Is It OK To Give Up On A Book?

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:

  1. track new books from my favorite authors;
  2. troll independent books shops (it certainly helps that I live across from The Strand, the Holy Grail of book stores);
  3. keep a book “wish list” in a notebook that I always have at my side;
  4. solicit recommendations from bookworm friends;
  5. check out The NY Times Book Review;
  6. 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? TC mark

image – Julia Roy

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  • Guest

    Im feeling that as well sometimes, guilty for not finishing what you've started, but I really don't want to forced myself into a book I can't absorbed! Better read the next book on your pile!

  • ushdugery

    Just as you wouldn't force yourself to watch the nanny if you didn't enjoy it, you shouldn't force yourself to read a book you don't enjoy.

    • Reallyyyydude


  • Dan Droper

    Have another go with dunces

  • Ssinyard

    My rule of thumb is if I'm not interested in 50-100 pages (depending on the length of the book) then I'll give it up.  The exception is The Millennium Trilogy.  The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo wasn't interesting until close to 300-400 pages into it.

  • Emma

    Oh, don't do it. Read something that won't leave you angry. The only book and character that I hated more intensely than Ignatius was that jerk in Ian McEwan's Solar. I finished Dunces and Solar, and it makes me cross to think of either one. UGH. Reading's not meant to be like that.

    • Mary Quite-contrary

      Does it make you cross, Alice? Does it make you cross?

  • KS

    Superstar librarian, Nancy Pearl, has a rule about giving up on a book that you don't enjoy.

    “Pearl, it seems that the most important aspect of reading a book is to enjoy it. If a reader is not enjoying a book, then she has a rule for when to stop reading that book.Pearl's approach to enjoying reading is the Rule of 50 which states 'If you still don't like a book after slogging through the first 50 pages, set it aside. If you're more than 50 years old, subtract your age from 100 and only grant it that many pages.'”

  • cunteyes

    Interesting as I loved Confederacy of Dunces, but throughly agree that life is too short! Considering whether or not I should continue recommending it to people. I found Ignatius engrossing, but I think this was due the combination of his repulsiveness and social ineptitude resulting in a totally bizarre character rather than his outstanding traits (or lack thereof).

  • datebynumbers

    Confederacy of Dunces was my first “give up” book as well.  I found the main character so repulsive, I couldn't bear to be with him any longer.

  • Mikaela Kaimo

    I like this a lot! I often feel guilty about not finishing a book, so I tend to keep reading if only to cross it off my to-read list. The book that I couldn't finish is Sophie's World.

    • Kavita Das

      I totally couldn't finish Sophie's World either and I tried and tried because it was an interesting premise and thought it could serve as my primer on philosophy but the premise ended up being too thin

  • Matt Schultz

    i'm like that turd-bag in what was it? maybe Perks of Being a Wallflower? fuck; but he always just reread his favorites. I've read some keroauc 2x, tao lin 3x, etc… works for me.

  • mjames

    trawl bookshops, not troll.

    • Kavita Das

      thanks for catching that!

    • HipsterFriend

      No, you misunderstand. She does things like ask, “do you have Wuthering Heights by Jane Austen?” or checks out with a copy of Solanas' SCUM manifesto and an issue of Barely Legal Hardcore at the same time. She trolls bookstores.

  • Greg Petliski

    I once read a book on John Colter, a man who went west with Lewis & Clark, then was the first white dude to explore Yellowstone, alone, and in winter. How on this earth the author made a book about such an interesting man so boring I'll never know. But I stuck with it!

  • mopey P

    The only reason I can think of to read a book with repulsive and obnoxious characters would be to get well-informed so you can form good arguments about why the characters are obnoxious and repulsive.

    I read multiple Milan Kundera novels just so I could better explore his work in order to feel more confident in deciding that he does not write female characters with depth or a purpose other than to advance the plot for the male hero. In short, ew.

    Definitely not a leisurely time, so I agree with Emma—don't do it unless you want to go to bed crabby on purpose.

  • Caroline Evertz

    I've done the same with 'Lolita' by Vladimir Nabokov. And before everyone shouts “OMG. WHUT?!” I know. I get it. Maybe it was all the hype but I just got so bored by it towards the end I couldn't finish it.

    • Heretica Neue

      I agree with you. I got hooked by the first page, and the whole first half of it was just beautifully written. But toward the end it just became cumbersome. I had to force myself to finish it. I almost wish I had not finished it, and just held onto the lovely first half as my Lolita experience. Sigh!

  • chelsea

    Dunces is hilarious!

  • hannah

    I finished A Confederacy of Dunces just so I could tell my dad that I finished A Confederacy of Dunces; It was painful.

  • Ward Hegedus

    I feel compelled to finish reading what I've started. My husband feels compelled to finish a meal in hopes that the food will get better. When I tell him that's ridiculous he tells me the same. I've learned that sometimes it's just best to let things go. Except Twilight. I read the shit out of that so I could judge people and then I realized that the publisher lined the pages with crack and read it three more times. Judge away, I deserve it.

  • Sootymehra

    The very first of the unreadables for me occurred in Std 4 or 5 – “Lorna Doone” remains unfinished to this day. But there are books that I have appreciated considerably after forcing myself to stick with them through the first few chapters…. and the one that gave me the most pleasure though a horrid begining was “Daniel Martin” by John Fowles.
                   What about books that have the most amazing begining and then they completely lose you in the middle or the end gets so loose and lax that you just want to cry….. two examples of this would be Atonement by McEwan and Lolita by Nobokov.

  • Astraea162

    I wanted to give up on Ursula LeGuin's “Left Hand of Darkness” around 50 pgs in, but reluctantly continued since it was the only book I had with me on vacation. Now it's one of my absolute favorite novels.

    So…sometimes it's worth it to persevere.

  • Francisco García

    “Son of a Witch” took me about 6 months to finish because I thought it was SO boring. I tried to just give it up, but I didn't want to hurt its feelings, so I just finished it eventually and then gave it away at the first opportunity.

  • Penny

    The Strand? Seriously? What a dreadful bookshop. There are way nicer bookshops to spend endless hours in. That place is like a shitty bookstore supermarket. Horrible atmosphere.

    • goldglass

      Don't yuck her yum!

  • Ashley Church

    I've only given up on one book and it was way back in the day. I was told that there is this teen book that was going to be “BIG” in the next years. I got to about page 3 and realized it was about vampires and was so poorly written I wanted to vomit. So I chucked it and read some Steinbeck instead.

    I'm so proud of my 16 year old self for realizing how shitty Twilight was before it even picked up speed.

    So yes, I deem it alright to give up on books.

    • Vives

      Hahaha! I did the EXACT same thing as you years ago. Good for us.

    • Reallyyyydude

      I agree that it's shitty, but why are you congratulating yourself on being a teenage hipster?

  • Michael Koh

    I have a ton of books to read over this summer. Maybe I'll take this.

  • Mary Quite-contrary

    I quit reading this when I read you live across from The Strand.

  • Elle

    It's ok to quit on a book, because I didn't quit on Freedom, even though I really wanted to, and I still view it as a giant waste of time.

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