Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Topical Topic = On Not Finishing Books

For a long time, I did a lot of guilt over books that I didn't finish. I think this reaction came from the way books are presented at school, where it is a mortal sin to leave books unfinished, no matter how much you dislike them. You get bad marks for that kind of thing.

As a result, leaving books unfinished left a stale taste in my mouth, one that drove me to such guilt that, yes, I often balked at reading for fear I would be stuck with a book I didn't like, but HAD to finish. It was a little like never loving for fear of heartbreak.

After starting my MFA, I think my feelings have shifted quite a lot. First, let me say that I have read more books that I've disliked or even hated, in the last two years than at any other point in my life. But I've also been exposed to some new favorites I never would have known to try otherwise. When you're studying literature, for every Howard's End there will also be a The Chocolate War assigned to you. (Yes, I hated one of those books) That's just the subjective nature of reading.

Obviously, I had to finish the books I loathed, but all the same, I've found my perspective shifting around the topic of leaving other books unfinished. During the summers, I am much more likely to get a few chapters into a novel and then ditch it. Permanently. I do this for a few reasons, upon which I shall expound.

1) I will read enough books I don't like during the school year to more than likely make my quota.
This might sound snarky, but I mean it truthfully. There IS a lot of use to occasionally reading books I don't like. From those books, I learn what I don't want to do in my own writing. They force me to work the part of my brain that wants to "fix" plot problems, pacing or word choice. That's a useful muscle for me to use. Also, these books will usually still have some strong elements, and those can be worth learning from. All the same, I think I learn more from reading books that I DO connect with - the ones I want to emulate. The bulk of my time should go into reading those. Even in the summer, time is limited, so I don't waste it on filling the "bad book quota."

2) If I'm not occasionally tossing aside a book I don't like, it means I'm not reading widely enough.
As a child, I went through phases where all I ever read was Brian Jacques's Redwall series or Rowling's Harry Potter. I knew I would like these books and I wasn't wrong. In general, I can usually bet that if a book is a Young Adult or Middle Grade Fantasy or stars animals, I will probably like it. Sure there are exceptions, but these are safe choices.

But reading shouldn't always be safe. It should challenge us emotionally and intellectually and often that is best done with books outside our comfort zones. Last summer I made an effort to read more YA contemporary, not really my area or my "thing." One book I hurled across the room at chapter 5, but another was John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back and that made me sob happy tears. It stretched me as a reader and as a writer. Reading deeply and widely is an important part of developing a voice. But outside my usual genres, I know I'll also find more things I don't click with. There's a reason that I love animal and fantasy books and a reason why I write them. Some books will be good enough to transcend those barriers of personal preference. Others will be returned to the library early amid rants of disappointment.

3) Just as you can learn a lot from a bad book, you can learn a lot from an unfinished book.
Last year, I read one book that wasn't bad or outside my genre and it... lost me. The pacing dragged and I just couldn't be bothered with finishing it. That was when the importance of editing for length in an adventure story REALLY hit me. At over 120,000 words, this book had too much bogging down the story. I had a hard time imagining it ever picking up to a satisfactory clip and so eventually I returned it to the library. As a long winded author, it was a hard lesson to learn. Other books I've put down because their openings were confusing or contrived or uninteresting. Others lost me with an uneven middle or bothersome content choices. All valuable lessons.

But the number one reason I don't finish books is...

4) The library thought they owned the thing or something.
Seriously, guys. My library does this ALL THE TIME. They let me take away a book but then they seem to think they still own it or something and start sending emails asking for it back. But in all seriousness, this is an interesting category. Sometimes these books are the ones that show the difference between a 4 or a 5 star book in my rankings. No matter how little time I have, I will always finish a 5 star, even if that means facing late fees. A 4? Well, I may check it out again. I may not. Generally, it's yet another reminder of how subjective this whole reading business is.

So those are MY reasons for leaving books unfinished. What about the rest of you? Any others?


  1. There are only a few books I've left unfinished. I will definitely try to plow my way through a book that defies my reading it, and I will usually win in the end. If you can call reading a book you aren't enjoying a "win". I could probably list the books I've started and never finished. In fact, I will.

    The Screwtape Letters - C.S. Lewis
    Mere Christianity - C.S. Lewis
    The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
    The Running Man - Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)
    A Game of Thrones - R.R. Martin
    The Silmarillion - J.R.R. Tolkien
    some Tom Clancy Op-Center book
    that graphic novel I attempted at your mom's place when Jenni and I came for Kate's wedding (they made a movie starring Micheal Cena)

    Here's a list of the reasons I couldn't finish the books I've named:

    1) Profanity: I'm usually okay with the odd cuss-word here or there, but I usually won't finish a book that has too much. "Too much" being a subjective measure as sometimes the story is so good, I don't notice the words. But sometimes, even if the story is good, I can't help but notice the words. This is the category that I would slot GoT and Running Man into. Of course, if I really want to finish the story, I will look up the Wikipedia entry for the book and read the plot summary.

    2) Repetition: If I start to feel like I'm reading the same things over and over again, I give up. It's how The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity have made me hesitant to try C.S. Lewis any more (how can I ever be a good Christian now). Although I did finish, and enjoy, Out of the Silent Planet. It's also why I very rarely read the same book more than once. I seem to have a good memory for books I liked.

    On a different, but related note, repetition in a series really annoys the heck out of me: "I read books 1 and 2 already! Why must they take up half of books 3 and 4?! I wouldn't be reading books 3 and 4 without reading the first two!"

    3) I just can't get into it. For whatever reason, the book seems to be resisting my best efforts to read it. It could be that I've stayed with the same genre/series/author for too long (attempting The Silmarillion immediately after The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings was probably the wrong thing for me to do). It could be the book is moving too slow (Count of Monte Cristo). It could be the author's style (that graphic novel I mentioned).

    Well, that's all I can think of.

    1. I hear you on all counts, Dave! Reason #1 was what killed the YA I tried reading last summer that died for me on Chapter 5, among other issues. Repetition is a tricky one. If it's something I love, i can totally enjoy a bit of repetition, but if it isn't then yes, I may get bored. I might comment on pitfalls in seriated fiction at some point. I'm going to be studying seriated novels this fall.

      As for number 3, I think that's that fascinating "not-quite-right" category. So often a measure of subjective taste. I think that's the reason I couldn't stand The Chocolate War. I don't think it's a bad book - just very much NOT for me. But that was for school, so I've still read the miserable thing.