn't strike and you've got another book waiting that piques your interest more, ditch the status quo.
posted by conradjones at 10:56 AM on July 18, 2008


I specifically do not go by the first or last page. Authors know those are the most likely things to get read. So if a book is mediocre but has a few highlights, the beginning or end will probably contain some of the highlights. That is likely to obscure, not illuminate, whether the whole book is worth reading. 99% of what you'll be reading will be the stuff in the middle, not the dramatic opening or closing flourishes.

I look at the table of contents for some topic/concept/phrase that jumps out at me: "Oh, that's interesting -- I wonder what the author has to say about that!" Then I go to that section of the book and look around. If I'm bored by the section that I expected to be the most interesting thing in the book, I assume the rest of the book is even more boring, so I automatically put it down. (If I don't even notice any interesting sections that I want to read, then I assume the book just doesn't overlap with my areas of interest, so I put it down.)

If, OTOH, I'm drawn in by the first passage I read, then I think: "OK, maybe the whole book is worth reading, or maybe I was only interested in this section -- I'm not sure." So then I'll look around to other random sections -- maybe topics I wouldn't have thought to read about in the first place. If the book gets me interested in those, then the whole book is probably worth reading.

Reading 50 pages before deciding whether it's worth reading a book seems crazy. I usually know in 10 minutes, often less. (I read less than a page a minute -- 50 pages would usually take me hours.)

Some of the above answers say you should judge a book by its cover. That's -- ahem! -- not something you should do. The same book often has totally different covers in different editions. If I had to list the most exciting books I've read, probably half of them have bad covers.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:04 AM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I read most books all the way through, just because I can't stand to give up on a book. I am, however, pretty picky about which books I attempt. I only read one book at a time and I do make the decision to quit a book if I find myself looking for other things to do rather than read it. The fact that I only read one at a time, coupled with my avoidance of the current book, means that no reading is getting done. At that point, I shelve it and look for something better.
posted by arcticwoman at 11:09 AM on July 18, 2008


I check out book blogs (for new books I might be missing), and I'm in a good book club full of people with diverse and obscure literary interests (this is the best thing ever). Both of these, combined with a ton of classics I haven't yet read, usually insure that I'm reading something of quality in the first place. I rarely spontaneously buy unheard of books from the bookstore.

To solve the issue of abandoning: I tend to be working on around 4 or 5 books at a time, which I cycle through. This prevents me from throwing out a book just because of storyline fatigue, as I usually return to the good ones in time. If I'm never motivated to return to a good book then I basically abandon it, by default.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:31 AM on July 18, 2008


I don't know how many people would agree with me, but I say it's not a waste of time to read bad books. There's no way I can tell if a book was really for me until I reach the very last pages. A lot of times I encounter a twist that turns it into a completely different novel than i started out with (Atonement and Water for Elephants both come to mind). I've also read books that were blandly mediocre until their atrocious end (Digital Fortress), and I still don't think reading them was a waste of my time. I suppose this is a quirk of how I read -- I'd rather be able to be completely certain how I feel about a book, and that's totally impossible unless I've actually read the entire thing.

I'm still choosy about books before I start reading them, though. But the methods I use to discriminate vary wildly. Sometimes, I'm just in the mood for something. Or I choose a book based on how pertinent it is to my life at that moment (I picked up Then We Came to the End when I was going through a similar situation at work.) Or I go off a friend's recommendation. Or I stick with the same author for a few weeks to satisfy my completionist tendencies. If all else fails, I dump a few on the floor and let my cat pick one for me.

If I've chosen a dud, I stick with it unless I really, really can't be bothered with it at the time. And as I have varied reasons for choosing books in the first place, I have no set criteria for what constitutes a crappy novel. But I very rarely dump a book; it usually gets shelved until a later date when I feel up to a challenge. I refuse to judge it until I get to the last page. So, I'd say your individual success in selecting books boils down to what kind of reader you are. I'm a picky but dedicated reader, and I feel like every book I read helps me to adjust my taste in the future. The exercise of completing a book I didn't like is still beneficial; it helps me to explore my undefinable requirements for choosing future books.

Actually, I do have one criterion for eliminating books. If I am completely neutral about a book and hear bad things about it, I stay away. (If I'm mildly interested in a bad book and get a bad recommendation, I will still read it. My curiosity trumps all else.)
posted by phatkitten at 11:36 AM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


To solve the issue of abandoning: I tend to be working on around 4 or 5 books at a time, which I cycle through. This prevents me from throwing out a book just because of storyline fatigue, as I usually return to the good ones in time. If I'm never motivated to return to a good book then I basically abandon it, by default.

