unfinished books…

by Toni McGee Causey

Have you ever started a book that everyone glowed about and you just could not get through it? Maybe it hit the NYT list, maybe it got starred reviews from everyone and God, but it made you roll your eyes by page five and by page twenty-five, if you made it that far, you wanted to spot check the rest of the readership for actual brain waves? Maybe–and I know every one of you has known this one–maybe it was considered a classic, a masterpiece, and you secretly hated it. 

Welcome to the weirdest aspect of the entertainment world: guilt for not enjoying the material.

I don’t know of any other art form or entertainment where the participants feel actual guilt for not “getting” the material or enjoying it as happens with books and reading, and I think that’s significant, culturally. How are we creating readers, if we browbeat them into thinking that every book needs to satisfy some internal English critic or create an essay on themes and comparative merits? What does that mindset say about how well books and reading are marketed to the general public? 

Maybe there are other concerns that create frustration — dollars spent, time spent, but those issues create aggravation, not guilt. It’s the guilt that stumps me. (Not that I haven’t felt it–but that I’ve allowed myself to feel it.)

I started thinking about this during the week after hearing Julia Keller‘s NPR piece on the unfinished book, where callers talked about why leaving a book unfinished bothered them so much. Some people admitted to trying to read some “great” work for years, before finally giving up. 

One woman (and I’m paraphrasing) explained that she felt particular guilt about books because when she couldn’t get all of the way through it, it sat there on her shelf, mocking her. If it had been a TV show, she could have just turned the channel or if it had been a movie, she could have left and never worried about it again, but the book sat there, on her shelf, evidence of her failure. And my first thought when I heard this was, “Why not give the book away?” 

Why do we feel the need to turn reading into some sort of gauntlet, the literary equivalent of the Navy SEALs Hell Week? 

Why is it not okay to recognize that where we are in our lives influences what we want to spend our time doing? reading? That mood and crises play as much a role in what we’re able to comprehend as our education? And where is it taught that if it’s fun, it must not be good for us, and therefore, isn’t of value? When did reading become the equivalent of taking medicine?

Sometimes, a work just doesn’t speak to us. And that’s okay. Sometimes, we’re in the wrong mood, and nothing that work could do, nothing that it had done well for others, would work for us. The work didn’t change between all of those accolades and our read. But most of the time, instead of saying to ourselves, “This isn’t what I’m in the mood for,” or “This isn’t working for me,” we instead feel like we’ve failed. That somehow, we aren’t smart enough (or current enough, or well read enough) to make the connections that obviously everyone else made, so what’s wrong with us? And that’s where the guilt starts.

This issue goes deeper than just the “literary vs. genre” wars that crop up every now and again. It goes all the way back to middle and high-school, where we often teach reading with the enthusiasm of a sadist–they are going to learn what “good” literature is, dammit, whether they can stomach it or not. And in the process of being absolutely determined to show young readers what “good” literature is, we manage to turn millions of them off reading forever, because they cannot relate. They don’t “get” it, or they are simply bored, and they don’t have enough points of reference in their lives to realize that literature encompasses an extremely wide-ranging cornucopia of choices. 

In one of the talks that I give to grade schoolers, I ask them to name their favorite TV shows or their favorite movies. We usually write down the list and when we have a nice collection, I point out that someone wrote those stories. Then we move on to favorite books, and for every one they name in a genre, I try to name two or three others that have something in common, that I think the kids will love. They’re almost always in shock, that there are these worlds out there. (Except, of course, for the one or two bookworms in the room, who are finally the ones who are cool, because they read.)

Now, I am all for great literature being taught, and all for vastly different types of stories, from genre to whatever it is that we call literary nowadays (which, frankly, is a misnomer–because many genre books can also be literary–these terms are not mutually exclusive). I’m glad to see that many reading programs in schools include current popular books, Caldecott or other winners, but I wonder if we aren’t also missing a huge opportunity when we don’t include things like favorite popular books in the different genres? I have bought at least ten copies of Ender’s Game, for example, and given it to boys over the years and every single one of them not only loved it, but started reading other books afterward, when they hadn’t been readers before.

I think one of the reasons the Kindle and now the Sony and the iPad are going to continue gaining in popularity is that people don’t feel judged for what they’re reading, because no one can see. Many people don’t want to be judged, don’t want to be taken as frivolous, or seen reading something less “important” than a great literary classic.  

So I wonder, how has the publishing industry and marketing of books failed to erase this perception of reading? Is there a solution? (Or is the solution in process–the upswing of popular YA literature?) Is there anything that could be done to show how much fun reading can be? And finally, fess up — what book did you start and not finish? (Are you glad you didn’t? Or do you plan to try again?) Or was there a book you were forced to read (for school) and as much as you anticipated loathing it, ended up loving it? [I have way more questions than answers today! I’m hoping our backblogger ‘Rati will chime in on why these things bother you.]

For me, the “put it down, feeing guilty for it” book it was Follet’s PILLARS OF THE EARTH. I had heard such rave RAVE reviews, I bought it without reading any sample; I barely started it, and my eyes just kept wandering off the page. I just could not hook into the story, as much as I admired the quality of the writing. I suspect I was just not in the mood for it at the time, so I will try again, later. Eventually.


