The 20-page rule: how much time should you give a devastatingly boring book?

Novelist Mark Billingham advises readers to angrily launch a book across the room after 20 non-gripping pages – but almost 40% of people will keep going right to the end

Name: The 20-page rule.

Age: This one’s actually more about page than age.

OK then, page: Page 20, obvs.

Of a book? Of a book.

Any book? Pretty much.

And what happens on page 20 of any book? Well, that depends on the book. This is more about what happens to the book itself.

And what does happen, on page 20, to the book? You get to throw it across the room. Angrily!

Why? Because you’re not enjoying it.

And if I am? Then it’s OK to keep reading, of course.

Who’s saying this? Mark Billingham, the writer of the Tom Thorne crime novels. Speaking at Cheltenham literary festival, he said that if a book hadn’t gripped you after 20 pages, then it was OK not just to give up on it but to “throw it across the room angrily”.

Because? “Life’s too short … There are so many great books out there.” Billingham, who used to be a standup comedian, went on to say: “I couldn’t walk out on a stage at the Comedy Store and go: ‘Stick with me, I’ll get funny in about 10 minutes.’” Same with books: he says he gives up on five out of 10 that he starts.

Bet he’s never finished Ulysses. No one – literally and literarily – has finished Ulysses. Unsurprisingly, James Joyce’s notoriously difficult stream of consciousness novel featured in the top five abandoned classics in a handy infographic produced by Goodreads a while back.

Along with? Catch-22, Moby-Dick, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Atlas Shrugged. Joyce and Herman Melville also appeared on a Book Riot survey as authors of books people just pretend to have read, along with Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace, and the Bible. Goodreads had some interesting stats about when people abandon books, too.

And? Billingham, we now know, is among the 15.8% of people who give up after fewer than 50 pages; 27.9% after 50-100 pages; 7.6% at 100 pages; 10.6% after more than 100 pages. “I always finish, no matter what” came in at 38.1%.

That’s me! I’ve started so I’ll finish. You and Mrs Billingham.

Is that the title of a book? It sounds like a book. No, she’s Mark’s wife. He said she persevered even if she wasn’t enjoying a book, like some kind of “war of attrition”.

Does she enjoy Mr Billingham’s books? That we don’t know. But if she wasn’t enjoying one of his she wouldn’t stop, even though he thinks she should. And then throw it across the room, angrily.

Do say: “Mind your heads, War and Peace incoming!”

Don’t say: “No, not the Kindle you idiot! War and Smashed to Bloody Pieces …”

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
War and Peace … and then what?
Andrew Davies’s triumphant TV series has caused sales of Tolstoy’s epic to soar. Here are five more big reads to fill the gap – from Finnegans Wake to Gravity’s Rainbow. And every one is ripe for the small screen

John Sutherland

08, Feb, 2016 @6:40 PM

Article image
Moby on fame and regret: ‘I was an out-of-control, utterly entitled drink and drug addict’
He declared his intention to go away for a while after pointed criticism of his second memoir. But now the musician is back with a new album - and a visceral documentary

Tim Jonze

12, Apr, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Are you bored yet? Five great books to snuggle down with over the Christmas break
From a history of art without men, to a post-pandemic novel and a classic collection of short stories, lose yourself in a good read

Claire Armitstead

30, Dec, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Game of Thrones v Lord of the Rings: who will win the epic battle of the spin-offs?
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been flung into making prequels of the fantasy franchises. But which will triumph? Or, with no familiar characters, could both end in disaster?

Steve Rose

28, Jul, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Quentin Tarantino is selling Pulp Fiction all over again – this time as art
The director is being sued by the film production company, Miramax, for planning to sell ‘non-fungible tokens’ of the film he wrote and directed

17, Nov, 2021 @5:09 PM

Article image
Beige flags: the warning signs that announce you’re too boring to date
Hate pineapple on pizza? Can’t stand the word ‘moist’? Fine, but for your own sake keep it out of your online profile

12, Sep, 2022 @2:37 PM

Article image
Lashings of confusion: why a debut crime writer has found a steamy new audience
Readers eager to buy David Jewell’s gritty novel have been directed to bondage erotica by a US writer with the same name

12, Aug, 2020 @3:54 PM

Article image
Why Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto is having a moment
The Canadian musician Grimes tweeted an image of herself with the 1848 document last week – just after her reported split from the world’s richest man, Elon Musk. She isn’t the only one reading it right now

04, Oct, 2021 @5:24 PM

Article image
Push it! Are these the best songs to give birth to?
Research has revealed the Top 10 most popular songs for mothers-to-be – and no, Salt-N-Pepa is not on there

09, Mar, 2021 @3:33 PM

Article image
The three-minute rule: the scientific way to tackle your most-hated chores
Psychologists say the secret to stop procrastinating over tasks you dislike is to do them for a few minutes. Could it work?

14, Mar, 2022 @3:39 PM