This is my "method" as well. If a book isn't holding my attention, I'll start a new one in the meantime, and work on both. If I don't come back to the first one, it sort of drifts off of my list.
posted by milestogo at 11:36 AM on July 18, 2008


The real difficulty is you can't truly decide if a book was for you or not until after you've finished reading it. I try never to give up on a book that is either 1) by an author I trust or 2) a well-established classic. But, sometimes, I have to. While I take a certain pride and pleasure in reading/having read "difficult" books, some just aren't worth my time. But there's no hard-and-fast rule for deciding. Sometimes fifty pages is enough. For a longer book, I might give it one hundred. I kept making excuses for Crime and Punishment until I finally ended up finishing it out of spite.

It also depends upon what I'm reading and why. If it's a book I've always wanted to read because I've always felt I should read it, I'll tend to give it more of a chance. If it's just some pulp trash that I picked up to pass the time, it has to catch me in the opening pages or it gets passed over.

I like jimjam's comment best: it's no crime to put something down with the possibility that you might pick it up later. I think I've tried three times to read The Name of the Rose. I've enjoyed what I've read of it each time. But I've always gotten drawn away from it by something else. So, in a sense, I'm still reading it. But that's okay. It's still waiting there for me. And it will eventually find its way back into my hands.
posted by wheat at 11:43 AM on July 18, 2008


I always feel like I might be missing that one life changing book that gets started on page 51.

For me part of deciding what to read and what not to read is disabusing myself of the notion that such a book exists.

I found that Diamond Age became one such book at about page 200, though it wasn't actually an unpleasent read up until that point.
posted by shadowfelldown at 12:01 PM on July 18, 2008


It depends:

For cheap throw away historical romances and chick lit, I read the blurb. Any Scottish lairds and lasses, compulsive overspending, or spunky Irish girls and back on the shelf it goes.

For general fiction, I pick what grabs me. Unless I know it'll be readable, ie Terry Pratchett. I do the last page check if I'm not sure about the book's merit.

For guidebooks, I judge it based on if a skim through gives any actual useful information of if it's all name dropping.
posted by Phalene at 12:17 PM on July 18, 2008


Different standards for fiction and non-fiction.

I'm usually committed to a non-fiction book before starting. Typically, my motivation to read one comes from a very strong recommendation. It has to be a big disappointment for me to choose not to finish it. Most of the books that I disliked at the start but then came to love have been non-fiction, so I'm more likely to hear them out.

When fiction starts to rub me the wrong way, I put it down. Fiction doesn't have anything to offer beyond the voice of the author. There is no content that's interesting for it's own sake. If the book is a classic or highly regarded by a number of people whose tastes I respect, I'll push a little farther. Still, my tolerance for tedious fiction is pretty low. There's a number of novels people go on and on about, that I've never been able to get more than a few dozen pages into, if that.
posted by BigSky at 1:13 PM on July 18, 2008


I tried to institute a "if it's not interesting after 50 pages, into the bin it goes" policy, but I always feel like I might be missing that one life changing book that gets started on page 51.

Well, there's your problem. It isn't that you don't know which books are good, it's that you don't trust your instincts. What if the "one life changing book" is the one you never get to because you've been pissing away your hours reading things you don't even like? There's no winning that game so trust your instincts. Shit, I don't give a book five pages, if it hasn't grabbed me, it's off to the thrift store. I got enough reading for "personal betterment" in college. First and foremost it's got to entertain me. And I'm pretty liberal. My wife gives books one paragraph.

If there's some compelling counter-evidence, critical acclaim or personal recommendation or it seems like it's probably a worthwhile resource even if it's not grabbing me, I might plow through, or I can always stick it back on the shelf and try again later.
posted by nanojath at 1:19 PM on July 18, 2008


I decide to abandon a book when I find myself excessively distracted with making edits. Or wondering if anybody even proofread the thing before publishing it.
I do the same thing with movies. If I find myself NOT fantasizing about editing scenes or reshooting scenes or about what kind of domino-effect lapse of judgment had to take place for the movie to be released, I keep watching the movie.
posted by hecho de la basura at 1:21 PM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I read the first five pages or so, not only for the "sucked in" feeling, but also to make sure they don't do anything that drives me crazy. I write a lot and notice a lot of things, so this rules out a lot of books.
posted by Nattie at 1:35 PM on July 18, 2008


For non-fiction books: If I'm getting bored with it, then I'll start skipping/skimming ahead to some more interesting parts. If I find them, then I stop skimming and resume regular reading. If I reach the end of the book without finding anything more attention grabbing, then I know the book wasn't for me and I didn't have to waste my time reading every single word to figure it out.
posted by philomathoholic at 2:46 PM on July 18, 2008


