Abandoning books: a primer

Every Sunday, when I was a kid, I used to force myself to read all of the Sunday comics. All of them. Even the ones I hated, like Dagwood and Family Circus. God, I hated Family Circus. Then, one day, when I was around eleven, I had this epiphany, which was: life is short, and I don’t have time for comic strips that I hate. From then on, it was Garfield, Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, The Far Side, Non Sequitur, and then on with my busy schedule of making friendship bracelets and riding my bike. It was a liberating moment, and I never looked back. And I still hate Family Circus.

Soon after I had the Great Comics Epiphany, I had a similar realization about books. Life is too short to waste time forcing your way through books that aren’t working for you. If you haven’t already embraced this philosophy in your reading life, I would recommend getting on board. It’s quite freeing.

There are exceptions, of course; some books, I believe, are important to read for their educational or cultural value, even if the process of reading them is fairly miserable. I’d put Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and anything by Dostoyevsky in this category. You know, required reading. It’s that book your comparative lit professor assigned that you really didn’t want to read, but you did anyway, and you didn’t enjoy it, but you’re still glad you read it because now you’re a more well-rounded person, or something. Books like that are like kale. You choke them down, and you’re better for it. But you’re not eating kale at every meal, you know? At least, I hope you’re not, because that sounds dreadful.

No, when I talk about giving up on books that aren’t working for you, I’m referring to books that don’t matter to your development as a human being. I’m talking about the freedom to abandon books that you simply do not enjoy.

There are a few ground rules I try to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to toss aside a book, and they’re as follows:

  1. Give the book a fair shake, whatever that means to you. Some books that I’ve ended up loving took me a while to get into, and if I had put them down forever after the first, say, ten percent, I would have missed out on some truly great reading experiences. Perfect example of this for me is Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. When I first picked up that book, I read the first chapter and was like, BLECH, don’t care. I put the book down for a week or so, read something else, and then picked it up again. And about twenty pages in, something clicked into place, and I was enthralled. Brideshead Revisited is still one of my favorite books (and if you haven’t read it, please do, right away). When I read on my Kindle, which displays reading progress in terms of percentage, I try to get at least 20% into a book before tossing it onto the virtual bonfire.
  2. Don’t judge a book by its genre. Sometimes it takes longer to warm up to a book that’s outside of one’s reading comfort zone. For example, years ago, I was reticent to read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series because, ugh, fantasy, ya know? But I told myself I’d start the first book and if I didn’t like it, I could put it down. It took me a while to adjust to the Ye Olde Speeche Patternes, and to situate myself in the brutal, sneakily magical world Martin had created, but once I did, I was hooked. (Also, I’d like to get credit for reading that entire series of books before the HBO series came out. Thanks.)
  3. Give yourself more time with challenging books. A challenging book might be one of those culturally important books I mentioned above, or a book from an unfamiliar genre, or something someone has recommended to you that you normally wouldn’t pick for yourself. Those books deserve a little leeway. Give them a chance to grow on you before deciding they suck.
  4. Be aware of the things that bug you. For me, this is easy. I hate bad writing. Some people, like my husband, don’t care how shittily a book is written as long as the plot is engaging. But for me, bad writing can kill my enjoyment of a lively plot. This operates on a sliding scale, of course; I’ve made my way through some pretty badly written books that nonetheless told a good story (hi, The Da Vinci Code). But the plot has to be really good for me to be able to muscle through terrible prose. Bad writing and lazy editing is the number one reason I put books down. That’s just me. Your reading deal-breakers may be something different. Whatever they are, be aware of them. If you figure out as you start reading a book that it’s full of the thing you hate, it’s probably not going to be worth your time to read it. Leave it alone; read something else. There are a lot of good books out there. This one might not be for you.
  5. Trust your gut. If you’ve given the book a fair chance and you’re still just not into it, it’s okay to bid it adieu. When I find myself skimming, or not looking particularly forward to picking up a book, or not thinking about the story at all when I’m not reading it, these are all tell-tale signs that I am wasting my own time. The thing about reading for pleasure is that it should be, you know, pleasurable. When a book is consistently boring, or draggy, or irritating, it’s not fun for me, and I put it down. And then I read something better.

Lately, I’ve been abandoning a lot of books. The thing is, I’m constantly reading because I read while feeding my baby, and there’s not a whole lot else to do when you have an infant hooked to your physical person. To keep things interesting, I usually have several books on the go. Right now, technically, I’m reading four books, but I’m about to say sayonara to two of them. So here, in reverse chronological order, is a short list of some of the books I’ve abandoned lately, and why:

  • Dragonfly in Amber, by Diana Gabaldon (the second Outlander book): boring (too many battles, not enough time travel); I’m increasingly annoyed by the characters, especially Jamie, who I’ve decided is the romantic equivalent of a Gary Stu; and I’m starting to notice historical inaccuracies.
  • A Gentleman in the Street, by Alisha Rai: turns out I don’t like romance novels.
  • Remember Mia, by Alexandra Burt: boring; rife with disturbing images of a mother hurting her own baby, which is most definitely not for me.
  • The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica: atrocious writing.
  • A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki: too many digressions about plant life, not enough action.
  • The Martian, by Andy Weir: boring; math-heavy; irritating narrator.
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami: bizarre without being particularly interesting.

I should note that I gave all of these books a fair shake according to my own criteria, above. And once I put them aside, I felt like a weight had been lifted. Freedom (to read more books)!

What book(s) have you abandoned recently?

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