34 thoughts on “unfinished books…

  1. Vicky McAulay

    Your post couldn’t be more timely. Leon Uris has been a favorite author for many years. The first book of his I read was "Trinity". I was swept away and went on to read many of his other works. I recently came across "Redemption", a sequel to Trinity. How could I have missed that? I couldn’t wait to get into it. Holy cow! I slogged my way through a third of if before giving up. I slinked back to the library, unfinished book in hand, feeling guilty that I had failed.
    Now I have to question, who failed who?

  2. Shizuka

    I’ve ditched so many books partway through it’s hard to remember.
    I used to think that most books would come together and pay off if I just saw them through.
    Yeah, I was naive.

    A few years ago reviews and people raved about Prague. The characters were so bratty and the writing incredibly dull; I don’t care how awesome it ends up in the end.
    Also, The Electric Michaelangelo, which was recommended to me by a friend. Later, I found out she wanted someone else to read it so she could understand why it got published and why it was "good."

    Now I stop reading books when I lose interest in them. I also, if I’m seeing them at home, stop watching movies if I lose interest.

  3. Rob Gregory Browne

    When I was a young kid, I didn’t do much reading. Comic books. That was about it.

    I remember in school, being forced to read a "classic" and it was agony. Then when I was about thirteen years old, I discovered Donald Westlake in a Playboy magazine (old story, told it before) and my world changed. I couldn’t stop reading — first as many Westlake books as I could find, but then onto other writers, like Raymond Chandler and Ross Thomas, and great old pulp fiction like The Shadow.

    These books were never taught in school. Not even Chandler, who outshines a lot of the so-called classic literary writers. If it had been up to my particular school, I never would have become a reader, let alone a writer.

    I once wrote a short story for a class assignment. It was about two cops on patrol, trying to solve a murder. I got a low grade because I hadn’t chosen an appropriate subject. Apparently, I should have written a coming of age story — even though the assignment was simply to write a story of your choice.

    My daughter teaches elementary school. In her classroom is a book rack filled with all different kinds of books, available for the kids to take home with them and enjoy, or to read during silent reading time. The rack, as far as I could tell, does not discriminate. You’re as likely to find a spooky "genre" book as you are a Caldecott winner. I think that’s the way to do it

    As for guilt about not finishing a book? I’ve discarded more books than I’ve finished. Never been a problem for me. If the writer doesn’t hold me, he/she doesn’t hold me. Why fret over it?

  4. kit

    TRUNK MUSIC by Michael Connolly, I cannot tell you the times I tried to slug my way through that one, it became a *mission* to try and work my way through it.
    I think that book even began the change on how I read, up until that book, I would always finish one book before I started another(it was a personal thing with me.)

    My daughter is a french trained chef, and she still brings up the fact I got on her case for *cutting up tomatoes wrong* Those are my words, she was helping me one day while she still lived at home, and was going to high school. I’m not as unbendable so much anymore, I used to really be hung up on trivial things, the RIGHT way to eat an oreo, or the best way to eat spaghetti….sheesh!!! LOL Don’t move on to another book until you finish the one you started. Life’s too damn short, to sweat the small stuff…

    hope you and your family have a Happy Easter.

  5. Stacy McKitrick

    My son was a victim of a teacher who didn’t think reading "Goosebumps" was good enough and told him to stop and read something else. This is a boy who hated to read, but found something he enjoyed. Once the teacher took that away, he stopped cold. He’s 28 now and still doesn’t read for pleasure. Sometimes I could just strangle that teacher!

    A book I started and couldn’t finish? "Stranger in a Strange Land". I was fine until the end. It got so strange I had to put it down. Granted, I was in high school and heard great things about it. I thought for sure something was wrong with me. So many year later, I decided to try and read it again. Maybe it was my young mind that got in the way. Nope! Got stuck in the same place as before. Except, this time I forced myself to finish. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t. That was one strange book!

  6. Sylvia

    I listened to the same NPR piece. It was great!

    Against my better judgement and use of time, I’ve finished reading all but one book that I started. That one book was so bad (not that some of the others weren’t) by mid-book I couldn’t tell who was who or what the heck was going on. I must have been having a torturous week and started back at the beginning thinking I just read too fast. Nope… by the same point in the book I was just as lost. The book? The Writing Class by Jincy Willett.

  7. JD Rhoades

    I’ve never been one of those people who feels like they "have" to finish a book. Life’s too damn short, and there’s too much to read without adding that layer of craziness.

    Some "great books" just never grab me. Example: MOBY-DICK. 150 pages in and he wasn’t even on the damn boat yet. No thanks.

    Some books affect me the same way jazz music does: I can see what they’re trying to do, and I respect the talent and craftsmanship, but it just doesn’t move me, and will someone please put in a Motorhead CD? Example: WHITE JAZZ, by James Ellroy. Pretty much any Ellroy, actually, except THE BLACK DAHLIA.

    There are some books, as you’ve described, that I just wasn’t in the mood for at one particular time, but at another, they hooked me. Example: RED DRAGON.

    Book I’ve been meaning to take another crack at: CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.

