It’s Not You, It’s Me: Breaking Up With Books

June 2, 2010 | 15 books mentioned 76 5 min read

Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read.  Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.

Over the years, this has changed.  Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable.  I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution.  It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.

One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read.  One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those!  Should should should.  Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt.  I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust!  And Dickens!  And Virginia Woolf!  And (these days) Bolaño!

My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose.  And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence.  I’m not getting any younger, after all.  Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time.  Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.

My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.

Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual.  For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment.  As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):

Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again

coverThe Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin

Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is.  You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:

Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why

coverTree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)

It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it.  And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many.  What can I say…

Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit

coverAmerican Pastoral by Philip Roth
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

The following category speaks for itself:

Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake

I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons.  There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.

Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.

“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego.  An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level.  But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity.  So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games.  I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way.  It absolutely was not.  I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:

Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End

coverThe Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett

This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary.  This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read.  I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.

coverIn particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience.  I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable.  Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking.  But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing.  This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.

Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did

coverIn the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift.  If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older.  I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life.  To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.


  1. Wow — what a brave and honest article. As for me, I know I’m going to live forever because I made a sacred vow to finish “Moby Dick” before I die. My two cents on your selections — I slogged through “Love in the Time of Cholera” and did not feel like my patience was rewarded. On the other hand I kinda liked Ann Patchett’s “Run,” but all of her other books suffer in comparison to “Bel Canto.”

  2. Don’t worry, I had to read The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for my AP Lit class. I couldn’t get into the book AT ALL. My teacher loved it though. I just thought it was weird and hard to really read without catching yourself just skimming through the words.

  3. Probably some external “should” contributes to the shame/frustration of not finishing or wanting to finish a book, but I also think that there’s something internal as well. If you care about books and literature, then I think you know that part of the struggle is shedding, or at least suspending, the demands of your personal “taste.” That is, we know there are valuable things in books we might not “like.” The problem is that we don’t know which displeasureable books will turn out to be rewarding in the end, as you suggest.

    I’m sure you are not along here; most of us live between reading for purely for pleasure and purely for edification.

  4. I’ve thought about the exact same thing many times during the past year– whether my newfound ability to quit books was some form of “moral devolution.” I’m ashamed that I started A Confederacy of Dunces and never finished.

  5. Ethan Frome is grim, but it’s short. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is short, and incredibly wonderful and it makes me a little sad to see it classed with Twilight, but literary taste is subjective, so I’ll try not to get too downcast by the grouping.

    A lot of books improve with age, the reader’s age that is. More life experience and greater cultural and historical knowledge can make some books click, that used to clunk. Conversely, some that seemed quite magical in their moment can get a “what did I ever see in that?” when revisited.

  6. I’m a firm believer in “there is a time and place for every book.” I revisit or plan to revisit most of what I can’t finish. I can’t read Dickens. I’ve tried and tried and tried again. I’m thinking I might get into him when I have grandchildren – a long, long time from now.

    Still, there are books that I absolutely hate and I figure – if I force myself to read this, I’m probably going to get through in a painstaking and slow manner. If I read this book slowly, this takes time away from good books I COULD be reading instead. I give each book a chance, but if I hate you, you are going in the DONATE pile.

  7. Sonya, this is great. I often think of those books that I “should” read and just never pick up. Why the heck haven’t I read “Tropic of Cancer” or “Crime and Punishment?” I think it is all about environment/context. When I’m writing something western-y, I cannot read short stories about the city.

    One category that I return to in thought is: “Authors I thought I hated when I was younger, but should probably read again just to make sure.” Dickens. Austen.

  8. What a great article on the hidden guilt of the “should” reads. In my reading life, your category 6 “Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End” is the most telling. For me the ratio of Shlogged through and liked to Shlogged through and disliked is highly skewed towards the former. In fact, there are virtually no shlogged books that ended up ranking highly in my mental list of favorites.