If it's about spaceships, aliens, or Republicans I won't read it. If the dialogue is contrived, aimless, or flat I won't read it. If it's written by Nora Roberts, Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, or James Patterson I won't read it. Books by those authors alone account for almost 50% of the shit that's on the shelves at bookstores.
posted by HotPatatta at 2:57 PM on July 18, 2008


Good question. The 1st rule: trust yourself. Your own instincts and quirky likes/dislikes are absolutely going to be your best guide here. Which means letting go of this:

I always feel like I might be missing that one life changing book that gets started on page 51

That's the 2nd rule: give yourself permission to stop reading. The 3rd rule is to give the author a fair shot - for me, that means finishing at least the, yes, first 50 pages of a fiction book or the introduction and first major section of a non-fiction book. If it bores you after that, chalk it up to different tastes while making sure to remember which outlets praised the book so you can recalibrate your filters accordingly.

Different standards for fiction and non-fiction.

Yeah, definitely. For non-fiction, I try to get a sense of how comprehensive, well-written and/or artful a book is by reading reviews (not just at Amazon - do a search for the title and "review" or get to a library to see what the journals in the relevant field have been saying about it), then pick up the book and look it over for yourself. Cover blurbs are tricky - Thomas Cahill's pop histories always have lots of positive mainstream blurbs, e.g., but I find he's generally manipulative and relatively unenlightening compared to other authors. Again, figuring out which reviewers match you best helps a lot. For me, British magazines and newspapers seem to have a better track record than those in the U.S. of predicting non-fiction I'll like. The organization of the book is key - does it make sense and start to help you understand the author's approach to the material right from the table of contents? Then read a few pages from various parts of the introduction.

For fiction, I almost never rely on published reviews, instead relying on reports from friends and people whose taste I have at least some sense of. If I've decided to read a certain author and don't know where to start I'll find good bio sites at the bottom of their Wikipedia page and read about their careers, then let my instincts point me once I know something about their work, and what are generally considered the peaks. That's been especially effective with classic authors. Also, spend time thinking about common elements in novels you've really liked, and keep an eye out for those.

There are also lots of good recommendations in threads at ReadMe.
posted by mediareport at 4:18 PM on July 18, 2008


I'm a total sucker for the laudatory blurbs on the front and back cover, and on the inside pages. Some really popular ones have just have so many positive reviews, and the publisher makes sure to quote every single one of them. What can I say? I get bowled over by that stuff. Take a really popular book, say Stephen King's IT, and the blurbs go on for pages. And not just critics, they often use other authors' positive reviews, so if it's another author I like saying this book is also good, well, I often fall for that, too.

Like you said, it can backfire; there are some really positively reviewed books that I cannot for the life of me understand why (Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book comes to mind), so it's not foolproof.
posted by zardoz at 5:49 PM on July 18, 2008


20% of my reading comes via Book TV on CSPAN. More would, probably, but more and more, they cover a lot of books recommended in the NYTRB, and I hate the NYTRB, so I've been tuning out of Book TV early, more lately than I used to do. I read books mentioned on Charlie Rose's and Bill Moyers' PBS programs (usually because I've been hooked by the subject of an interview), and sometimes, by guests on Terrry Gross and Diane Rehm. When I hit upon an author I like, I tend to read through their catalog, which for some authors, is quite a project, in itself. Right now, I am plowing through David McCullough's stuff, and while I find that not all of his work is interesting, in and of itself, to me, the picture I build of his sensibilities, by reading through what, for him, were, in some cases, 7 and 8 year projects, contributes to understanding his point of view in other books.

I will drop a book that disappoints badly, midway, but I generally get 3 or 4 strong recommendations from sources I know and trust for each book I start, so that this doesn't happen too much any more. The last real clunker I started, and dropped, with extreme prejudice 50+ pages in, was the 2nd or 3rd Harry Potter book, which was pressed upon me repeatedly, but which I found to be just badly imagined, and intolerably written.
posted by paulsc at 6:26 PM on July 18, 2008


I'll give up on a book pretty quickly - in well under 50 pages - if it just doesn't grab me. The quickest was after one page. It was a book group book, and that group had previously pointed me to many fantastic books, so I took this one without really looking at it. I found the author very annoying from the get-go.

I can remember one time I when I was on vacation in a place where getting English-language books was difficult - I continued reading a book I didn't like at the start, and wound up liking it quite a bit. But, you know, if I had been home and given up on it, that would have been fine, too. I'll never have enough time to read everything I might like to read, so why spend my time reading something that wasn't as good I expected when I borrowed/bought it?

