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It’s Not You, It’s Me: Breaking Up With Books

By posted at 6:30 am on June 2, 2010 76

Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read.  Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.

Over the years, this has changed.  Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable.  I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution.  It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.

One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read.  One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those!  Should should should.  Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt.  I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust!  And Dickens!  And Virginia Woolf!  And (these days) Bolaño!

My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose.  And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence.  I’m not getting any younger, after all.  Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time.  Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.

My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.

Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual.  For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment.  As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):

Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again

coverThe Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin

Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is.  You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:

Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why

coverTree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)

It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it.  And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many.  What can I say…

Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit

coverAmerican Pastoral by Philip Roth
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

The following category speaks for itself:

Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake

I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons.  There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.

Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.

“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego.  An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level.  But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity.  So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games.  I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way.  It absolutely was not.  I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:

Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End

coverThe Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett

This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary.  This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read.  I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.

coverIn particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience.  I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable.  Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking.  But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing.  This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.

Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did

coverIn the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift.  If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older.  I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life.  To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.

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76 Responses to “It’s Not You, It’s Me: Breaking Up With Books”

  1. Monday Morning Stepback: Hello Goodbye edition « Read React Review
    at 10:13 am on June 7, 2010

    […] Chung at the Millions on Breaking Up With Books. She categorizes the books she failed to finish and why. My favorite is this one: “Books […]

  2. Jaime
    at 3:18 pm on June 7, 2010

    Ten years ago, as a freshly minted English-degree undergraduate, I vowed that I would never again finish a book out of obligation. I remember the first time I “quit” a book (I think it was DeLillo’s “White Noise” – see Category 3 above), it felt so freeing! What joy, to just stop reading, and pick up the next book!

    But it’s hard to let go. We recently moved house, and I purged my bookshelves of those tomes I knew I would either never get to or was finished with forever, and a few have survived because of “should” – “Middlemarch,” “Swann’s Way” and “Finnegan’s Wake” especially. But they also remain because I want to enjoy them, and so often with books it’s about timing – reading the right book in the right context of your own life. So “Middlemarch” will be my next “train commute book,” and in the meantime I’ll look into annotated guides to the other two… my own summer reading assignments!

  3. ian
    at 3:40 pm on June 7, 2010

    Sonya, thanks for the response, and no offense meant if I overdid it a little on the “aghast”. I agree with you 100%, the personal element is critical and the multitude of factors that make that up cannot be explained or rationalised.

    Besides, not finishing a book is nothing to be criticised for: the attempt’s the key thing, and who knows where even a failed challenge to our own tastes and inclinations will lead in future.

    As an aside, I read a good argument a while ago that Portrait of the Artist is actually a tougher read then Ulysses, and I think there’s something to be said for that. Some things are worth the effort though. Very interesting comment about the “culture gap” to Fitzgerald, although she doesn’t strike me as particularly “English/British” in her style or indeed the concerns she addresses as a writer. But there’s that personal perspective thing rearing its head again…

    Lisa NR: I probably can’t adequately explain it, but I thought Austerlitz was fantastic. Like all Sebald’s books, there’s a compelling mood to it that I guess you either buy into or don’t….if not, I can understand it would be a struggle. Have you read any of his others? if not, maybe try them and go back to Austerlitz (or not) – I’d suggest The Rings of Saturn as an alternative.

    Also – a qualified yes to Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is probably the only book I’ve given up on that I plan to go back to (at a date currently far in the future). It’s scared me off his other stuff, I have a block with him until I read Rainbow, which is probably silly but there you are.

  4. Siden sist :
    at 5:48 am on June 9, 2010

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  5. Olivia Tejeda
    at 1:04 pm on June 9, 2010

    Dear Sonya, I was with you on this, saying “Yes, Yes, YES!” to most of the titles and your thoughts on them. Then I came to Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. It’s true the excessive detail on the finer points of glove manufacturing in Newark could bore even glove manufacturers in Newark, but looking beyond that I thought it was a gorgeous book. Just goes to show you, right?

    Thanks for this great post. Very enjoyable, and I read it to the end without regret.

  6. Lisa N.R.
    at 8:49 pm on June 9, 2010

    @ ian—I plan on picking up either Austerlitz (I did love the beginning scene in the Nocturnal House) or The Rings of Saturn this summer. Funny, however much it has been urged on me, I’ve got the same silly block to Gravity’s Rainbow. But I agree whole-heartedly with you on Joyce and POTA—it was difficult but very formative for me as a reader and writer. Best, Lisa

  7. Ash
    at 10:51 pm on June 9, 2010

    I should have quit some of the books that I’ve finished, but I can never bring myself to do it. I just hate to be a quitter. I’m more of a skim to the end kind of reader. Just half ass the rest of it.

  8. Michael Travis
    at 1:18 pm on June 12, 2010

    I think that Nick Hornby is right on this point: “It’s set in stone, apparently: books must be hard work; otherwise the’re a waste of time. And so we grind our way throught serious, and sometimes seriously dull, novels , or enormous biographies of political figures, and every time we do so, books come to seem a little more like a duty, and Pop Idol starts to look a little more attractive. Please, please, put it down.” So, in other words, stop feeling guilty.