    To me, this is a valuable piece of information. It means that I don’t need to read all 500 pages of a shlogg to prove to myself that I don’t like it. These days I’ll give a book a fair shake (like 10% of the book’s length or at least 50 pages) and possibly a retry at a latter date if it’s “really important,” but beyond that there are just too many other books that really are magnificent to waste any more time on what will VERY LIKELY be an unrewarding read.

    Thanks again for a great article.

  9. Lovely essay. Our personal relations with books are so complicated, aren’t they?

    I slogged through the first 100 pages of The God of Small Things with little pleasure, but kept at it because its Booker Award gave me hope there would be an eventual turn-around for me. And when that moment finally arrived, was I glad I’d stuck with the novel.

    As for “should” books, Middlemarch is one of mine, the big reproach on my book shelf. Some day, some day. And after reading an excellent interview with Allan Gurganus at Fiction Writers Review, I feel even more guilt!

  10. Love, love, love this column! Makes me want to run through your categories myself and see what comes up.

    I already know I’m with Robert (first comment) I WILL read Moby Dick before I die! I WILL read the 20 or 30 or whatever pages dedicated solely to blubber!

    I WILL!

  11. I love this. I have a real problem not finishing books once I’ve started… only rarely does some misplaced sense of responsibility not win the battle with reason and common sense. Because of that, I take almost superstitious (or maybe just crazy) precautions before cracking a book I know I won’t love.

    This might give me the courage to shitcan some of the slop I’ve gotten myself into. So THANK YOU for that.

    (And not that you need incentive to commit to a hundred more hours, but The Magic Mountain really came together in a great and inspiring Eureka way in the last two hundred pages)

  12. Ethan Frome is an awful unpleasant book and was required reading at my school. I don’t know why. ‘Cause it’s short? Makes our lives seem more worth living? No me gusta.
    I felt about Hotel World the way you did about The Accidental.
    i slogged through My Name is Red, and I’m not sure I’m better off for not giving up on it.

    For the rest of you, Moby Dick’s actually pretty funny.

  13. I read through to the end of “In the Lake of the Woods” too, but I didn’t think it got better. I’ve never wanted to read O’Brien since.

  14. Great essay. I think it was Borges that said we shouldn’t read a book if it’s just draining us too much. Revisit it later, as one person said about Dickens. Most of us are only going to read 2,000 or so books in a lifetime. I’ll be damned if I’m wasting any of those on something I don’t enjoy. With that said, I have trouble giving up—though it has become easier recently.

  15. Gravity’s Rainbow. Read about 400 pages and gave up. It’s been sitting there for the past two years waiting to be finished. Never will. Waste of time.

  16. Love this article! Wow – just realized how much my own reading habits have changed. Like you, I had never NOT finished a book. Now my list of unfinished novels has grown by leaps and bounds. Is that a result of the internet? Bad writing? Bad reading habits?

    No idea… But, I think you’re on to something…

  17. i love this! i’m going to do my own list just like it as many books you should try again, shouldn’t try at all and do finish and it was a waste of time!

    thanks for this – such a great read.



  18. This essay’s particularly hitting for me right now because I’m in the middle of such a conflict, with Joshua Cohen’s “Witz”. I read the first 250 pages and really loved it, but the time it took me to read that 30% of the novel makes me dizzy to look back on, and there’s still so much to go… I’ve read two books in the interim (including Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, which is 500 pages in its own right), and I’m afraid to admit defeat, but I just don’t know if i have the time……….

  19. I generally think of myself as having almost no self-discipline at all, but in this realm, I reign supreme.

    There are some I didn’t like (Galapagos, Malone Dies, any Saul Bellow novella), but I just can’t imagine quitting before I find out I’m right or wrong about how bad the book really is.

    The exception is Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I read 50 or 100 pages (for a class) and gave up. It’s that bad, or so I thought at the time.

