A few days before I wrote the first draft of this article, I happened to read an absolutely fascinating online article about “book block”. This is where you start reading a book, but can’t bring yourself to finish it for some reason. And, yes, it can be debilitating in literary terms.
I mean, one of the reasons why I read so little after early-mid 2014 (and only returned to reading regularly a few months ago) was because of guilt over leaving a couple of books unfinished. In those years, I probably read less than ten novels. Since I got back into reading regularly again, I’ve read about fifty or so. So, yes, guilt about not being able to finish a book can really disrupt your reading.
But, my thoughts on the topic have evolved slightly and – since I got back into reading regularly- I’ve abandoned at least three books without the heavy sense of guilt or obligation that can sometimes put you off of reading again for years.
So, here are some thoughts about when and how to abandon a book:
1) You can always come back to it later: If it helps, remember that you can always come back to an abandoned book later. In fact, the reason why you just can’t seem to go any further with a book may well be because you just aren’t ready for it yet. And this isn’t a question of skill or intelligence, it’s a question of things like mood, imagination, circumstances and interests more than anything else.
For example, one of the books I abandoned in 2014 was a 1990s-style sci-fi/fantasy thriller called “Heart Of Desire” by Kate Robinson. I felt really terrible about leaving this book unfinished, especially since I know the author. Yet, in the years afterwards, I became fascinated by the 1990s and I spent quite a while watching films, watching TV shows, playing computer games etc.. from that decade in order to understand it better.
So, when I eventually returned to “Heart Of Desire” 4-5 years later, the book suddenly made a lot more sense to me. I could spot (and enjoy) all of the 1990s-style elements, and appreciate the book on a whole new level. In other words, I was ready for this book and I enjoyed it (and finished it) because of this.
So, don’t feel bad about abandoning a book – it might just be because you need to return to it at some point in the future when you are ready.
2) The test: One of the best ways to avoid guilt about abandoning a book is to test it out first. The less of a book you read, the less guilty you’ll feel about abandoning it. So, test the waters before plunging deep into a book.
The exact number of pages varies from person to person. Some people will say that if you aren’t gripped by the first page, then you should ditch the book. Others suggest giving a book 50-100 pages before deciding whether to continue. Personally, I think that you shouldn’t set hard limits – just go into a book cautiously and, if you start to feel that heavy, gloomy sense of “oh god, do I have to read all of this?” drop it and read something else instead.
Still, the first few pages are the most critical. They will tell you the most. For example, a week or two before I wrote this article, I didn’t start reading a really interesting-looking thriller novella because of the rather harsh vigilante-like tone of the first couple of pages. Yes, it was written in a gripping way but it seemed like the kind of earnestly grim thriller that I probably wouldn’t enjoy.
So, I guess that the real lesson here is to know yourself. Understand what makes a book “work” for you and what doesn’t, and pay attention to how you feel when you start reading a book.
3) It can be a good thing: One book I abandoned in late 2010/early 2011 was Clive Barker’s “Abarat: Absolute Midnight”. I didn’t feel guilty about this. Was it because it was a terrible book? No! It was the literal opposite of a terrible book.
In short, I binge-read the first half of the novel in a single evening and was so amazed by it that I just didn’t want the story to end. So, I left it. I meant to get round to reading the rest of it but, at the same time, I just didn’t want the story to end. So, I still haven’t read the rest of it.
So, yes, abandoning a book doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Sometimes a book can be so good that you just don’t want the story to end.
4) Focus on enjoyment, not prestige: Ask yourself whether you’re reading something because you enjoy it or because you just want the prestige of having read it.
Yes, prestige can be a good motivator (in addition to setting myself a deadline, it’s probably one of the reasons why I finished reading Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall“) and some books do require perseverance before they really get good (eg: Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”, Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” etc..). But, you should only keep pushing yourself to read a “difficult” book if you genuinely feel that it will be worth your time.
And, yes, this may lead to you leaving some classics unfinished. For example, when I was about sixteen or seventeen, I really wanted to read J. R. R. Tolkien’s “Lord Of The Rings” but, after about 100-200 pages into the first book I realised that it was just too slow-paced when compared to the exciting film adaptations I’d seen. When I was about fourteen or fifteen, I tried to read Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” (since I’d seen the film on TV) but gave up after about 100 pages due to grappling with the narrative style. I could go on…
The point I’m trying to make here is that you should ask yourself whether you’re stuck with a book because you want the prestige of having finished it or because it’s good enough that you want to keep reading, even if you find it “difficult”. If it’s because of prestige, then abandon the book. The thing to remember here is that even the most “well-read” person in the world probably hasn’t read everything. There are too many books, even prestigious books, out there for someone to read literally all of them. So, don’t feel bad about it.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