  8. PK the Bookeemonster

    I am okay with not finishing books if they don’t click with me – that’s what libraries are for. Sometimes it’s my mood and I’ll try later. I’ve also gotten to the point in my reading that I know what I like and don’t feel particularly pressured to read things I know are not my style. (that doesn’t’ mean I’m not open to new things). But that is what I completely don’t understand about book clubs — it is forcing people for the majority of whom aren’t big readers anyway to read things like an assignment that probably isn’t their taste. If I were in a club, it could only be the type that shared what they’d read since they’d been together last. That’s also why I don’t participate in the discussion books on 4MA — the books chosen are of a different subgenre of crime fiction than I usually enjoy.

    Younger generation: the first time I brought my Kindle to work, a 23-year-old female co-worker (very social person and sometime reader, lurrvs Twilight books) saw it and in a very throaty voice said "I WANT one."

    Yes, the publishing world and the world of literary criticism have ruined reading for some people (a whole status/class thing going on I think); schools have ruined reading for some people — starting around 4th grade; parents by not reading themselves have ruined reading for some people; all the readily available leisure activities have ruined reading for people. Somehow, I married a non-reader. His parents to this day look down upon reading (grew up in small Montana farming community of hard work and no extra money). For Steve, reading is a slower and laborious undertaking — the words don’t flow — and I think it is simply that reading is a "muscle" that if not used, atrophies and who wants to do something for fun that for them is work?

  9. toni mcgee causey

    Dusty, funny you should mention CRIME AND PUNISHMENT… Keller talked about the Russian translations and apparently, there are newer translations out which are supposed to be far more accurate and therefore, better reads of many of the old Russian classics. It’ll be interesting to see how that changes the read of the book.

    Sylvia, I used to try to finish everything, but life just got in the way. It sort of bothers me, sometimes, that maybe the book would have been great if I had just gotten over that hump, but most of the times when I did finish them, finishing hadn’t changed my opinion.

    Stacy, I completely empathize. Same thing happened to my son. I wish we’d had a great teacher like Rob’s daughter around when my son was little. My brother and I started reading comic books as kids. My parents always read, and my mom would take us to the library. My brother, though, was way more fascinated with comic books and my parents obliged. Now he reads more than I do, so clearly, the comic-book-gateway-drug worked. 😉

    LOL, Kit, on the "right" way to cut up tomatoes. Isn’t it funny how we get into a mode and don’t see it until later? And how wonderful, to have a chef in the family. I’ll bet dinners with her are fabulous. 😉 Thanks, and Happy Easter back to you.

  10. toni mcgee causey

    Rob, you’re so right about Chandler. I didn’t read my first Chandler ’til college, and then that was later, when I went back to school. I felt the world drop away while reading his books and couldn’t believe these hadn’t been taught in school. I wish schools didn’t get hung up on labeling. It’s amusing (and sad) that so many of the "classics" actually started out as pulp novels, serialized in newspapers — they weren’t so highly regarded then, as they appealed to the masses. Funny how time affects perspective.

    Shizuka, I’m the same way — if it doesn’t grab me, I put it down. I will sometimes keep it and give it another try later, if the subject matter appealed to me or there were a lot of people talking about how much they enjoyed the read. Or, if I’m going through something that’s a crisis, I know my circumstances are affecting my perception, so I’ll set the book aside for another day. I’m pretty good about going back and trying again, and I have found several books moved to the top of my favorites list just because I tried again later. But I don’t feel guilty if they don’t work for me — I just give those away.

    Vicky — good question, about who failed whom? Sometimes, it’s a definite failure on the part of the writer, and sometimes, it’s just a matter of perspective: how much of life happened between the reads, for example. How expectations can build up. If a book speaks to me so thoroughly, it might be because of where I am in life, and I will become immersed and rave over it… only to have other people think I’m off my rocker, because it didn’t do the same for them. It’s just weird, like that, isn’t it? It’s a bummer that the sequel didn’t do as much for you, though – I think that’s the thing I dread about sequels. I have one on the shelf from a writer I adore and I cannot read it, because I know she does some stuff that will bother me and I don’t want to go on that journey.

  11. Eika

    The Catcher in the Rye. Oh my God, what is the big deal with that book? I was able to fake my way through having read it for school, because honestly? I have no patience for whiny boys in my real life, and I don’t want to waste my time reading about them now.

    The book I didn’t expect to love, but did, was All Creatures Great and Small. And, ironically, I got to read it in sixth grade… when the teacher decided enough was enough and assigned us books for our next reports based on reading level. I got that monster while sitting next to kids who got The Magic School Bus and Wayside School books and hated her for it. But, aside from a few skipped passages where the author felt it needed to wax eloquent about the scenery, it was good.

  12. Becky LeJeune

    I think the current surge in YA releases is already changing things. When I was a kid, there really wasn’t that much variety to choose from. My parents bought me a ghost story and I latched onto it. From third grade through middle school, I read only teen horror, and as much of it as I could get my hands on it. After that I moved onto adult horror by author and then started expanding genres and authors.

    I’m a firm believer that everyone can enjoy reading if they can find the one thing that speaks to them. I think it’s a shame that teachers then, and some now, don’t encourage their students to read, but to read specific things. My sister was really a nonfiction reader up until middle school. She wanted to read about science discoveries as an elementary student. Can you believe her teacher discouraged her? She struggled with fiction in those years and only really became a reader later when I started sending her a variety to choose from.