    It’s happened more with non-fiction, but only a few times, and usually because it was time to return it to the library and I just never went back for it. I even have a file with the name of each book and what page I’m on.

    However, I did read, and liked, Moby-Dick, several large volumes of Dickens, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and I’m about halfway through (and thoroughly enjoying) Proust.

  20. After making myself a particularly painful book and then kicking myself for days for having wasted my time reading it, I no longer feel guilt for quitting, except for Middlemarch. I promise to finish that one some day.

    That being said, there are many books that I’ve forced myself to read, and I’m glad that I did. Moby Dick is certainly at the top of that list.

    And don’t worry about not reading Ethan Frome. You aren’t missing anything.

    (Wasn’t In the Lake of the Woods great? I think it’s so under-appreciated. I’m glad to see it mentioned here.)

  21. What about books that you kept on reading only to see if they could actually continue to be horrific all the way to the end.

    I have one: Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis.

  22. Try as I might, I’ve never been able to get through any kind of magical realism. No matter how well-written it is, I just don’t like it. There, I’ve said it.

    I found Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian to be a not-so-easy read, but somewhere around page 200 I suddenly started loving it and couldn’t put it down.

    Ethan Frome was one of the few books I read in high school that I actually liked. Guess I’m just a sucker for hopeless situations. I liked Jude the Obscure too.

  23. Great piece Ms. Chung. My reading habits seem to parallel yours. Up until about eight months ago I finished every book I started, no matter how much of a slog it was. But recently Ive dumped several books without finishing. Partly because, as you say, Ive finished enough books where I feel like I can quit reading a novel if its not clicking or Im not enjoying it, and partly because books are a zero sum game, for every book you read that means there is another you wont get to, and I want to maximize my reading time in every sense. Some books I do plan on revisiting (Gravitys Rainbow, Europe Central, Rings of Saturn) and some I wont crack again (The Magus, The Lazarus Project, The Interrogation). It used to really bother me when I didnt finish what I started, but I believe after you do it the first time, it becomes much easier to drop something rather than force yourself to keep going. Oddly enough, Im reading Moby Dick now, and its fantastic. Cetology chapter (15 pages of scientific whale classifications) included.

  24. Thanks for all your comments, everyone. It’s funny how often MOBY DICK is mentioned here. It took me a few tries, but I did finally read it; it falls, for me, into a category I didn’t mention above, which is Finished and Enjoyed But Don’t Feel Strongly Impacted Either Way. Yet. There are some books that perhaps “hit” you only after something happens in your life, or maybe after you’ve read another book that contrasts in a particular way, etc.

    Philip Graham says it best above: “Our personal relations with books are so complicated, aren’t they?”

    And thanks for the encouragements to try some of these again; I was sort of hoping for that. I am perfectly happy to have my mind changed. In the end, I much prefer to love All the Books, every one of them.

  25. Great post! It is good to hear stories of similar struggles. And I am glad that we have Kierkegaard in common in the “would try again” list.
    I could never think of a break up with books as there is always a possibility of going back. A different cover can motivate me to try again.
    In 2009, as a New Year Resolution I vowed read most of the books I have left midway, for one reason or the other. The greatest achievement was ‘Auto Da Fe’ of Elias Canetti, a truly remarkable book, am glad I did complete it. The book that I keep going back, and I am sure I may never complete is (I keep borrowing the book every six months and return it in a week): Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch. I have read a total of six pages now!
    I also found reading too much pulp fiction makes it so difficult to read other kinds of fiction.

  26. Tree of Smoke and Sons and Lovers are both fantastic, in their own way of course, so I urge you to try them again. I loved The Magic Mountain, but I started it twice and couldn’t finish it, not sure why. I tried Moby Dick about five times, and regret that I won’t ever be finishing it; it’s just too much to hold my interest. 2666 was mind-blowing.

