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29th May
2009
written by Steph
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I try really hard to give every book a fair chance before forsaking it, because I really am loathe to leave books unfinished.  But sometimes you just have to acknowledge that a book isn’t doing it for you and part ways.  One thing I really liked in Nancy Pearl’s Booklust series is the sentiment that it’s all well and good to give a book a fair shot, but there’s no point sticking it out to the bitter end if indeed the end will be bitter for you:
“One of my strongest-held beliefs is that no one should ever finish a book that they’re not enjoying, no matter how popular or well-reviewed the book is.  Believe me, nobody is going to get any points in heaven by slogging their way through a book they aren’t enjoying but think they ought to read.”
I feel I gave The Theory of Clouds a good run before deciding to put it down for good.  Rather than subscribing to the Rule of Fifty, I gave this book 75 pages before concluding it just wasn’t for me.  I had hoped for a book suffused with elegant poetry and thoughtful contemplation, but instead, the writing often felt trite and staid.  The back cover suggested the book would revolve around a Japanese designer living in Paris who has developed a fascination with clouds.  He hires a young librarian to track down a fabled tome that is rumored to exist but has never been seen, all the while bringing her up to speed with the history of cloudgazing as well as how clouds have fascinated and stimulated men over the years.  I suppose this synopsis isn’t really disingenuous, but I just felt myself bogged down in fairly uninteresting history a good portion of the time, and was failing to see any kind of coherent plot develop. The balance between non-fiction and fiction just felt too heavily weighted towards the former rather than the latter.  Maybe I just don’t care enough about clouds for them to serve as anything more than metaphors, or maybe contemporary French writing isn’t really my thing (I will say that the story did have a French vibe, which is fitting given the author)… The few sex scenes that were randomly scattered throughout the pages I read felt cerebral yet crude, and it seemed like they were thrown in there just because it’s French and how could the book not include some erotic tidbits? In the end, this just didn’t have enough of a plot to keep me interested, and neither the writing nor the ideas were sufficiently captivating to me either.  This book kind of gave me a similar vibe to The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, but without the thought-provoking philosophy and transcendence.  With that in mind, I wouldn’t say this is a terrible book, just that it wasn’t a good fit for me.  It’s a shame this didn’t live up to its gorgeous cover! Question: Do you feel compelled to finish every book you start, or are you willing to abandon ship?  How do you go about deciding to leave a book unfinished?

16 Comments

  1. Kay
    05/29/2009

    I do abandon books. Quite more easily than I used to, considering that for a long time, I felt I had to complete my reading of every book I began. Now, I think life is too short, with too many books to discover, to force myself reading the books I don’t like!

    But I also take more time to chose my books, when I can. When I go to the library, I try to sit and read the first few pages of the books I want to borrow, and usually it gives me a good idea of how I’ll feel toward the book. Of course, it’s also very time consuming! I’ll admit though, that if I bought the book instead of borrowing it, it will sometimes motivate me a little more to finish it! 😉

  2. Lu
    05/29/2009

    There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the books that I do finish and the ones I don’t. I guess if I’m going to abandon a book it’s going to be in the first 20 pages. But, a lot of times, I’ll stick with a book I hate, not because I’m compelled to finish it, but because I’m a bit of an optimist – I keep thinking it will get better. Sometimes it does too. Mosquito by Gayle Jones is one that I thought about giving up on a lot, but it ended up being one of those books that had such a lasting impression that I recommend it easily.

    Great question 🙂

  3. Lu
    05/29/2009

    Oh and speaking about bad sex scenes, that seems to be a common theme in modern French writing. At least in Houellebecq. I read The Platform and The Elementary Particles last summer and they were riddled with the same kind of sex scenes you describe here.

  4. 05/29/2009

    I have no problem abandoning a book if I don’t like it. I figure I can always pick it up again later if the mood strikes.

  5. 05/29/2009

    @ Kay: Perhaps I do need to spend a bit more time when I select books. Normally I start with the cover. If that looks good, I flip it over and read the back blurb. If that’s interesting, I’ll open the book and scan the first page, or read part of a random page. Generally if the writing seems good enough there, I’ll go for it. But, sometimes the first paragraph or so can be really misleading. It really did take 70 pages with this book for me to realize that it wasn’t something I wanted to keep reading.
     
    @ Lu: Funny you should mention Houellebecq, because I was thinking of him as I read the sex scenes. Weird because I haven’t read anything by him, but I’ve heard a lot about him and his obsession with sex… I really think it might be a cultural thing. I just found these attempts at sensuality to be really vulgar and unerotic! I kid you not but there was a sentence in this book that started with “She had always liked the taste of sperm…”
     
    @ charley: I guess I have two different ways of abandoning a book. Sometimes I realize a book is worth reading but it’s just not the right time for me then and there – I’m not in the right mindframe or it’s just not what I’m looking for. But other times I realize that if I put a book down then I’m never going to pick it up again. This is definitely a case of the latter.

