Abandoning Books

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There’s a meme floating around the Internet now — a program that ostensibly measures how fast one reads.  I took it twice — the first time, it told me that I read 84% faster than the average American, but I guessed at two out of the three reading comprehension questions (and happened to get them right.)  The second time I read it, I slowed down considerably, parsing the section better, and finding the reading comp answers.  My second score placed me at 4% faster than the average American — which is probably about right for me.

I’ve always argued that I am an *avid* but relatively slow reader.  And, as I age, I find that I retain a lot less of what I read — I tend to remember the feeling and the sense of a piece, but not the specifics of plot.  (That is very frustrating for me, actually, because I primarily read for plot — I become intensely frustrated when people spoil plots for me.)

Why am I boring you with all of this?

Because I believe that my reading rate influences my Book Discard Rate, and Book Discard Rate is an important thing for writers to consider, as we work to extend our authorly horizons.

When I was younger (and a faster reader, presumably, with greater retention), I finished every book I started.  That was a point of pride for me — *other* people were wimps and walked away from difficult/boring/poorly-written books, but I persevered.  (Of course, when the books were along the lines of “Frog and Toad are Friends”, perseverance wasn’t saying so much…)

When I was an academic reader, in university classes, I couldn’t finish every required book.  I was an English major taking two departmentals and a computer programming classes each — a typical week’s workload was one or two novels, two plays, and writing the email component of an operating system (along with work for whatever fourth and fifth class I was taking, in addition to stage managing and other extra-curricular activities.)  I learned how to skim, how to read for meaning, how to absorb the necessary and move on.

Now, I read the beginnings of books closely.  I attempt to submerge myself in them.  I reach for that feeling of total involvement, that sense that I must keep reading, that I have to stay awake, or forget about cooking dinner, or abandon writing my own chapters, or whatever.  Recently, I’ve received that “gripped” feeling from a broad array of books — Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl (post-apocalyptic SF), Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry (contemporary fantasy with a side of ghost story), Victoria Dahl’s Real Men Will (spicy contemporary romance.) 

But if a book doesn’t get me by around 50 pages, I set it aside. 

Occasionally, I come back to those set-aside books (especially when people known to me have raved about them, or when I know my own reading is off for one reason or another.)  Occasionally, I give a book 100 pages, instead of 50.  Every once in a very rare while, I ditch a book after 25 pages.

It still feels wrong to me, abandoning books.  But there are so many out there that I want to read.  And so few minutes in each day that can be spent reading.

So?  What about you?  Do you have a rule of thumb for when you set aside a book that just isn’t working for you?

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20 comments to Abandoning Books

  • I sometimes joke that I only have about 30 years left and there just isn’t time for books I don’t love. I generally go by the 50 page rule as well. I read for plot the same way you do, but an intriguing plot isn’t enough to keep me reading. It’s the characters that hold me. If no character has grabbed me and made me want to stick around by page 50, I’m done.

    In fact, I’m going to be talking about this subject tomorrow. -laughs- Great minds think alike, I guess!

  • Great post, Mindy. I’m not sure that I retain less of a book now that I’m older, but I know that I have less time than I used to, and this is the major factor in my deciding not to finish a book. The poet Philip Larkin tells a great story aboyut the first time he left a theatre at intermission. “Am I having a good time?” he asked himself as he sat in the bar. Having decided he wasn’t, he left, and thereafter proclaimed this as one of the formative moments of his life. He owe nothing to books that don’t grab us, that are predictable, poorly written or just not to our taste. I like to be challenged, but there comes a point where I find myself askimng Larkin’s question and deciding I have better things to do with my time, even if what I intend to do is read another book, a different book. Life’s too short to read crap fiction.

  • deborahblake

    I don’t remember things like I used to, either, and I definitely find myself having to pay more attention to take things in initially. Bah.

    I’m with the “life’s too short and there are too many good books to read” folks. I give a book about 30 pages…50 if I’m on the fence..and then put it down if I just don’t care about the characters or the plot line. (Unless the book is by one of my writer friends, then sometimes I will struggle on, hoping it gets better.) I feel bad about giving up on a book, but on the other hand, my TBR pile is massive, and I’d rather read a book I’m going to love.

    I take it you recommend the post-apoc book you mentioned? I’m looking for a few good books along that line, to help me punch up my own 🙂

  • As of right now, I haven’t discarded much, but I’ve put down a few pieces lately. So far, poor writing has been the culprit. I’m fairly forgiving for now. I have this habit of wanting to know what happens to the characters. What I have been doing, however, is a lot more skimming. For better or for worse.

  • adamgaylord

    Life’s too short and there are too many amazing books out there to trudge through something that isn’t captivating you. I give every book a chance but if I’m half way in and dreading the 2nd half, back to the library it goes!