  27. Everything Is Illuminated- after 10 pages I realized I would rather swallow a pound of nails than keep reading.

    In the Lake of the Woods is brilliant. Great to give it recognition.

  28. There’s a mighty big choir you’re preaching to here.

    Try Moby Dick, Middlesex and David Copperfield on audiobook. Middlesex and David Copperfield are my top two favorites of all time, thanks to a summer of running with my iPod. There’s a great reading of Moby Dick at by Stewart Wills – sometimes books just work better traveling through your ears instead.

    Fellow commenters: thank you. I feel better now.

  29. I also started American Pastoral twice and just couldn’t get past the 75-page mark. Same with Cold Mountain by Frazier when it first was published, though I didn’t even get to 75 in that one.

    I’ll add my voice to the fan club for In the Lake of the Woods, though I haven’t read it since it first appeared.

  30. I’m so glad to find The Book Thief, a highly acclaimed and lauded book, on Sonya Chung’s ‘painful’ list. Given all the accolades, I felt I had to finish reading it. I hoped, every time I turned a page, to be rewarded for my effort to slog through.
    Thank you.

  31. This is a great post. I’d add one more category, which is the converse to some degree of the one Justin suggested: “Books I loved when I read them years ago, but couldn’t stand them the second time and put them down”. Recently, this was On the Road and Portrait of the Artist for me: both books I loved in high school and couldn’t get through now.

  32. This was a really fun little feature. I’ve built up a strong sense of guilt for tossing aside certain books, especially those which fall in the first category. These are the books you know deep down you won’t be satisfied with yourself until you’ve finished them. For me this includes those books that people usually read just to say that they’ve read them (i.e. Tristram Shandy and Ulysses). As a student of politics and political thought, I’ve also never made it through Hegel’s Phenomenology, but I still don’t believe that anyone else has.

    Oddly enough, three of your books in category #4 are some of my absolute favourites, namely Middlesex, American Pastoral, and Portrait of the Artist. Either way, I really enjoyed this piece.

  33. I’m glad someone mentioned audio books. Definitely a good alternative when the printed version isn’t getting through. Though I did try this with Middlesex, to no avail. I’m about to read The Virgin Suicides; perhaps that may help, in some subliminal way, to dislodge the block. Related to that, when I put down Tree of Smoke I picked up The Name of the World — a slim, lesser-known Johnson novel — which I loved.

    Also, this summer I’m going to give a go at another portrait of an artist as a young man, i.e. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde — which has been recommended to me a few times recently.

    And I love the idea of finishing books as a kind of annual “housecleaning” project. I did that last year, too — piled up some books I own that I’d false-started; that was when I finished The Blue Flower.

  34. I quit reading now (at age 67) when I want to. No guilt. I quit books for a lot of reasons: they sag in the middle. I was not able to keep up the pace and rarely finish books that I read in dribs and drabs. If it doesn’t grab me by 50 pages, forget it. Sometimes I need to be grabbed a lot sooner than 50 pages–esp. if the books is only 200 pages. If cruelty to animals makes an appearance–shut it down. If the potential for horrible cruelty (Sara Gruen, as a recent example) exists, don’t even bother. Only rarely will I finish if the writing is awful even if the story is compelling.

    I read about 100-120 fiction a year, 40-50 nonfiction. My retirement dream come true! I finish about 65-70% of the fiction. It took 3 tries for Oscar Wao and I’m glad I made it to the third try. Sometimes the mood isn’t right–wrong book for mood. I also get my monthly fix of spy/thriller/noir novels but even in this genre I have standards.

    I am now re-reading. At my age, it is necessary to re-read NOW because chances for re-reading are on the wane. I’ve kept lists with ratings and little jottings about the books for 35 years. I have to use interlibrary loan because so many books that I want to reread aren’t so easily gettable.

    Loved LOVED this essay and comments.

