I love the Groucho Marx quote, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read,” because I think it’s hilarious and it combines two of my favorite things, dogs and books. But I’ve had a nagging question about books for years; is it OK to give up on a book? And if so, at what point is it OK to give up on a book? This question of whether and when to give up on a book might seem trivial but for me it has both philosophical and practical implications.
To research what book to read next, I do one or more of the following things:
- track new books from my favorite authors;
- troll independent books shops (it certainly helps that I live across from The Strand, the Holy Grail of book stores);
- keep a book “wish list” in a notebook that I always have at my side;
- solicit recommendations from bookworm friends;
- check out The NY Times Book Review;
- select a literary classic that I’ve been meaning to read.
However, even with this regimented process in place, I’ve sometimes found myself disengaged with my chosen book.
Sometimes, after reading just a few pages of a book I realize that I have no interest in continuing to read it either because I don’t like the writing style or I find the plot incomprehensible or beyond bizarre. I write off these cases as unfortunate missteps–I’m more concerned about the books that I look forward to with great anticipation. I begin to read them and although I am not quite engaged, elements including a unique plot, point of view, or the reputation of the author are compelling enough to get me past the first 50 pages or so.
But somehow at that point, I find myself disengaged and unmotivated to read further. Is it OK to give up at this point? Or should you keep trudging forward either in the hopes that it gets better or out of a sense of commitment for completing what you started? Does giving up (even temporarily) offer up a chance to pursue something more suited to your mood or does this set you up to give up on books whenever you hit a bump? Conversely, if you trudge forward out of a sense of obligation to complete what you started, have you taken the fun out of reading for fun?
I’ve polled friends who are avid readers to see how they come down on this issue. Most friends fall into what I call the “life is too short” category. They have no problem giving up on a book temporarily (or permanently) because life is too short and struggling with a book is pointless. They say that the most important thing is that you continue to love reading and the best way to do that is to love what you’re reading. I do have a few friends however, who believe strongly in finishing any book they start (based on my personal knowledge of these friends, I’m pretty sure they apply this rule to all other aspects of their very orderly lives). It’s a matter of principle for them and they love the satisfaction of setting out to do something and completing it. They also try to do as much research on the front end before settling down with a book.
My own feelings on this issue have shifted over the last ten to fifteen years. I became an avid reader at the end of college. In my twenties, if I felt compelled to pick up a book, I would read it from start to finish with the exception of one book: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy. I found the main character and plot so thoroughly unlikable that I gave up within pages and I remember feeling guilty about it. I think that my commitment to finishing books has decreased as my schedule has become busier. My lack of leisure time has sometimes made me overly selective and a commitment-phobe when it comes to books. Also, the amount of required reading that I do for work has made it that much more important that my leisure reading is actually leisurely rather than yet another task.
I will say that since I started keeping a book “wish list”, I have managed to cut down on the number of impulse buys, which more often than not have turned into buyers remorse. Also, I started putting my NYC Public Library card to good use this year and found that the imposed deadline of the due date helped motivate me to read and I feel less guilty when I give up on a library book. In the end, I think I identify more with the “life is too short” approach when it comes to reading for fun but I don’t think I will ever give up on a book without some pangs of guilt. Who knows, perhaps I should give A Confederacy of Dunces another go-around?