  • I have a book right now that I’m waffling over not finishing. It’s sad because I paid money for it, wanted to help a local self-pub, but It has major problems that really bother me to the point that I don’t want to keep reading it (read recently that Penguin picked it up, but that thing needs major work, IMO). But I feel like I need to finish it because I bought it and it’d be a waste of money if I don’t.

    For me, how much of a chance I give a book depends on a number of factors, including the rep of the author. Gave a sci-fi series at least 2/3 of the first book before I stopped because I really kept hoping that it would get better. It had so much potential, but the actual plot, after the very first setup mention, wasn’t even brought up again till almost halfway through the book, then was mentioned again maybe 5 chapters later. And the stuff in between was sorta bland. I doubt I’ll revisit that one. Thankfully, that was a library try. And it’s a 7 book series. When you start a book that slow at the beginning of a massive series, I have to wonder if the rest of them will be the same way.

  • I don’t give up on many books very often. Until recently I’ve only given up on one “for fun” read that I had. I gave it up because of an incredibly violent scene. I just got to the middle of it, went “nope, that’s it for me!” and put it down never to go back again. I finished, I think, all the books I was assigned in college, even Moby Dick, except one, but I went back and finished it later (the Red and the Black).

    I’ve given up or at least gone through really long pauses with series, though. I lost interest, or didn’t have the time, or problems just didn’t get solved.

    I have, once, skipped to the end. When I read the end, I was glad I hadn’t read the whole thing.

    I give up on books that don’t hold my interest. Most of the time it isn’t that the writing is bad–though that might contribute. I just don’t care about the folks in the stories and, as others have said, I don’t have the time to be bored. Often they are books that others like (how else do they get to be bestsellers, in some cases?) and often I can see why they are good/successful. They’re just not for me.

  • I still finish pretty much every book I start. It might take several months (Pride and Prejudice, Quo Vadis) and a lot of other books in-between, but I do finish. Part of the reason, I think, is because I read a lot of classics and non-classic older books, as well as a lot of historical and biographical stuff. The writing styles are so varied that I don’t have a toss-point. I’ve found I learn from all of them, including the poorly written ones. Especially the poorly written ones.

    In fiction, if I decide a book is awful – boring plot, one-dimensional characters, bad grammar, purple prose – I keep reading, but I read with an eye to What Is Bad so I can store that info in my mental What-Not-To-Do file. By the same token, if I fall into a book (those magical moments when you forget you’re reading!), I’ll go back later to try to figure out what opened the rabbit hole, and if applicable, what tossed me out long enough to realize I fell in.

  • There are too many good books out there to read for me to waste time on mediocre ones. I can usually tell within the first few pages whether a book is worthwhile for me to read. Fast turn-offs for me are grammatical errors (increasingly common, I’m finding, as time goes on and editors at publishing houses are replaced by accountants) and the all-too-frequent contradictory character traits (nimble or irascible on page two, awkward or jovial on page three). A number of my friends love books I could not stand to hack my way through–they read for story, primarily. I love a good story too, but I cannot enjoy plotting if the writing causes me to wince every other paragraph. To give any “questionable” story 50 or 100 pages of my attention would be -um- overly generous.

  • I have to admit I’m much more likely to abandon a book now I only read ebooks. It’s not that the quality is different. It’s because I can download a sample or a free book. If it doesn’t grab me in the first couple of chapters I’m likely to delete it (or archive). I have much less detachment without a physical book.

    I abandoned a book almost half way through last week, though. It was a case of good idea, interesting characters, but the writing got worse not better.

    Thanks for asking

  • I don’t have a set page limit, but I have noticed a marked increase in the books that I walk away from (gets worse when I’m editing- go figure ;)). Usually if they haven’t grabbed me by maybe the first ten pages or so, I walk.

    Biggest issue is characters I don’t care about. Although I did dump one because the author was psychotically detail oriented. Down to describing the buttons that the (non-important) guards wore.

    I think writers are probably more likely to dump books just because of what we do- we see it when the train wreck is heading our way ;).

    Nice post!

  • Misty – I look forward to seeing your take on this tomorrow! (And I agree — plot alone is not enough. But great characters without a plot still leave me cold 🙂 )

    A J – I love, love, love the Larkin story. I’ve only walked out on two plays. There was recently a debate on NPR about whether audience members *owe* it to actors to continue watching a terrible play. I fall firmly in the camp that audience members owe nothing — they’ve paid to watch, and they’ve paid for the privilege of leaving. (My relatively low departure rate is directly related to my stinginess — I *did* pay, usually more than my personal view of my hourly wage, so I’m generally biased toward sticking around.)

    deborahblake – Thanks for not leaving me hanging here, as the only person with a fading memory 🙂 I, too, have conflicted feelings when the book in question has been written by a friend. Especially if, say, I’m going to have dinner with that friend in a day or two… ::sigh — but this is not actually happening to me now!:: THE WIND-UP GIRL, by Bacigalupi, is well worth the study as a post-apoc book, but I suspect that it is *much* grimmer and much heavier on world-building than your book…

    Laura – I’m not great at skimming; my mind keeps saying, “Pay attention!” (I was better, when I was a student. I actually retrained myself *not* to skim, so that I could get more out of newspaper articles…)

    adamgaylord – Ah, the library facet to this question! I know that my inclination to discard mediocre reads stems, in part, from the fact that I haven’t paid for all of them. (I get a lot of books for free at conferences.)

