Reading to Completion

There are plenty of people who tell me that once they start a book, they can’t put it down until they finish it even if they absolutely hate it. Being an agent, I find this unfathomable. But if I’m being honest, even before I entered the dazzling world of publishing, I was never the sort of person who felt compelled to finish something just because I had started.

Reading for a living, though, and knowing that there’s always more work to be done, has only made me more impatient with titles I pick up for pleasure reading. My apartment is littered with books I’ve abandoned after 20 pages because I’m convinced that there’s something better to be found elsewhere on my own overstuffed shelves.

That said, I can think of books that I know I would have abandoned if I weren’t driven for a specific reason to finish them, and I think of what I would have lost by not reading them. What if I had given up on The Corrections because of the talking poop scene? It didn’t matter that I had loved the novel until that point. I was convinced in one scene that the book was about to shatter wide open, and I only kept going because other people told me to. Or what if The Crimson Petal and the White wasn’t something I was reading for office book club? There was about a 100-page stretch in the middle there that I thought was kind of a snooze. Without being obligated to, would I have kept going for the 500 or so pages I still had ahead of me?

When I start to look at the books I haven’t finished in this way, I do start to worry about material I’ve passed on. I like to think that I’ve mastered a way of reading differently when considering for work–after all, if I just hate 20 pages, isn’t that what editing is for? But those doubts will sneak up on you every time. And that’s my dirty secret—the deep internal fear that I will have missed something amazing because I abandoned it too soon.

Of course, there isn’t time to read every page of every submission. That would literally be impossible. And certainly some submissions, strung together in a poor facsimile of English, don’t merit greater consideration. Others very well may.

And that’s something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately—giving people who might have something there a little more benefit of the doubt. Instead of reading until I think something is a no, I can read 10 more pages. Or 20. These are manageable numbers. It comes back to The Corrections for me. Even the best authors go a little wonky sometimes. So I probably owe it to everyone to see if they get beyond their talking poop moment.

Of course, with pleasure reading, sometimes I don’t so much “give up” on books as fall away from them. I was reading (and enjoying) Swamplandia when I left for vacation last summer and forgot to pack it and never picked it back up. The same exact thing happened with The Marriage Plot over Christmas. Interestingly, both show up on the Tournament of Books list for this year. http://www.themorningnews.org/article/here-comes-the-rooster Longtime readers might remember that I adore the ToB. This year, I’m going to use it as a motivator to get back into those books that I was enjoying but didn’t finish. And because there is a whisper of OCD about me, I’m going to attempt to actually complete all 16 books on the list. I’ll give up if it gets in the way of reading for work, but I need a silly goal to give myself, and this fits.

So far, I’ve completed five. My biggest roadblock (literally) will be Murakami’s 1Q84. If anyone wants to join me on the road to attempt to read them before the bracket kicks off in March, I welcome the company on the reading road! Maybe drop me a line on Twitter @jimmccarthy528 to let me know where you’re at! If you’re looking for a starting place, might I recommend Donald Ray Pollock’s viscerally thrilling (if brutal) The Devil All the Time or the one I’m working on now: Ann Patchett’s so-far-so-stunning State of Wonder?

26 Responses to Reading to Completion

  1. That sounds like a fun challenge. If I weren’t knee deep in dissertation, I’d give it a try. I read too much YA these days… As for finishing a book, I tend to start skimming if I get bored, and if even the skimming is boring, I drop it. Though, if a trusted friend assures me that the book gets better, I’ll keep soldiering on.

    But talking poop? Are you kidding me? That’s a selling point!

    (Good to see you back! I’ve been missing the Jim perspective.)

  2. Kats says:

    I did give up on The Corrections because of the talking poop scene! Perhaps I should pick it up again.

  3. Catherine Whitney says:

    Great piece, Jim. To this day I don’t understand how I ever got into The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo. The opening chapters are so laborious. But (happily) I prevailed. However, the detritus of partially read books litters my house. I’m going to adopt your 10/20 page rule and see what happens. I also think that sometimes I’m just not in the mood for a certain type of book, but it works for me when I try it again. Books are living things, and I am also a living thing.

  4. There are three books on the list that I’ve started but didn’t finish: Tiger’s Wife (about 10 pages), Marriage Plot and Sense of Ending (25 pages or so.) Hmmm. Maybe I should revisit them. Or start reading State of Wonder, which has been waiting patiently on my nightstand for a while now.

    I am in the middle of two engaging books right now and don’t want to tear myself away. Maybe I’ll drop a line when i start.

  5. Lorelei says:

    I quit Swamplandia. Enough adverbs and adjectives to make Fitzgerald blush, and a meandering plot driven by anybody but the main character. I wish I had quit The Marriage Plot. A main female lead unable to walk away from a loathsome love interest. No, she marries him! Add massive amounts of daddy’s money to eliminate any possible struggle. But the worst: I did finish 1Q84, and you will want to fly to Japan just to slap the author when you get to the end of that one. I am now wishing I saw a way to stop The Art of Fielding, but too many friends will have finished it and I want to have the full amount of bile to spew forth upon them if they like it.