    Myself, I have a terrible memory — that still gets me a little pissed — of being in high school and having someone comment that teens didn’t read anything of substance as she walked past observing me read James Ellroy. I wanted to scream at her that she didn’t know me, didn’t know my reading habits, and wasn’t it refreshing to see someone of my age reading anything at all?

    I did not finish that particular Ellroy and it does cause me guilt! Abandoned books bother me only because I do know how strongly my mood effects my reading. I always think that if I’d started the book at a different time, I would have enjoyed it more. With the Ellroy, I can’t even look at it without thinking of that woman’s comment.

  13. Fran

    I embraced the "50 page" rule wholeheartedly. You read the first 50 pages, and if it doesn’t grab you, move on. And if your chronological age is over 50, you reduce by one page each year you’re over 50, so now I only *have* to read 47 pages.

    Life’s too short to read bad books, even if they’re fine lit’rachure.

    That being said, sometimes you have to be in the right mood to read a book. One that doesn’t grab you today may totally catch you later. But I figure three tries is enough. I never did get through the "Gormenghast" saga.

    However there’s always a catch, isn’t there? We try very hard at the shop to have at least one of us read something by an incoming author. It’s only fair. Sometimes, more frequently than we care to admit, we simply don’t have time though.

    Oh, but the times when we do and the book is. . .a challenge. I love my job and for the most part, the books I get to read and review are joys, but once in a while it becomes an exercise in tact.

    Hey, authors, how do you respond when you’re asked to blurb a book you don’t like? Or is that a whole ‘nother post?

  14. Barbie

    YAY!!! A Toni blog 🙂

    I’m a Languages and Literature major who pretty much hates "literary books". I’m comfortable generalizing because after years and more years of having to read that stuff, with exception on some Portuguese Poetry (for some reason, I have a thing for Portuguese Poetry!!!), a few scattered poems here and there and ONE play, I’ve never liked anything. I can’t stand Shakespeare and I can’t see "his brilliancy" no matter how much people keep pointing it to me (though, it’s kinda hard to see anything’s brilliancy when it’s practically shoved down your throat, I mean, the eyes are UP in my face, hello?). Anyway, so, yeah, there’s A LOT, A LOT of books I start and never finish, mostly books I’m required to for school. I don’t think I’ve read a whole required book since 8th grade. Seriously. I mostly study the book, not read it. I try, though. I try every time, with all the best intentions in the world, I keep telling myself "I’m gonna read it and I’m gonna damn well enjoy it." but it never happens. The one book I could barely start let alone finish was "Germinal", by Emilé Zola. It’s tragedy after tragedy, misery after misery and, seriously, man, how many disgusting injuries and body functions can you describe in a page? Not to mention pages and pages and pages of pure description, from the texture of the wall, blisters of worker’s hands. Eh, no thanks.

    Then, there’s the books I choose to read. Contemporary, awesome literature, which is the reason I love to read. I remember 7th grade, when all my friends hated reading and thought books were monsters (they kinda were) and I’d whisper to them there are other books out there, fun, pleasant books, and I’d take books to school so I could lend all my friends. A few of them still thank me for "teaching" them to like reading.

    I do stop books in the middle all the time, usually with the intent of going back to them eventually, and sometimes I do. For me, it depends on the moment I’m in, on how I’ve been feeling and all of that stuff. There have been books I’ve started three times and couldn’t pass through the first few chapters. Then, a year or so later, I picked them up, not only loved them, but became obsessed with the whole series 😀

    I have a book stopped at the moment, but this one, I plan to go back to after I read a few other completely different books. But, I have two books I have stopped maybe two years go "The Red Room", by Nicci French and "The Soul Catcher", by Alex Kava. They’re perfect good books, I have no idea why I wasn’t able to finish them. But I plan to go back… some day…

    Happy Easter, everyone!!!!!!


  15. Paula R.

    Hey Toni, loved the blog today. I find that many of the young people I teach hate to read. Our school librarian is wonderful though, because she can find the perfect book that matches the personality of the student. I also tend to read the books they read as well, even if I don’t like it.

    I loved Pillars of the Earth, but I think that is primarily because I enjoy reading books set in that time period, and medieval architecture fascinates me. I read it not only for enjoyment, but also to learn more about the lives of master builders and how they create such beautiful churches like the Sistine Chapel. Does that make sense?

    I read a wide range of books, so I have a myriad of choices when I get "bored" with a book or I find I can’t read one. It all depends on my mood. That’s why I read multiple books, about 4 or 5, at a time. I love Nora Roberts, but I could not get into Villa. I threw it down several times, and I even gave it away. The guilt factor didn’t really come into play, but I never start a book and not finish it. That is just me, and I hate that feeling…is it guilt? Who knows, I feel like I left the stove or iron on after leaving for a long trip. I bought another copy of that particular Nora book, and I am waiting for the right time to pick it up again. If I don’t like a book, and I know that I will never re-read it again, I will finish it, and just pass it on to someone else who might like the book.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

  16. Allison Brennan

    Amazing post, Toni, and making me think on a Sunday morning? Grrr. I ALWAYS finished books until I started writing and didn’t have the time to read books I didn’t enjoy. In school I found I enjoyed American Literature (10th grade) more than English Literature (11th grade). I agree with Becky that the surge in YA books is a harbinger of increased reading among young people. I am amazed with that is out there. My YA daughter just finished CATCHING FIRE the second book in the Suzanne Collins apocalyptic trilogy. She stayed up until 1 am to finish and said her heart was racing and she can’t wait until August when book 3 is out. I love this development, and while I enjoyed Judy Blume and Paula Danzinger and Lois Duncan, I outgrew those by the time I was 13. Then it was Stephen King and I never looked back.