Five more perspectives on giving up on book on my blog.
posted by jeri at 7:33 PM on July 18, 2008


I think it was the economist Tyler Cowen who pointed this out: if you're a reader with a well above average appetite, you will read perhaps 5,000 books in your entire life. That's if you read 1-2 books a week, every week, from the time you're in elementary school until you die, without rereading any.

Think about the number of books that have been written thusfar, and the number of books that are being written at this very moment, and the number of books that will be written over the course of the rest of your life. Many more than 5,000 of those are worth reading. You could probably sit down right now and make a list of 500 books you want to read, and that's just the books you know about that have been written up until this point. You're never going to be able to read all of the great, life-changing books out there.

The point of this isn't to depress you by convincing you that the task of reading great books is unfinishable (though it is). It's to show two things. First, that you should never feel guilty about abandoning a book, even an objectively good book, that isn't doing it for you. Because your time and energy is a limited resource, and many awesome books won't be able to be among the books you can devote your energy to.

Second, that you should feel free to read books the way that you like them rather than the way the author intended. If parts of a book are boring to you, skim them or skip ahead to the interesting part. Why not read only the best 200 pages of Snow Crash? Read the fight scenes from war novels and the love scenes from romance novels. Book reviews and websites will often tell you exactly which parts are the best parts. We read only the parts of reference books that we need and want to know about; why can't we do it with narratives as well? We're not obligated to read the story as the author wrote it if it's more interesting or rewarding some other way.

So yes, by all means, give up on books you don't like. Browse at bookstores and read the first 10 pages of 10 things and discard 9 of them. But also read the endings of slow mystery novels to avoid slogging through the boring middle. Don't think that abandoning the book is the only option. You can squeeze all of the good out of a book without having to waste your time on the less good stuff.

Enjoy your 5,000 books!
posted by decathecting at 8:05 PM on July 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


One way I know it's time to abandon a book is if I catch myself skimming excessively as I'm reading it--sometimes I'll suddenly realize I'm having to backtrack because I skimmed or skipped so much I missed something.

A really fun book you might enjoy is How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard. It's very funny and playful; also a serious examination of the place certain books hold in the culture; also full of good tips and ideas about all the ways to, as decathecting said, "squeeze all the good out of a book" without necessarily reading every word.
posted by not that girl at 11:28 PM on July 18, 2008


Life's too short for bad books.

I agree with this, but at the same time, the question of what constitutes a "bad book" is fraught with philosophical difficulties. In fact, I question whether there is such a thing as a "bad book." Here are some types of books that might be referred to as bad books.

-- Books, fiction or nonfiction, that are poorly written.

-- Books of fiction that have stupid/cliched/unimaginative plots.

-- Books that have imaginative plots and premises, but which are clumsily executed.

-- Books of fiction that are ridiculously pretentious.

Any one of these "bad" books may fire the imagination of the individual reader. I have read a number of books that I well knew were "bad" in a conventional, formal sense, but which excited me tremendously due to some possibility they disclosed to my mind, some mental vista that they may have (perhaps unintentionally) opened up. There have been books with hackneyed plots, stilted dialogue, that nevertheless left me ecstatic due to some idiosyncrasy that delighted me.

The problem is that sometimes you don't discoved this until late in the book, or perhaps after you have completed it. I used to review books, and unlike some reviewers, I read every word of every book I was assigned to review. A lot of those books are books that, if I weren't assigned to review them, I probably wouldn't have persisted in finishing. But, having finished them, I am glad I did. They didn't offer immediately-recognizable benefits or appeal, but they were, taken as a whole, worthwhile books to read and have stuck with me through the years. What I regret now about my busy life is that I have a much too "instrumental" view of my reading time ... if the book doesn't grab me quickly, I find myself questioning, "Is reading this book going to 'pay off' the investment of time I will spend in finishing it?" I think that such an instrumental approach to reading time is something of an anathema to the spirit of reading. The spirit of reading is to approach each book openly, not asking "what do you offer me?" in the first fifty pages, but being open to the possibility that the book is worthy and then sticking with it.

So, my approach these days is to try to finish all the books I begin, unless I find the book's opening to be so disgustingly banal that I can't in good conscience continue to let my mind wallow in the trash. John Grisham is the last author who provoked that reaction in me.
posted by jayder at 10:47 AM on July 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Don't think that abandoning the book is the only option.

And you can always pick up a book again after you've set it aside, so any risk from temporarily abandoning a book that isn't thrilling you right now is kinda minimal.
posted by mediareport at 10:10 AM on July 20, 2008


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