  35. Wow – I feel like you’ve give me permission to drop all the books I’m struggling with (unless they’re written by Tim O’Brien) and to turn to ones I’ll connect with. I’m getting to the point in my life where time is so precious that reading books that don’t thrill me, teach me, entertain me or open my mind – and in an expeditious manner – seems a waste.

    I’ve felt the ‘shoulds’ pushing me to read books I can’t fathom or don’t enjoy. I’ve banged my head against Atonement a few times, with no success to show for it. I abandoned Moby Dick in favor of the Clif Notes one year (thank-you Clif Notes!) But Dickens is my Tim O’Brien – I’ve always struggled with the first 100, 200, even 300 pages, trying to figure out character names, places, back stories. Then suddenly Dickens gets to the plot – and WOW – I can’t help but fall in love with the last 700 (or so) pages. Could any modern writer take so long to get to the point?

    Ironically – despite feeling guilty about not reading some of the great Should Reads – I have no trouble reading certain books (some of questionable value) over and over again. I have never seen Frank Herbert’s Dune on a ‘Great Books’ List, but I’m addicted to his ideas. Same for Tolkien.

  36. I loved this article and comments. I take home about 10 books a weekend to “taste”, which is less of a commitment than actually trying to “read” a book. I hope this helps my customers. I don’t pretend to have read the whole thing, but I at least have a sense of it.

    I read about 2.5 books in total a week, not including the tastings. As far as how that feels? It’s kinda like flirting with a stranger in an elevator when you’re out of town, and that wistful wondering of an imagined future together that disappears with the ding of the door. It keeps me loving books.

  37. Back in my teens and 20s when I read 10-12 books a year (outside of school assigned books), I would muddle through a book just to say I finished it. Now that I read ten times that amount, I am learning that there are too many better books (for me) that I could be reading. I abandoned my first book just a few months ago. I still feel slightly guilty about it, but then came another (Pulitzer Prize winner) that I couldn’t finish, and the guilt got worse. Maybe it’s a Caholic thing?

    Thank you for a refreshingly honest take on breaking up with books…loved it!

  38. I think it’s often about age, this quitting of books. My husband is several years older than I. When he started doing this, I couldn’t even imagine not finishing a book I’d started. Now, a few years later, I still haven’t done it myself but I understand why people do it. There comes a day when we realize we’re not going to have time to read all the books in the world so we must become more selective. Oh, and my two cents on the frequently mentioned Moby Dick: I may have shlogged through it when I was younger, but I would not bother to now!

  39. Nice take on this topic Sonya, and I certainly recognise your categories.
    That said, let me now trample:

    How could you not finish The Moviegoer?? That’s a slim, well-shod volume…not to be compared with the other behmoths on this particular list.

    Portrait of the Artist bracketed with Twilight: What. The. Fuck.

    The Blue Flower a struggle? Ach, Fitzgerald is never a struggle. Too accomplished, too careful, too deceptive.

    Interesting that so many comments reference Moby Dick, which you don’t list. Is it the greatest American book ever written? Very likely. Please try it again / stick with it, all you commenters. Melville is one of your (I say as a non-American) greatest geniuses.

  40. I love your description of Tim O’Brien’s In The Lake Of The Woods. Brilliant!

    I have a theory. Genius grants are awarded to the author who can make the most people put a book down because it’s inpenetrable without admitting it. That’s how I came to throw David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion in the trash at McDonald’s.

    P.S. Hope you choose to finish Magic Mountain!

  41. Sonya — LOVE this article! Like many, with age have found that I am more willing to put books down when they don’t work, and alas — with the rhythm of life in NYC, often I put books down even though I am liking them — because they aren’t “quick” enough — Orham Pamuk´s “The Black Book,” Sandra Cisneros’ “Caramelo,” “Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz, “Fugitive Pieces” by Anne Michaels come to mind — all authors I tend to like, but… they require savoring and sometimes reading time on the subway doesn’t allow me to savor as I would wish… though I DO want to continue!
    Cynthia Ozick — Heir to a Glittering World. Recommended but huh? Tried and tried and gave it away.