    Daniel – Yep, the economic argument regarding time management… It’ll be interesting to see if Penguin edits the text, once they’ve brought it in-house! (And yes, there are some books I’ve continued reading, due to the author’s rep, and my (sometimes-misplace) belief, that s/he must have something up his/her sleeve… And it’s interesting, how reading another 100 pages of a first-in-a-series book might still be worthwhile, time management-wise, given how long some series are…

    pea_faerie – I’ve started walking away from a fair amount of explicit violence (which I think we’ve discussed here before…) I’m one of those rare people who actually loved MOBY DICK (but I’ve never tried the Stendahl…)

    Lyn – Aha, another variable in this discussion! I can’t read multiple books at a time — my mind is inclined to cross plots and characters… Oddly, my mother regularly reads several books at once, so it seems as if my limitation is *not* genetic ::grin:: As for the “negative lesson” – I agree that we can learn from bad examples *if* that example is something that is popular, or has been published by an imprint I’m targeting, or whatever. Some bad fiction is just bad fiction 🙂

    Wolf – All of the books that I set aside at 50 pages, I was inclined to set aside at 5 pages. I’ve never stopped to calculate how many books I dislike at 5 pages “redeem” themselves by 50. Hmm… Maybe I can save myself a lot of time! (Actually, I know one class of “redeemed” books — ones with very intense worldbuilding. My brain usually rebels against the oddness, the unknowingness of the world, and I dislike the story until I settle in, 25, 30, 50 pages in…)

    Perryw – I’ve heard that from lots of people who are almost entirely e-readers – that they pull the plug much more quickly than they did in print. Thanks for answering!

    Marie – I, too, am more critical of what I read when I am in the midst of a lot of editing. (And I’ve got to say, I love your phrase “psychotically detail oriented”… I know several authors I’d put in that category!)

  • I tend to read an entire book even if it’s mediocre. It’s one of those ‘I paid for it, I better use it’ kinda things. Scottish blood, I guess. I won’t buy the next book in a series if it’s awful. No money spent, so no guilt.

    I do make note of what I don’t like, and carry that through to my writing. At least I get some value out of the book if I do that.

  • Mindy, I find that now I read for voice, which is a huge change for me, from several years ago, when character and plot were king. Now, if the voice isn’t there for me, I stop. I give it 25 pages. I want to enjoy what I read, and if a writer (and the character) have a great voice, I can guess that the plot and character development will be rich and fully realised as well… No, I’m not always right, but there is a crossover correlation, percentage wise, in terms of skill level. If a writer can give me voice, then he is likely good in the other areas too.
    But yeah — 25 pages.
    As AJ said — Life’s too short to read crap fiction.

  • Razziecat

    I used to read really fast. Didn’t retain much that way. I had to force myself to slow down, to try to hear the character’s voices in my head, and to pay attention to the narrative. But I limit my reading to things that catch my attention quickly. I don’t keep track of how many pages it takes, but the story has to grab me, and that usually means I have to love the characters from page one. The test is in whether I want to pick it up again after having put it down for a while. If I don’t care about the characters, I don’t finish the book. After all, I could be writing, so if I’m going to spend time reading, it has to be something I love.

  • Roxanne – I remember the first time I ever told one of my friends about my 50-page rule. Her *immediate* response was, “You might as well just burn your money!” I understand more of that perspective now… Do you find that you’re substantially more selective at the book purchase phase?

    Faith – I am really starting to focus on “voice” as something distinct from “character”. I’ve always thought the two were the same, but I’m learning otherwise…

    Razziecat – My best friend is a very fast reader, *and* she remembers everything, with great attention to subtleties of character. I’m incredibly jealous of her having all those skills… And yes, bottom line for me is the “Am I anxious to pick this up again.” All too often, the answer is … not really.

  • I do tend to be selective. I take recommendations from other writers I like. I try to read books by writers I meet, either in person or on the interwebz. I also pick books by writers from Seattle, and y’all know we’re perfect out here 🙂

    I ‘miss’ once in awhile, but I’m still pretty pleased with the books I’ve been reading.

  • JJerome

    Please forgive me for I have sinned…I could not finish books two prominent Fantasy authors. These books were in a series of which the initial books were excellent, and required reading for all authors. But the subsequent stories were boring! I tried, Lord, I tried, but I existentially agree with adamgaylord. Too many great books out there!

  • Roxanne – All the Seattle writers *I* know are perfect 🙂

    JJerome – Ego te absolvo. (I think that problem arises with some series because the authors spend ages perfecting the first book, but others are rushed to market…)