    My kids school they mandate outside reading but the students get to pick (teachers have veto power–it’s a private parochial school so there are some things they frown upon.) Last year my son in second grade discovered the WIMPY KID books. Kudos to Jeff Kinney for getting young boys to read! My son only read books about frogs or space before he found these, now he’s willing to try other books, too. It took something like WIMPY KID to make reading easier for him, because even though he was in the advance reading group, it felt like a chore with vocabulary words, etc., etc.

    re: ENDER’S GAME–it was summer reading for incoming freshman. Katie didn’t like it at first (she’s not my reader) but once she got into it, she enjoyed it (though it’s not her cuppa.) What she discovered was that she LOVES books with social or political messages. For example, summer reading before her sophomore year was FAHRENHEIT 451 and she loved it. They just finished 1984 and she got her first A on an essay (she tends to skim and then do so-so on essays, but she was so into the story and the message that she wrote a fabulous essay about doublespeak.)

    I used to blame parents for kids not reading, because if kids don’t see parents read then don’t. EXCEPT that I have always read a lot and my oldest doesn’t read for pleasure, and my second reads every night for pleasure. Then there’s the mom when I was on the Levy tour who brought her two daughters to the signing because one teacher gave extra credit for anyone who bought Chip St. Clair’s book (who wrote a memoir about being the son of one of America’s Most Wanted.) Chip was great, and when the daughter was talking to him, he asked the mom, "What do you like to read? Sophia (Nash) writes historical romance, and Allison Brennan writes crime thrillers. There’s something for everyone here." (We were sitting on either side of him.) The mom said, "Oh, I don’t have time to read." In front of her kids, with no guilt.

  17. Zoë Sharp

    Hey Toni

    Very interesting topic. I tend to find that my ability to start/finish a book is often affected directly by the amount of hype it’s received. If I’m told something’s absolutely, hands down, 100%, the best thing since sliced – or unsliced, for that matter – bread, I know I’m probably not going to like it. Too many mediocre books are being hyped to the skies.

    I usually give it the opening few chapters, and if it hasn’t started to grip me, I’ll put it aside and see if it ferments. Some books simply never do. Having said that, I’ve made a couple of attempts to get into reading Tolkein and haven’t got past the style yet, but I may try again…

    And Fran: "Hey, authors, how do you respond when you’re asked to blurb a book you don’t like? Or is that a whole ‘nother post?"

    By choosing your words very, very carefully…;-]

  18. Zoë Sharp

    And Allison (sorry your comment came in while I was composing mine) don’t you just love the "I don’t have time to read" quip from people? They say it like it’s something to be so proud of…

  19. Cathy

    I used to think I had to finish every book I started, but at some point I realized my tastes and interests were exactly that – mine. If something didn’t grab me, it might later. If I liked the author’s other stories, I might try it again later. But now, anything that doesn’t interest me or is poorly written gets dumped into the return to library/take to second hand store pile.

    There’s a huge To Be Read pile in my bedroom – so many friends are published and i buy their books. I suspect a few will never be read. They’re well written. I’m one of the five people in the country not into the paranormal thing.

    Right now, I have three books on my bedside table, one in my pocketbook and I think there’s one buried under this week’s mail (I was traveling on biz this week). A friend wrote one of the bedside trio – a light hearted historical, a genre I rarely read. I was zipping through it, loving her characters, until I hit the cliched turning point and thought, How could you? i can’t bear to toss it – she’s my friend – but I really hope she never asks what I thought about it. Another is a tedious police procedural by an author I usually like that cures insomnia most nights. The last, I’m blasting through.

    The one in my pocket book? One of those romantic suspense ones with former special ops characters I bought it in the Denver airport when I was too tired to work any longer. NY Times list, etc. Not only cliched as hell, but for the first time, I was embarassed by what I was reading when a guy in desert camo, coming home from Afghanistan, sat beside me. I put the book back in my pocketbook.

    Book I couldn’t understand the hype? Time Traveler’s Wife. Kurt Vonnegut did it first and did it better.


  20. Pari Noskin Taichert

    I’ve stopped so many books and have felt that guilt, Toni. Some that have potential remain on my bookshelf because I honestly think that I might be interested someday. Those are generally books that don’t have a lot of hype associated with them.

    One of the books I’ve felt horrid for not liking is The Poisonwood Bible. EVERYONE I know adored it. I loooooveeee Barbara Kingsolver, but just couldn’t buy most of the work. After 100 pages I finally gave up and felt like I hadn’t measured up.

    Funny that.

  21. Doug Riddle

    Now has anyone ever put a book down because it just was not working for them, only to pick it up again months or years later, love it and wonder why they didn’t the first time they tried reading it?

    I usually have 2 or 3 books going at one (which is another post) and if one of them isn’t working for me I will read a little more of one of the others before going back, and then if it still isn’t working I will put aside and replace it with another.

    A couple of times I will have put a book down because it wasn’t working and then sometime later I will remember something about one of the scenes that will send me back to try again.