  42. Sometimes I read books just because I want to an informed opinion about it rather I like it or not, such as “Twilight.” Now when I say something about it, I can say, “Yes, I did read it.” Not the whole series, mind you, which probably gives away what I thought of the first. Frankly, I didn’t think it was as good or bad as most people say; it read a lot like a typical best selling romance novel that happened to have vampires instead of some other excuse for the heroine to not just date the handsome hero right away.

    I also read Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” despite finding a lot of it quite boring. Parts of it were great, and I was told it was one of the two great symbols of French literature (Flaubert’s was the other one), but mainly I read it for the bragging rights, sort of like climbing a mountain. It took me an entire semester, on and off, usually about ten pages a day, but I made it.

    But the books I put aside are usually romance or mystery novels that annoy me, either with annoying characters or because of mystery novels’ tendency to put in more misleading clues than useful ones. Even when I read a well written mystery novel I feel like I’ve been lied to the entire time.

  43. Well, Ian — the miraculous thing about reading is how idiosyncratic a person’s reading list — under any category — can be. In other words, our reading “maps” are highly particularized — love, hate, finished, unfinished. If you threw your own list together, I’m sure there would be others who’d be confused/aghast at authors/books appearing on the same page. And that’s a great thing, in my opinion.

    Length is obviously not the deciding factor in my case. As for Ms. Fitzgerald, I have to say I’ve never before (or after) felt such culture gap with a British writer; I’m not sure exactly why I feel it with her, but I definitely do, with all of her novels. As if the particular shorthand/density of her prose is very British. Hmm…(?)

  44. Ah, SC—you’ve touched a nerve! I want to make a case for Middlemarch, as I never appreciated it so much, until I re-read it, after I was married. Also, Tree of Smoke turned out to be devastatingly moving, even with the plot stalls and the getting lost in the jungle and the weird cataloguing exercises. On my list of “Try, try again,” would be Sebold’s Austerlitz…anyone want to make a case for him/it/whoever-it-possibly-is-about-as-I-couldn’t-fathom? And Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (LOVED Last Evenings on Earth, so I should love TSD, right? Right?) And, in the “Life’s too short,” category is…alas, I know I’ll get berated, but here it goes: PYNCHON.

    You’ve always been a champion of “difficult pleasures.” It is so illuminating to share our “difficulties,” and I agree that each reader has his/her reading terrain that we find difficult to cross. I like the idea of a map or trail signs for other readers, and even for ourselves, to find our way back—or find a way on.

  45. Kevin: Witz does take more time per page than anything I have read in a while. I’m only on p.150 or so, so I won’t tell you that you HAVE TO PRESS ON or anything, but I’m still having a really good time at it (dictionary in hand).

  46. What a timely article! I’m reading now Jose Saramago’s “The Cave,” and it’s taking me a long time to get through it. But I don’t want to stop. I can’t. I’ll keep thinking about it. I read his book “Blindness,” which was a great read, no quicksand along the way.

  47. Ten years ago, as a freshly minted English-degree undergraduate, I vowed that I would never again finish a book out of obligation. I remember the first time I “quit” a book (I think it was DeLillo’s “White Noise” – see Category 3 above), it felt so freeing! What joy, to just stop reading, and pick up the next book!

    But it’s hard to let go. We recently moved house, and I purged my bookshelves of those tomes I knew I would either never get to or was finished with forever, and a few have survived because of “should” – “Middlemarch,” “Swann’s Way” and “Finnegan’s Wake” especially. But they also remain because I want to enjoy them, and so often with books it’s about timing – reading the right book in the right context of your own life. So “Middlemarch” will be my next “train commute book,” and in the meantime I’ll look into annotated guides to the other two… my own summer reading assignments!