    Looks like I’m halfway through the tournament list thus far. How much do I not want to read the other eight?

  6. I’m with you. If I can’t get into a book, I find better use of my time. Although, there are second chances. THE BOOK THIEF (Zusak) took me three attempts. I don’t know if the quirky prose or if trying to read a book like that on the beach was a dumb idea or if, so to speak, ‘It was me, not you,’ I just couldn’t get past 50. But everyone kept telling me to go back and read it.

    Glad I did. It’s up there with the best I’ve ever read.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Welcome to our evil obsessive world…mwah-ha-ha-ha-ha!!!!

    I’ve got better – I’ve stopped reading series if I read 2 books in a row I hated from said series. I suppose that’s proof that Terry Goodkind actually did something useful with the 4.5 books after the first half of “Wizard’s First Rule”.

    Personally – I’d rather be on the other side of the fence. Sure – I’ve grabbed a couple of gems (The Reality Dysfunction opened with 50 pages of mega-dense hard sci-fi that was a real struggle, and yet turned into probably my 2nd favourite series ever), but the downsides really start to stack up….

    – 1) If you don’t like something, you tend to read it slower because your mind isn’t engaged, therefore poor books last longer than good ones…..and as a consequence….
    – 2) You remember the bad ones more. I can pinpoint plot points, Deus Ex Machina moments, annoying phrases and so on from books I’ve utterly loathed. Yet I don’t think I could sketch out the plot from, say, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “Salute the Dark” that I enjoyed immensely.
    – 3) And because of the above points, you start avoiding reading blurbs so that, even if a book has some language failings, and a bit of a cardboard plot, it might have a redeeming twist at the end. I found the Davinci Code brilliant on the first read-through….second time however, I could see why people got a bit annoyed (though DVC was infinitely better than Digital Fortress IMO)
    – 4) And to complete the four stages of Obsessive Book Finishing – you get the real joy of wretched anxiety when buying a book. Are you about to throw a fortnight of “reading for fun” out of the window because you picked the wrong book and can’t just put it down? There’s absolutely no way of knowing, and prowling in front of the bookshelves, sweating and counting off the minutes the wrong decision will waste through , doesn’t help…..yeah, loads of fun.

    So yeah, I’d advise sticking to putting down books you don’t like – missing out on a few bits of greatness here and there is certainly better than the alternative.

  8. Most recently, I’ve stopped reading David Lodge’s “A Man of Parts,” and Roberto Bolano’s “The Savage Detectives.” While I really enjoyed Lodge’s “Small World” and its sequels and prequels, his book on Wells feels more like slightly dramatized scholarship disguised as a novel and just wasn’t working for me. And while I enjoyed Bolano’s “2666,” for some reason, “The Savage Detectives,” just hit a rut for me and I stopped (though I may take another stab at it. Further back, I tried Jonathan Lethem’s “Fortress of Solitude” and found it too dense after just a few pages. I recently repurchased it on Kindle and tried again (with a larger, more comfortable font) and breezed right through and enjoyed it quite a bit. I now realize that what struck me as dense about the prose was really the literal density of the typesetting.

    About “Swamplandia,” I did wade all the way through, though I’m not sure it was worth the effort. The language was often lovely, but the characters just didn’t connect for me, and the novel itself seemed incredibly uneven, especially tonally, and especially in the chapters focusing on the brother’s exploits in the outside world. “The Art of Fielding,” on the other hand, I’m roughly half way through and enjoying thoroughly — despite the fact that I’m not a sports guy by any means, for the very good reason that, as a child, I was beaten and taunted by jocks, and then expected to make exceptions for them when I began teaching college. That’s all baggage on my part, and even with all that, I’m still hooked — which is saying something.

    Bottomline: I think you need to trust your gut in most cases and give yourself permission to quit. I also think you need to reconsider if you suspect there may be extenuating circumstances (bad mood, small font, intestinal distress) that might be coloring how you’re approaching something you want to quit — especially if there’s near universal praise for the thing (in which case you owe it to yourself to read even more closely, so you can get the evidence you need to prove everybody else wrong!)

    PS: Welcome back, Jim.

  9. ryan field says:

    This post reminded me that I did not know what a “DNF” review was until last year. (Did not finish)

    I have stopped reading books I didn’t like, but I’ve never left a review for them. If I were planning to review a book I’d force myself to finish it. Evidently, not everyone agrees.

  10. Megan B. says:

    The last book I quit reading was The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It came recommended, but I simply couldn’t get into it, despite some lovely writing. I felt that the main character’s motivation was so completely unclear that I didn’t care about him at all. I had to force myself to sit down and read it, and after a week or two of that I decided it wasn’t worth my time. Might be a great book, but I will never know.

    I think it’s quite all right to quit reading a book, but pressing on a little further to give it a chance is a sound idea.

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