    It took me a long time to get over the guilt of not finishing a book I started…….then one day it dawned on me that no matter home much I read……I will never get to all the books I want to read.

  22. Mike Dennis

    Okay, my bags are packed. My ticket is in my hand. I’m all set to board the train for the remote Arctic prison where they keep cretins like myself. You ready? I never got Shakespeare. (I can hear the groans now)

    That’s right, I never got it. I never could click with the language, the syntax, or the plots. Of course, how could I understand the plots if I couldn’t get the language, right? And this was after taking two college courses in Shakespeare. I know MACBETH is supposed to be this great crime tale, but I can’t tell you today the first thing about it. HAMLET? Forget about it.

    Toni, this was a great post, but there’s one other area of culture where we are supposed to feel guilt if we don’t grasp the great universal truths that are ever so slyly laid before us. That area of culture is Ingmar Bergman movies.

    Closeups of eyes and shoes and folded hands in grainy black & white does NOT a great movie make, I promise you. And when the characters mumble three or four words at a time, none of which have any connection to said closeups, then I don’t really feel like I’m at the epicenter of the human experience, although I know I’m supposed to.

    All right, I’m ready to board the train now.

  23. Andi

    It’s easy for me to give up on books. What’s harder is IF in fact i’ve requested or received a book for review- not just say in the mail but from an editor or publicist or the author as we’ve discussed it and it sounds worth reading and reviewing.
    The last one? Michael Chabon’s FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE which folks went bonkers over. I review without ever looking at the press comments, and got it early so my review was up before many reviewers weighed in and I was left wondering. Did I miss something? (I already knew I was a fan, but this book just….well….)
    James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly are two mystery authors whose work is liked and appreciated by dozens of people whose taste i trust. Can’t get into ’em. At all.
    Never got through THE HOBBIT which was BIG when I was in junior or senior high scHool. Ditto with SIDDHARTHA. And many "classics" because they were "taught" in school and I could not understand why. Can’t read Hemingway (party because of the testosterone level) – tried some books I loved as a kid and oh my, no!

    And to at least end on a positive, a recent ARC received and read which had the potential to suck moist green poison frogs was in fact a HUGE hit for me and I’m trilled about it. It’s Scott Turow’s upcoming INNOCENT, a "sequel" of sorts to PRESUMED INNOCENT. i’m SO glad it worked for me.

    Interesting topic indeed.

  24. Gayle Carline

    One Christmas I put "a Ken Follett book" on my list, expecting to get a thriller. I got PILLARS instead. It was, for me, meh. Not wonderful, not horrible, although at my age it did waste a little more time that I could have devoted to something else. I’m one of those who slogs thru tough books if I like the language. The only book I truly couldn’t finish was The Pickwick Papers. I’ve started it about five times, and finally realized that if I couldn’t read it in one setting, I could never remember what was going on if I had to walk away from it for more than a day.

    Worst books I made myself finish once I started: Neuromancer (WhatTheHell was it about?) and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Don’t hate me!)

  25. toni mcgee causey

    Wow — gone all afternoon with family stuff… great discussion here.

    Gayle, you hit on something that is important, I think, in why we feel that guilt… it’s not just that we feel that we’ve failed, sometimes, but it also feels as if we’re judging other people’s tastes and saying they’re inferior if we can’t finish what they loved.

    Andi, I’m really looking forward to INNOCENT — so glad it worked for you. Turrow is one of my favorites, when it comes to legal thrillers. (Though James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly are also favorites, so there ya go–different tastes for different people, keeps life interesting.)

    Mike, you cracked me up. We won’t haul you onto that train just yet. I’m sure there are hundreds of thousands of other readers who feel exactly the same way about Shakespeare — I think a person either clicks into the language and the world, or they suffer through it. I can’t remember what it was that finally clicked for me, but I think it was one of the comedies, when I realized how he was setting up the duplicity that was about to ensue. And LOL on Ingmar Bergman — I never did learn to appreciate whatever it was he was supposed to be doing. Bored me to tears in my film classes, and it was obvious I was the only one who felt that way. (Now, Antonioni was one that a lot of other people just did not get, but I loved what he was doing, and it clicked for me.)

    Doug, I have definitely done that–picked up a book months later after an attempt and ended up loving it. It’s happened quite a few times, actually, which always surprises me. (You’d think I’d be used to the phenomenon now.) But I never was good at reading more than one book at a time. In fact, I don’t really understand how people can read more than one, because to me, that doesn’t seem to replicate the deep immersion I want to feel when reading a book. If I can hop from one to another, that right there tells me I’m not immersed in that world, and its not grabbing me, or having the "must turn the page to see what happens" tension ramping up, forcing me to keep reading, keep reading, keep reading. I crave that immersion, so it’s a fail for me if I can move along to something else really easily. (In fact, I’m fairly bad at putting a book down. I have spent waaaay more nights than were healthy finishing a book I just could not leave until the next day, when I had to get up early the next day for work.)

    Pari, THANK YOU. I felt the same way about The Poisonwood Bible, and hated admitting that, because everyone I know who’s read it, loved it. Not "getting" it (or the love it it) makes one feel somehow mentally deformed. Or lacking. When really, it’s just about taste and where we are in life.

