Main image
23rd June
written by Steph
This past weekend, Teresa over at Shelf Love posted a brilliant write-up on the difficulties of breaking up with books. There are some people who happily fling books away if they're not clicking, but some of us are stubborn and faithful, and once we say we're going to read a book, you practically have to pry it out of our cold, dead hands to get us to stop reading it. Even if we're not enjoying it one jot. There are plenty of reasons why one might be reluctant to give up on a book. Maybe you've read plenty of great reviews about it, and so you're convinced it has to get better. Or perhaps you have a guilt complex (and come on, I'm a grad student, so I absolutely do) and you feel like it's a book you should like or should be able to say you've read so pride keeps you going. I fully admit that not all books are easy-going, and sometimes you have to work for your rewards. Some books you struggle and grapple with, only to emerge triumphant and enlightened at the end... while others make you regret the hours you invested. And then there are of course those books that no matter how hard you try, they just fail to have that za za zu (as my friends Trisha & Abby - and also Carrie Bradshaw - would say) and you seem destined to always part with the story unfinished. Inspired by Sonya Chung's lists over at The Millions, I thought I'd bogart her idea (and headings) and humbly present my list of triumphs and successes when it comes to the ones that got away, and the ones I should have cut loose. Please share your own successes (and failures!) in the comments! Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
  • A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
  • The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
  • If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
  • Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolfe
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  • 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
  • The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
  • A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
  • The Accidental by Ali Smith
  • A Partisan’s Daughter by Louis De Bernières
  • The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
  • Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
  • Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
  • Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
  • The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  • The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
  • The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov


  1. 06/23/2010

    I finished A Suitable Boy, but I had to skip a lot of the rural politics that made up a good portion of the book. I felt like it was just a mediocre read for me. I also tried Vanity Fair about three times. One time I got almost all the way to the end, but I was so frustrated with it that I wanted to cry. I agree with the list of books that you found painful. I have heard that all those books are almost impossible. I think my biggest challenge is The Satanic Verses. I have tried so many times, and can never seem to understand exactly what is going on. I loved Midnight’s Children, so I know I can read Rushdie, it’s just a tough book for me.

  2. 06/23/2010

    So it looks like, statistically, it’s hard to tell if you really won’t like it even if you think you won’t or don’t in the beginning. I generally try to keep going unless I’m feeling too crabby, because the beginning of *most* books are a struggle for me – you know, all the laying out of who is who and what is what before the author can get going with the story. But if it seems very difficult to get a handle on what is happening, I’ll abandon it, and I suspect that often it is my loss.

  3. 06/23/2010

    Do give The French Lieutenant’s Woman another try. I have been meaning to re-read that one for years. We share some other points in common here but funny that your top three most painful are among my favorite books. 🙂

  4. 06/23/2010

    Vive les differences! I found a book I loved in 3 categories, one I’m glad I read in a fourth, and one I hated in your “glad I gave it a go” column. I loved: Suitable Boy, Daughter of Time, Case Histories. Glad I read If on a Winter’s Night even if it was hard and I didn’t love, and hated Unbearable Lightness of Being.

    So our lists might be opposite of one another, and yet we’re bookish internet pen pals. Awesome!

  5. 06/24/2010

    @ zibilee: It was the politics that bogged me down the first time I tried A Suitable Boy. I have slowly been getting better with long books though, so hopefully the next time I try it I’ll have more success! I think with The Satanic Verses the best thing to do is to read slowly and not be worried if you don’t understand everything at once. Some things become clearer as you progress through sections/the novel!
    @ rhapsody: Certain books I can tell right from the get go I will not like (e.g., Shadow of the Wind), but generally that has to do with the writing. If I struggle with a book because I find it challenging, I may or may not like it at the end, but I tend to find those ones worth persevering with!
    @ Frances: I will absolutely try The French Lieutenants Woman again. I think I just wasn’t in the right mood when I tackled it – it seems like a book that requires slow and careful reading, and I was in the mood for something lighter.
    @ Girl Detective: It is funny how no matter how much we feel we’ve found a kindred spirit in terms of books, there will always be titles that divide us. I do realize I’m the odd woman out when it comes to Case Histories – it was just too slow for me!

  6. 06/23/2010

    I’ve tried If on a winter’s night and it remains half read. It belongs in my “huh?” category. As in, what is the author getting at/trying to tell me or am I just stoopid category.

  7. 06/23/2010

    Thanks for the link! I thought about boagarting those lists too, but then never got to it. (Probably doesn’t help that I went through a long period of never ever quitting books, so my list of books I gave up on is rather short.)