  48. Sonya, thanks for the response, and no offense meant if I overdid it a little on the “aghast”. I agree with you 100%, the personal element is critical and the multitude of factors that make that up cannot be explained or rationalised.

    Besides, not finishing a book is nothing to be criticised for: the attempt’s the key thing, and who knows where even a failed challenge to our own tastes and inclinations will lead in future.

    As an aside, I read a good argument a while ago that Portrait of the Artist is actually a tougher read then Ulysses, and I think there’s something to be said for that. Some things are worth the effort though. Very interesting comment about the “culture gap” to Fitzgerald, although she doesn’t strike me as particularly “English/British” in her style or indeed the concerns she addresses as a writer. But there’s that personal perspective thing rearing its head again…

    Lisa NR: I probably can’t adequately explain it, but I thought Austerlitz was fantastic. Like all Sebald’s books, there’s a compelling mood to it that I guess you either buy into or don’t….if not, I can understand it would be a struggle. Have you read any of his others? if not, maybe try them and go back to Austerlitz (or not) – I’d suggest The Rings of Saturn as an alternative.

    Also – a qualified yes to Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is probably the only book I’ve given up on that I plan to go back to (at a date currently far in the future). It’s scared me off his other stuff, I have a block with him until I read Rainbow, which is probably silly but there you are.

  49. Dear Sonya, I was with you on this, saying “Yes, Yes, YES!” to most of the titles and your thoughts on them. Then I came to Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. It’s true the excessive detail on the finer points of glove manufacturing in Newark could bore even glove manufacturers in Newark, but looking beyond that I thought it was a gorgeous book. Just goes to show you, right?

    Thanks for this great post. Very enjoyable, and I read it to the end without regret.

  50. @ ian—I plan on picking up either Austerlitz (I did love the beginning scene in the Nocturnal House) or The Rings of Saturn this summer. Funny, however much it has been urged on me, I’ve got the same silly block to Gravity’s Rainbow. But I agree whole-heartedly with you on Joyce and POTA—it was difficult but very formative for me as a reader and writer. Best, Lisa

  51. I should have quit some of the books that I’ve finished, but I can never bring myself to do it. I just hate to be a quitter. I’m more of a skim to the end kind of reader. Just half ass the rest of it.

  52. I think that Nick Hornby is right on this point: “It’s set in stone, apparently: books must be hard work; otherwise the’re a waste of time. And so we grind our way throught serious, and sometimes seriously dull, novels , or enormous biographies of political figures, and every time we do so, books come to seem a little more like a duty, and Pop Idol starts to look a little more attractive. Please, please, put it down.” So, in other words, stop feeling guilty.

    Like everyone else, there are some books that I just have not been able to make it through–Gravity’s Rainbow is one for me as well. And then there are some serious doorstops that by their sheer size I find intimidating. Richardson’s Clarissa and Pamela and Sir Charles Grandiose are great examples. And there are some books that I tried but could not make a connection with in my twenties. In my forties, I tried them again, and found things to be different. So, I’ve read the entirety of Moby-Dick, when I was 30, and loved it. In my 40’s, I read Middlemarch, despite some false starts (George Eliot is a wonderful writer, though Middlemarch is another doorstopper). I’ve also read since made it through The Glass Bead Game, The Man Without Qualities, The Golden Notebook, The Brothers Karamazov, Under the Volcano, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and Tristram Shandy. And enjoyed all of them, tremendously. Most of them I’ve known, and tried to read, when I was younger. Maybe it was just getting some more life experience, and developing some patience, that helped.

    I was fortunate enough, as an undergraduate, to get into a seminar course (it was open only to seniors and graduate students) on James Joyce. So we read Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses in their entirety. And the more accessible parts of Finnegan’s Wake. Having a guide through these helped extraordinarily. They are not the easiest books to read, otherwise.