    Like everyone else, there are some books that I just have not been able to make it through–Gravity’s Rainbow is one for me as well. And then there are some serious doorstops that by their sheer size I find intimidating. Richardson’s Clarissa and Pamela and Sir Charles Grandiose are great examples. And there are some books that I tried but could not make a connection with in my twenties. In my forties, I tried them again, and found things to be different. So, I’ve read the entirety of Moby-Dick, when I was 30, and loved it. In my 40’s, I read Middlemarch, despite some false starts (George Eliot is a wonderful writer, though Middlemarch is another doorstopper). I’ve also read since made it through The Glass Bead Game, The Man Without Qualities, The Golden Notebook, The Brothers Karamazov, Under the Volcano, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and Tristram Shandy. And enjoyed all of them, tremendously. Most of them I’ve known, and tried to read, when I was younger. Maybe it was just getting some more life experience, and developing some patience, that helped.

    I was fortunate enough, as an undergraduate, to get into a seminar course (it was open only to seniors and graduate students) on James Joyce. So we read Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses in their entirety. And the more accessible parts of Finnegan’s Wake. Having a guide through these helped extraordinarily. They are not the easiest books to read, otherwise.

    Besides Gravity’s Rainbow, I cannot make myself read Of Human Bondage, Maugham’s massive Bildungsroman. It just absolutely bores me. I’ve read several other Maugham titles and enjoyed them. Perhaps I will try again at some point. And perhaps not. The one I did finally make it through (and did not enjoy) was Faulkner’s Light in August. It struck me as coming close to self-parody at times. I’ve read most of Faulkner, and enjoy most of them, but this one did not do it for me. Has anyone tried any of Edith Wharton’s other books? Ethan Frome was required reading for me in high school, as well. I remember little of it. She was a very prolific and popular writer in her day–she published about 40 volumes–stories (many of them ghost stories), novels, travel writing, poetry, books about gardening and interior design. I finished The House of Mirth a while ago–a delighful, though tragic book–and am finishing up The Reef. The Reef seems more like melodrama, but is very entertaining at the same time. The Age of Innocence is another fantastic book.

    But I guess that the main point is, just don’t feel guilty. Reading should be a pleasure, not a chore.

  9. Gonzogrig
    at 6:31 pm on June 12, 2010

    I don’t think it’s true that the young don’t feel that pressure. In fact I think it’s the strongest when you’re young if you have that love of literature ingrained in you. When you’re young you’ve had so little time and experience reading that it’s down right intimidating to hear everyone say you ‘should’ read this, that and the next thing. You assume that everyone else knows better than you, so you end up reading things that really don’t interest you at all because you can’t believe that so many more advanced readers could be wrong. Of course I think that you need to go through those experiences in order to find yourself and your taste.

  10. Kirk
    at 9:42 am on June 15, 2010

    I always had a lot of guilt about not finishing books I started till a few years ago I read Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50. She says if you’re 50 yrs old or older, take your age and subtract it from 100 and that’s how many pages you should read before giving up on a book.
    I agree with her that no one should schlog through a book they are not enjoying.
    Book guilt caused me to read Ulysses, rarely or never knowing what was going on. But this new found expiation has allowed me to put down Infinite Jest at 50 pages.

  11. Michael Travis
    at 2:32 pm on June 15, 2010

    Kirk, yes, indeed, Ulysses is a difficult nut to crack. But once done, it is a truly delightful book. A great comic romp, in fact. The opening sections, focussing on Stephen Dedalus, are the Telemachus sections. The ending, the monologue of Molly Bloom, is the Penelope section–though this Penelope is earthy and sexual, in the tradition of Chaucer’s wife of Bath and Juliet’s nurse. That is probably the easiest and most accessible section. The rest, focussing on Leopold Bloom on his journey, is Ulysses. Most of the book is based on the voyage of Ulysses as told by Homer.

    I was going over my notes, here in my old battered copy of Ulysses. The opening section–with Buck Mulligan–is a play on Catholic church services–with Buck Mulligan standing in for the priest, raising the chalice (in his case his shaving bowl) in the act of transubstantiation. He even intones, in Latin, “Introibo ad altare Dei.” I have that translated as “I will go into the altar of God.” There is a great deal of this sort of joking going on throughout the book.

    Another example happens later: “I was just passing the time of day with old Troy of the D.M.P. at the corner of Arbour hill there and be damned but a bloody sweep came along and he near drove his gear into my eye.” Later, “Then he rubs his hand in his eye….” These are, of course, the Cyclops section, and hence the emphasis on only one eye. The book is full of these sorts of puns (even the name–old Troy–is a pun, as Ulysses was coming back from the Trojan wars).

    I don’t know if this helps, but it should show you the sorts of word play that Joyce was up to in Ulysses.

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    at 2:16 pm on June 16, 2010

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  17. James Weinheiemr
    at 7:13 am on June 25, 2010

    Boswell had a famous quote of Dr. Johnson about books:

    On advice that books, once started, should be read all the way through: “This is surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?”
    See:, page 390.

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  25. Monday Bullet Points – The Pretty Pictures Edition « Fanarchist – Reading Blog
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  26. deborah
    at 12:26 am on February 8, 2015

    I have a collection in Kindle “books not finished’ I keep track, some I do want to finish, some I might try again if a life experience makes the book more relevant, some i don’t want to work to read when there are so many amazing books to read – so many books so little time. it did take some time to get over the guilt; but if I don’t cull the herd, i wouldn’t have had time for Unbroken and The Martian. A more than fair tradeoff. I usually have a 50 page go or dump rule of thumb.

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