Literary Incompatibility

Last month, Sonya Chung had a post at The Millions on breaking up with books: quitting a book mid-read.

Now, I’m a big fan of Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50: if you’re under fifty years of age, read the first fifty pages of a book and, if you’re not enjoying it, stop; if you’re over fifty years of age, subtract your age from 100, read that many pages of the book, and, if you’re not enjoying it, stop. I apply this rule often—there is just not enough time, and I am blessed to live a life filled with far more free books than I can possibly read. However, some books I’ve really tried to keep reading, hoping that if I just keep slogging through it I’ll love it.

These tend to be books that were recommended by people who are important to me, whose opinions I respect, and who know me well. With those recommendations behind them, they’re books I should really love, right?

Alas, it is not always so.

My mother is an avid reader, and her particular Genre Of Choice is historical fiction, which I often appreciate as well. I also minored in Medieval Studies and am particularly interested in the British Isles. So, logically, my mother suggested I read one of her all-time favorites: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman, historical fiction set in thirteenth-century England and Wales. The historical research is impeccable, the sense of place and time is excellent, the book well written… but after a couple hundred pages of constant wanting to throttle the main character, I realized that I would be happier if I didn’t put myself through several hundred more pages of wanting to throttle the main character, who was showing no inclination to open her eyes and abandon her naivete.

And then there’s one of my dad’s favorite books, The Book of Flying by Keith Miller. It’s fantasy about a librarian, a book about books, totally my kind of thing! And a hundred pages in, the writing was oh so beautiful, but it felt like nothing had happened. It was like reading Ursula Le Guin, and I’d already accepted that I am a deficient fantasy reader because I don’t particularly like Le Guin’s books. So I gave up.

It’s not just a family thing. One of my dearest friends recommended The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne Valente. Once again, the writing was gorgeous, and in this case, the form was brilliant—layered folktales, overlapping stories blending and developing and unfolding and interlocking. The problem was blood: the magic in these stories required women’s blood. Lots of it. I reached a point where I couldn’t deal with another woman tearing into herself—and I didn’t particularly want to deal with it.

I still respect and value the literary opinions of my parents and my friend—and have read and enjoyed other books recommended by all three—but these books and I, we just didn’t mesh.

So, dear readers, what books have you been recommended but abandoned (or wish you’d had the guts to abandon them?) Or did you soldier through and find the payoff? What other books did you stop reading, for whatever reasons?

11 thoughts on “Literary Incompatibility”

  1. Oh wow, this is a good question. I tend to slog through books I’m not in love with. I was talked by a friend into buying CRASH by J.G. Ballard and absolutely could not get past the first chapter. No intentions of ever trying again, either. Other than that, don’t remember abandoning much else completely, but there are a few I definitely wanted to drop:
    I nearly threw JEFF IN VENICE, DEATH IN VARANASI across the room a few times, though in retrospect I’m strangely glad I stuck with it. Same with THE WORLD TO COME by Dara Horn. And in the Classics department, still haven’t been able to get through The Count of Monte Cristo, try as I will. In my defense, though, it is REALLY long. As for the biography of Benjamin Franklin I was loaned last year- well, I think the chances of me ever finishing that book drop with each passing day…

  2. I have a ’50 pages or 5 chapters’ rule for myself, I didn’t know someone else had a similar rule! When I tell people that I’ll put a book down after 50 pages or 5 chapters if I’m not interested, I’m surprised at how, well, surprised people are. Most people seem to need to slog through a book just BECAUSE… but if they’re not enjoying it, why are they reading it?

  3. I know, Rosalee, I find it so strange that people feel they MUST finish every book they start. Of course, it probably saves their shoulders—I’m often carrying three books in my bag because I need the one I’m about to finish and two that I want to read, in case I Rule of 50 one of them.

  4. That is an awesome rule! I love how getting older earns you the right to read less before throwing in the towel. Does it count if I haven’t even been able to start the book? I bought The Hate List by Jennifer Brown after hearing her speak at a writer’s conference. She was so nice, and gave such a wonderful talk, and the novel looks very engaging–but I just can’t bring myself to read about a high school shooting tragedy.

  5. Ruth, I think we need a new name for the rule that lets you not even start a book… the Opt-Out Rule? The Rule of Zero? I had a lot of books on my To Be Read shelf that I gave away this spring, on the theory that if I hadn’t gotten to them in more than a year, I probably wasn’t going to.

    Speaking of the Opt-Out Rule, are there any books you haven’t read out of sheer spite? I have a couple books that I refuse to read because I got so sick of people telling me I HAD to read them. I can decide what I do and do not need to read, thank you very much!

  6. Justin Cronin’s THE PASSAGE. I was so sick of hearing about it that I swore it off forever. Well, maybe just until the holds list at the library gets way shorter. But that could be years, and I’m OK with that.

  7. I’ve had the same rule for years–probably about since high school when I realized broken-heartedly that I could never read all the books in the world and especially couldn’t if I was forcing myself to slog through every book I started. I do generally give non-fiction or fiction written pre-1900 a little more leeway, since they generally take longer to get into or get going.
    So the one that comes to mind recently recommended is The Host by Stephenie Meyer. My mom and several sisters love her Twilight books, which I absolutely hated. They recommended The Host as something different and more mature that I might like. I gave it 100 pages and couldn’t force myself to keep going any further. One sister keeps telling me that it’s only after about 150 pages that it really starts getting good and I have to give it another shot. If a modern author’s taking over 150 pages to get to the “good” parts or the plot/writing only improves after that many pages, either they aren’t that great of a writer, or else they need an editor that is willing to tell the hard truths (or they need to listen better if their editor is doing that).

  8. I had actually never heard of the Rule of 50. But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. There are many great books out there. It is very easy to just drop one and pick another. Authors should be aware of this rule as well while writing their book.

    If readers only give them 50 pages to impress them, they better be really well written 50 pages.

  9. I have been in a book club with a few ladies and meet monthly to discuss a book over dinner. Several times I have trudged through a book that was collectively chosen and did not enjoy it at all, but felt obligate to complete it for the discussion. Now, however, I refuse to torture myself and will just say that I hated the book for whatever reason and state why. Ironically, other members are now being more forthright and admit that they just could not get through a given book. What a relief!!

  10. The ‘classics’ have gotten me tied up in knots. As a faculty, some of us were asked to reread To Kill A Mockingbird. I got through it, begrudgingly. And to top it off, I felt guilty about it.

    This summer we were required to read ANTIGONE – bleh! Is all I can say. And yet the guilt prevails. 🙂

    1. Oh, To Kill a Mockingbird guilt! I have that too, in my case because I haven’t read it. And then I read things like The Mockingbirds, which is a fantastic book that demonstrates its love of TKaM on every page, and wonder if maybe I should get around to it. But there are too many books higher up on my to-read shelf!

Comments are closed.