  26. toni mcgee causey

    Cathy, you reminded me of one time when I was in the airport and bought a book that had been hyped a lot. (This was years ago, and I’m not going to name the author, but that person has never, to my knowledge, been mentioned here on Murderati.) Anyway, I tried to read it as I had a four hour layover, and I simply could not get into it. Terrible writing, all over the map, and for the first time ever, I walked back over to the kiosk where I’d bought it and they let me trade it for something else. I felt so guilty doing that, but really, it was torture sitting there with a book I couldn’t stand.

    I always wonder what the Special Forces guys think of the covers for the novels where the hero is SF. I’ve met quite a few, and I have never asked that question. 😉

    Zoë, I’m the same way about hype. I almost didn’t read THE HELP because of the hype, but it’s a remarkable book and I’m glad now that I read it… but it’s the exception, I think, to the hype rule I have. (Which is, if it’s everyone’s favorite, I’m probably not going to love it.) I have a hard time believing that any one book can really be that great that so many people can agree on it being great. I never got the Harry Potter mania (though I read the books with my youngest son) and I just do not have any interest in things like Twilight, though I have had friends bring me the books and leave them at the house, assuring me that I would love them, if I just gave them the chance. Funny, how perverse I am about that.

    Allison, that’s really cool that your kids’ school mandates outside reading and gives them a choice. So many schools don’t, and I just can’t understand that. And isn’t it funny how two girls from a writer mom could be so very different in their taste? [It always sort of freaked me out how my kids were so phenomenally different from each other, when they grew up with so many shared experiences. Weird how they will insist on being individuals, huh?]

    I think it’s so interesting that Katie likes the ones with the social or political messages, while Kelly loves the SF and YA. For everyone here, Kelly’s one to watch — I read a short story she wrote and it was extremely well done. This kid, if she chooses to be a writer, would rock. 😉

    Hey Paula, thank you! And yep, that makes complete sense about reading PILLARS in part because of the discussion of architecture. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but I can see the appeal. And really, those buildings were done with such beauty and without so many of the construction materials / equipment that we take for granted, it is a true wonder at their existence.

    I always feel a little guilty passing on a book that I didn’t like, because I feel like I’m giving them something not quite good, like I’m about to cheat them out of their time. On the other hand, if it got rave reviews, I’ll preface it with that statement and why I think it might be right for them. Unless I’m just giving them away in boxes of books, which at that point, it’s pot luck for whoever gets them and I don’t feel guilty.

    [I hate selling used books. I will donate for a library to sell, for example, because I want to help, but I can’t ever bring myself to sell them because I know the author won’t benefit. I’m probably the only one in the US who feels that way.]

    Barbie, you crack me up. But you also reminded me of a book I tried to read a couple of years ago–a classic, and now I cannot remember the book–where it seemed like there were pages and pages of description of things like the walls and the painting on the wall at the far end of the hall. After about two or three pages about this damned painting, my feeling was that if that sucker didn’t step off the wall and bludgeon someone, I was going to. I think I gave it one more chapter and after more nothing happened at all, save more description, I put it down.

    I think any time you have to say to yourself that you’re going to read this thing all the way through, dammit, you’ve already lost the game. 😉 Reading should be a joy.

  27. toni mcgee causey

    Fran, I love that rule! I am so adopting it right now. And as for blurbing, well, I think it’s a case-by-case decision, on how to handle something if it’s just not right for you. To this day, I appreciate the wonderful NYT writer who was honest about why she couldn’t blurb Bobbie Faye — her audience was mostly the type of reader for whom a curse word was a very bad thing and if the Lord’s name was taken in vain or, worse, used in a curse word, they would be vocally upset with her. So she couldn’t in good conscience blurb Bobbie Faye knowing that she’d be sending her readers over there to get the "f" bomb dropped on them, because we’d both hear complaints about it. I believed her and respected her for telling me and we’ve been big supporters of each other ever since. I wasn’t going to change Bobbie Faye in order to garner more blurbs, but I could see how that audience wouldn’t like her, so it was no harm, no foul. Most of the time, writers just let the deadline go quietly by without responding (which can be frustrating for new writers, because they don’t know if they’re going to get the blurb or not).

    Becky — man, that’s so frustrating, about what your sister was told. Why on earth would anyone discourage a child from reading *anything* save things that were too adult/graphic? I’m so glad she had you to make suggestions! And boo on the idiot person who said that about young readers not reading anything of substance. Hell, half of them have read more classics than I have, especially at that age. (Some smoke me even now.) I hate it when people generalize or stereotype young adults… it stumps me, because weren’t they young once, too? Didn’t they remember how thoroughly they thought through things and felt things and the adults around them didn’t listen? How can you be that way and then turn into one of the adults who don’t listen? Boggles the mind, but it happens every day.

    Eika, I’m with you on Catcher. I read it, knowing the hype, and felt like I just didn’t get it. I marked it off to life experiences, though, because by the time I read it, I had already been through so much, I couldn’t relate to the character. He did seem whiny to me, too. 😉

    PK, you bring up a problem I have with book clubs, too, and that’s the mandated book of the month discussion. I have tried to join clubs about a half a dozen times, and end up dropping out because I never feel compelled to hash out the book they all wanted to read and discuss. I don’t mind if it’s one choice out of a dozen that I didn’t want to read–I can tough it out for that, but it’s usually most of the choices, which makes me wonder why on earth I’m there and spinning my wheels, which invariably means I’m not going back. I have learned not to join. 😉

  28. Gar Haywood


    Thanks for a terrific post.