    From your lists, I did not, in the end, find Monte Cristo satisfying, but I imagine that the abridged version would be amazing. I LOVED Vanity Fair. It’s exactly my kind of book, though, I whipped right through it.

    We differ on Case Histories and Daughter of Time, both of which I loved. Your last list, though, is similar to mine, except that I never warmed up to The Corrections. For years after, my book club considered that the most loathsome book we had read. And I haven’t read the Rushdie and Kundera, but they’re on my someday list.

  8. 06/23/2010

    I loved “A Suitable Boy” (read it twice), so I am glad that you are willing to give it a try again someday.

    On the other hand, I tried to get into “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen, but couldn’t finish the book. At what point did you realize that you wanted to keep going? It was quite a while ago when I tried reading it so I don’t remember how far I got.

  9. 06/24/2010

    I love (and I mean, they are favourites) 9 of the books you’ve listed above. Top 2 of your Most Painful. All 4 of your Couldn’t Engage With. Top 1 of your Didn’t Finish But Will Try Again. And 2 of your Struggled Through But Finished. Amazingly, despite our differences, we have other “types” of books that connect us, like The History of Love and I Capture the Castle. (I am so reading The Hand that First Held Mine, as you told me to.)

    I also abandoned The French Lieutenant’s Woman many, many years ago. I’d try it again but lost my copy. Also, I’ll be reading The Corrections very soon!

  10. 06/24/2010

    The Satanic Verses and The Corrections were both difficult for me to get through too! I am sorry you didn’t like Case Histories–I have it out from the library right now but haven’t read it.

  11. 06/24/2010

    @ softdrink: The last time I tried If On A Winter’s Night, I made it about 70 pages in and I thought I was doing really well… and then the bottom just fell out and I couldn’t keep going. It didn’t have enough of a plot to keep me interested, I suppose.
    @ Teresa: I thought your post was so fun, and it gave me some food for thought. Most of the books I have stalled through are long books, which is I think why I generally shy away from chunksters. I tend to lose steam with them! But I’m slowly improving my stamina, and can now read books that are around 600 pages without much pain, so I’m getting there! 😉
    @ Valerie: I know so many people love A Suitable Boy, so I do know I need to try it again. I think part of the problem is a took it on a sunny beach read vacation, and is simply too heavy (literally!) for that kind of thing!
    As for The Corrections, I don’t deny that the beginning can be quite a slog, as I think when it comes to scenery, Franzen has a tendency to overwrite. But I think once I made it through the section with Chip, I knew I had to keep reading (because I found it really compelling and also hilarious). There is one section that takes place on a cruise ship in that book that I did not like at all, but it’s one of those books that I think is challenging but kind of brilliant.
    @ claire: I know that I listed so many favourites for you, which pains me to know end! But of course for our differences we do have similarities too! We both love Toni Morrison, and Jane Austen, and magical realism writing, so I know a few titles here and there won’t divide us! I’m really curious to see how you respond to The Corrections!
    @ Stephanie: Pretty much everyone loves Case Histories, but I found it dull and slow. It could be I was looking for a different kind of mystery, and I have enjoyed other Atkinson books in the past, so don’t use me as the final word on that one! 😉

  12. For the books I’ve read from your list I would agree with the categories that you place them in. I wasn’t a fan of The Accidental or Amsterdam and I didn’t manage to finish Shadow of the Wind.

    I was really pleased that I made it to the end of The Master and Magarita and 2666 – our only difference of opinion. I’d like to read A Suitable Boy at some point – I haven’t even attempted it yet.

  13. Meg

    Loved reading your lists! Mark Haddon is in the epic “loss” column for me; I read about 100 pages of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time before flinging it away from me — hard — and skimmed A Spot Of Bother before shuddering at the memory of the first book… and, you know, staying far, far away from the second.

    I used to be really diligent about finishing a book once I’d started, not abandoning it for anything, but I’m too overwhelmed and ADD about my books now to finish something I’m not interested in. I give it the ol’ 50 page mark test, then pass it along to someone else — with few exceptions. One book I started reading, loved but then put down was Sue Miller’s The Senator’s Wife, a book I am determined to finish! …Someday.

  14. mee

    I finished If On A Winter’s Night. If you don’t like it since the beginning you probably shouldn’t continue, because it gets more convoluted and confusing later on (and the unfinished alternate chapters will get very very tiring). I guess I kinda slogged through that one then started skimming near the end (loved the beginning!), but I don’t regret reading it (though the reward wasn’t as great as I wanted too). Apart from that, I’ve read The Reader, which I kinda liked, so it was fine.