  6. 05/30/2009

    I also follow Pearl’s rule of 50. Usually, though, it doesn’t take me 50 pages to know I won’t like a book. I almost always stop after the first 3 pages (bad, I know, but if those pages annoy me I won’t bother). Sometimes, though, I would finish something that to some extent annoys me, but that are at least somewhat bearable (like Joanna Scott’s Follow Me). Lol.

  7. 05/30/2009

    Yes, there are so many books out there that giving 50 pages to each one probably isn’t actually feasible in the long run. Sometimes you flip the book open and start reading, and if the writing is poor/awkward, you can tell right away and know that it won’t work out. But sometimes you do need more pages to figure out if a book is just a slow starter or whatnot – bad writing doesn’t need that much time, however!

  8. 05/30/2009

    I completely agree with Nancy Pearl’s view – my own motto is that life is way too short to spend it reading crappy books (or books that just don’t do it for you for whatever reason!). I have no problems in stopping and never going back!

  9. 05/31/2009

    I saw this book in a bookshop a while back and was tempted, but didn’t get it that day and promptly forgot about it. Too bad it didn’t work for you, it sounds like it could have had an interesting premise.

  10. 05/31/2009

    @ Karen: I really used to have a hard time giving up on a book, but now that I’m reading more, it’s become easier. Maybe it’s because I really can think of all the other books I could be reading that if one is really dragging me down, it doesn’t seem worth it. Plus, I think I’m more open to the possibility of their being two types of “not working” piles: one that means a book is NEVER likely to work for me (and so I’ll remove it from my life unfinished), and one where I think it could work for me at another time but now is not right. I always worry that a book might become fantastic right after I put it down, but generally speaking, I can’t think of a book I was really unimpressed with by page 50 or so that turned it around.
     
    @ verbivore: I thought of you when I started this book, simply because you’re my resident book blogger who reads so much French fiction. Given that you’re more familiar with French authors, you might enjoy this one more than I did. Also, I picked up a translated copy as I live in a place where French fiction isn’t all that available, but it might be a better experience in French (then again, I found it boring, so that’s unlikely to change, regardless of the language!).

  11. 05/31/2009

    I used to have a really hard time giving up on books, but it’s getting easier–because like you’ve said, I can always think of something I’d rather be reading. It does have to be really bad (ie, have nothing enjoyable about it) for me to give it up. For example, I didn’t like Middlesex much, but there was enough that I did like for me to finish.
    Like others, I try to give at book at least 50 pages or 10 percent. (And I don’t consider myself as having started a book if I read a few pages in the library to see if I really want to read it.)

    I will always read to the end if a book is for book club, and I’m more likely to push through if it’s a book I’ve received from a publisher for review.

  12. 05/31/2009

    @ Teresa: Great points – I don’t consider flipping through the first few pages of a book to see if I want to read it in earnest a real attempt at reading a book. I definitely have a conscious moment when I say, “OK, the next book I’m going to read is this one!”
    I always intend to finish book club picks, but I haven’t always. In certain cases, I really don’t like the book, but I feel like I’ve read enough to articulate what didn’t work for me to the group (coming to mind is when my group picked “Reading Lolita in Tehran”… I read the first section, which was 70 pages, and that was enough!).
    With respect to books I’m reviewing in a more professional capacity, I definitely want to read those through to the end. A lot of ARCs that one can get through sites like LibraryThing or GoodReads I feel it’s less crucial, since so many bloggers get them, but if I’m the only one reviewing a book or have been contacted directly to review, then I’ll definitely see it through (or let them know why I can’t finish the book… I wouldn’t simply write a review leaving the book unfinished… at least not without making it very clear I hadn’t finished! 😉 ).

  13. 06/02/2009

    I do feel compelled to finish every book I start because of that special bondage I develop with the book when I turn the cover. But even I persist on a book that doesn’t do it for me to the end, I might have abandoned it halfway, in the sense that I’m no longer caring what happens and am not scribbling a lot of notes like I usually do.

  14. 06/03/2009

    Most of the time I finish books even though I am not enjoying them. At times I do it just to be able to provide a complete review of the book, but sometimes I do it because I am hoping that the book will miraculously turn a corner and be brilliant. Most of the time I am disappointed when I stick to a book that I am not liking, but I fear that not doing so will make me feel really guilty. It’s a bad habit I know I need to break.

  15. 06/04/2009

    @ Matt: Yes, I suppose I feel compelled to finish each book I start (it’s like a pact!), but I don’t always follow through. It’s especially bad when you find you just don’t connect with the story or care about anything you’re reading, and also if the writing is extremely poor. If I really can’t find anything I’m enjoying, I will likely abandon ship.
     
    @ zibilee: I guess one of the things I’ve learned is that very early on, I mentally flag a book as how many stars I think it will be. Sometimes this changes, but generally I’m pretty accurate (within .5 stars of what I end up giving a book) – I can’t think of any books that I’ve read where I found the first 50 – 80 pages lackluster only to have it really turn around in the end. If by then I think, “meh, this is going to be about a 3”, usually I wind up thinking that at the end. I do worry that I’ll miss some “late bloomers”, but then again, I can spend that time with books that are great the entire way through!

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