    Besides Gravity’s Rainbow, I cannot make myself read Of Human Bondage, Maugham’s massive Bildungsroman. It just absolutely bores me. I’ve read several other Maugham titles and enjoyed them. Perhaps I will try again at some point. And perhaps not. The one I did finally make it through (and did not enjoy) was Faulkner’s Light in August. It struck me as coming close to self-parody at times. I’ve read most of Faulkner, and enjoy most of them, but this one did not do it for me. Has anyone tried any of Edith Wharton’s other books? Ethan Frome was required reading for me in high school, as well. I remember little of it. She was a very prolific and popular writer in her day–she published about 40 volumes–stories (many of them ghost stories), novels, travel writing, poetry, books about gardening and interior design. I finished The House of Mirth a while ago–a delighful, though tragic book–and am finishing up The Reef. The Reef seems more like melodrama, but is very entertaining at the same time. The Age of Innocence is another fantastic book.

    But I guess that the main point is, just don’t feel guilty. Reading should be a pleasure, not a chore.

  53. I don’t think it’s true that the young don’t feel that pressure. In fact I think it’s the strongest when you’re young if you have that love of literature ingrained in you. When you’re young you’ve had so little time and experience reading that it’s down right intimidating to hear everyone say you ‘should’ read this, that and the next thing. You assume that everyone else knows better than you, so you end up reading things that really don’t interest you at all because you can’t believe that so many more advanced readers could be wrong. Of course I think that you need to go through those experiences in order to find yourself and your taste.

  54. I always had a lot of guilt about not finishing books I started till a few years ago I read Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50. She says if you’re 50 yrs old or older, take your age and subtract it from 100 and that’s how many pages you should read before giving up on a book.
    I agree with her that no one should schlog through a book they are not enjoying.
    Book guilt caused me to read Ulysses, rarely or never knowing what was going on. But this new found expiation has allowed me to put down Infinite Jest at 50 pages.

  55. Kirk, yes, indeed, Ulysses is a difficult nut to crack. But once done, it is a truly delightful book. A great comic romp, in fact. The opening sections, focussing on Stephen Dedalus, are the Telemachus sections. The ending, the monologue of Molly Bloom, is the Penelope section–though this Penelope is earthy and sexual, in the tradition of Chaucer’s wife of Bath and Juliet’s nurse. That is probably the easiest and most accessible section. The rest, focussing on Leopold Bloom on his journey, is Ulysses. Most of the book is based on the voyage of Ulysses as told by Homer.

    I was going over my notes, here in my old battered copy of Ulysses. The opening section–with Buck Mulligan–is a play on Catholic church services–with Buck Mulligan standing in for the priest, raising the chalice (in his case his shaving bowl) in the act of transubstantiation. He even intones, in Latin, “Introibo ad altare Dei.” I have that translated as “I will go into the altar of God.” There is a great deal of this sort of joking going on throughout the book.

    Another example happens later: “I was just passing the time of day with old Troy of the D.M.P. at the corner of Arbour hill there and be damned but a bloody sweep came along and he near drove his gear into my eye.” Later, “Then he rubs his hand in his eye….” These are, of course, the Cyclops section, and hence the emphasis on only one eye. The book is full of these sorts of puns (even the name–old Troy–is a pun, as Ulysses was coming back from the Trojan wars).

    I don’t know if this helps, but it should show you the sorts of word play that Joyce was up to in Ulysses.

  56. Boswell had a famous quote of Dr. Johnson about books:

    On advice that books, once started, should be read all the way through: “This is surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?”
    See:, page 390.

  57. I have a collection in Kindle “books not finished’ I keep track, some I do want to finish, some I might try again if a life experience makes the book more relevant, some i don’t want to work to read when there are so many amazing books to read – so many books so little time. it did take some time to get over the guilt; but if I don’t cull the herd, i wouldn’t have had time for Unbroken and The Martian. A more than fair tradeoff. I usually have a 50 page go or dump rule of thumb.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.