    Sometimes I don’t finish a book because I’m just not educated enough to appreciate its intellectual density (no joke).

    Sometimes I don’t finish a book because it’s dreck.

    Sometimes I don’t finish a book because it’s just not my thing.

    Sometimes I don’t finish a book because it’s mediocre and I’m in need of a better read than that at the moment.

    Sometimes I don’t finish a book because it’s a mediocre one readers and critics alike have confused with a great one, and that annoys me.

    Sometimes I don’t finish a book because it’s a God-awful dreadful one that readers and critics alike have confused with a great one, and that pisses me the hell off.

    I do all of the above without feeling any guilt at all.

    In general, I only finish books now that are either highly entertaining, powerful lessons in my craft, or—wonder of wonder—both.

    And by the way, English teachers who think "popular" fiction can’t be both entertaining and grammatically impeccable need to do a little more reading of their own.

  29. Paula R.

    You are welcome. I completely understand what you say about reading multiple books too. I tend to read multiple books when some books grab me at an emotional level that does bad things to my psyche. It is unfortunate for me sometimes because those are the books that a great reads for me. When I am able to forget myself and get lost in the world an author creates to the point where I feel every emotion they do, I have to take a step back. Sometimes the characters lives are too close to home and they throw me back to bad days, and I need a distraction. So I reach for a funny contemporary romance to help me get back to myself. Do you know what I mean? It is the only way for me to level out. When an author grabs me like that, it is the mark of a great writer.

    I would never sell a used book either. It’s just NOT RIGHT! I would give it away or donate it to a library. When I pass a book on to someone, I keep in mind the types of books they like, and I usually choose to give the right books, I didn’t like, to the right person. It is weird how that works out.

    Oh, I remember another book I couldn’t finish, Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. As a high school kid, it just didn’t grab me, so I didn’t read it, but as an adult I "get" it. I think the fact that a major essay attached to it didn’t help the situation any either. It is a pretty good book though.

    I really enjoyed the discussions here today. It is always interesting to read different perspectives. Thank you!

    I hope you had a wonderful Easter Sunday. Have a great rest of the evening.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

  30. MJ

    Very timely post – this weekend I rounded up what turned out to be two overflowing huge grocery bags of books for donation to the local library. On the one hand, the authors won’t benefit from the sales at the annual book sale – but on the other, the $12,000 or so the library makes from the sale annually helps to keep all of us aspiring or struggling writers able to work in the reading room. And like the buyers some of the local church rummage sales, I have some credible evidence that the book sale buyers would not all be buying at full price anyway (but a $2.00 book can keep someone of fixed income or limited means happy for a while and that is a good thing).

    The rounding up of donated books took a while because of – guilt. There were "classics" I simply did not enjoy, highly touted books I could not get into, numerous poetry books that I have not opened once. Earth to MJ – if you can’t open the book without your eyes glazing over and rolling back into your head, GET RID OF IT!

    The guilt for me definitely comes from school days. I was always a good student, and there were always so many expectations for what the good kids "should" do. Especially, in my case, that I should read and master difficult things "because I can."

    Well, I think that I "should" enjoy life a little too, so despite my love of Beethoven’s music the technical and dry biography went, as did the modern poetry and a pile of un-entertaining novels. Gotta live on our own terms…

  31. Doug Riddle


    I have had others tell me the same thing about reading more then one book at a time. I usually ask them if they are able to remember the conversations they had the day before? Can they seperate what they talked about with their children and say a co-worker, the stories that they heard? And weren’t they totally involved in those conversations at the time? Same thing.

    I have to admit though, usually one of the two or three gets read faster then the others.. . . . .some authors are just better conversationlists….lol

  32. Nancy Laughlin

    Wonderful topic, Toni, and great timing for me.

    I need very badly to thin out my bookshelves, and I have three books I haven’t finished and may never finish that aren’t in the sack because I keep thinking I "should" finish them. One I got about 3/4 finished reading before I gave up. It’s incredibly dry and I don’t particulary like the protagonist but a friend gave it to me, proming the end had a wonderful twist. I don’t think I care anymore.

    Another (The Writing Class), I read only the first chapter. Again, I didn’t like the protagonist and nothing at all seemed to happen in that chapter. I’m going to take Sylvia’s word for it that nothing is going to happen (Thanks Slyvia!) and get rid of it.

    The third book is one of those hyped NYT books. It’s not bad; it’s just slow. I have maybe 100 words left. I think I’ll keep it a while longer and see if I pick it up again.

    By the way, I so agree about Cather in the Rye. I’ve never before heard anyone else say they hated the book. Thanks! I agree that he was very, very whiny.

    Books I expected to dislike that I didn’t: Hard Times by Dickens. I read it in college. I’d read Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations in 8th or 9th grade and hated them. They were way over my head at the time. Another book I enjoyed was Ray Bradbury’s Martian Cronicles. I’ve never been a big fan of SF. I prefer Fantasy, so I was surprised to like it. I’m sure there are others that surprised me like that, but those are the two I remember right now.

    Again, a great post!

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