    There are many books on your list though that I definitely want to try at some point.

  15. 06/24/2010

    @ Jackie: I know you don’t scare when it comes to long books, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy A Suitable Boy (especially since A Fine Balance is one of your favourite books!). And even though I didn’t love 2666, I am still up for trying more Bolaño in the future!
    @ Meg: I didn’t mind The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, but A Spot of Bother, apart from the clever title, was awful. I don’t have a specific page number that I aim to hit before deciding to jump ship – sometimes I get halfway through and give up, other times I barely make 10 pages! 😉
    @ mee: Yeah, I think If On A Winter’s Night wasn’t going to get better for me. I really liked the first chapter or so, when Calvino is talking about finding your perfect reading position, but then it all went downhill… Sigh.

  16. kay

    I’m sorry to hear you struggled through “If by a winter night a traveler”! Calvino is one of my very favorite authors and I have the secret hope (well, not so secret now obviously lol!) that one day I’ll know my italian enough to be able to read his original texts. But it’s true that this book was difficult to get through even for me, because it’s so, hum, particular, and I thought it was a bit difficult to have a good sense of what was going on.

    Like Meg, I tried reading Haddon’s “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time” and even though I finished it, it was such a painful experience!

    Loved your list! I’ll try to make mine, but it will probably take some time!

  17. 06/25/2010

    @ kay: I know so many people love Calvino, and I really want to as well, but we just haven’t clicked! Maybe one day!
    Oh and I should say that even after posting this list I immediately thought of other books that could have been on it, so I figure these things are malleable and subject to change! 😀

  18. lol! i wrote a post about this last year– — and am the type of person who absolutely REFUSES to put down a book no matter how bad it is. that said, i have broken up with 2 books in my lifet: house of leaves and the one that everyone loves except me: the book thief.

    i’m working on reading the book thief by the end of 2010. 🙂

  19. 06/25/2010

    Oh, I’ve got If on a Winters Night on my shelf… It’s only recently that I’ve felt ok about abandoning a book, usually I try and finish it no matter what. The guilt stays with you long after you’ve finished your studies. I even read Brothers Karamazov twice but just couldn’t feel the love. But now my TBR pile is so big I’m beginning to feel it’s ok to give up on some books otherwise I’ll never have the time to read everything!

  20. 06/25/2010

    @ nat: I think I remember that post of yours, but thanks for linking to it again as a refresher. For what it’s worth, I never made it through The Book Thief either; I borrowed it for the library and had to return it before I finished and honestly I never thought of it again!
    @ sakura: I completely understand about guilt-issues! I always agonize about whether to give up on a book, and then always feel relieved (but then guilty!) when I do set it free. Hopefully with time and practice I’ll get better!

  21. 06/26/2010

    I have no problem tossing a non-classic in the first 10 pages. I don’t even consider them abandoned. I consider them “decided I didn’t want to read this one after all.” Classics are harder, but I’ll even give them up, even after reading 300 pages, if they suck for me. I’ve gotten real good at that since 2007, when I read this one book I hated every moment of and which made my writing awful, and my husband asked me why I tortured myself like that.

  22. 06/27/2010

    @ Amanda: What makes you stick with Classics longer? I tend to do the same thing, I guess because I feel like there must be some reason people are still talking about these books centuries later, but of course I have not universally loved all Classics I’ve attempted (just look at poor old Dickens up there! 😉 ).

  23. 07/05/2010

    I’m late to the party, haha. But just my two cents: I’ll probably have a heading that reads, “Books I Know I’ll Never Even Touch, Much Less Leaf Through.” But I’m fickle, so the heading probably won’t hold much weight, haha.

    Actually, most of the books you listed, in any heading, are books I’ve long considered, “Books To Read When I Absolutely Need To.” And I don’t know when that is, really.

    But I will read Bulkagov, any day now. Thanks to you and Tony. :]

  24. 07/13/2010

    @ Sasha: Off the top of my head, I’m not sure I can list any books I know I’ll never touch, but maybe I’m just not trying hard enough! I’m sure there are tons of books out there, that I’ll never get to, but I like to be optimistic and think that anything worth trying I’ll eventually meet at some point!

    I think you’ll love Bulgakov. I struggled with him, but Tony loved him, and in the end, both of us thought he was an important, provocative writer!

Leave a Reply