Abandonment issue: when do you give up on a book?

Too heavy going, too lightweight, just too long – what are the reasons to put a volume down?

We've all no doubt at some point in our reading lives found ourselves at the point where we realise that the book we're reading is not up to scratch. It doesn't matter whether it's a novel by an author we've always previously liked, a book foisted on us by an overzealous friend, or an intriguing debut we picked up because it had a great cover. Maybe there's a part of you that knows within a paragraph (or, worse, a sentence); perhaps it takes 50 pages, or a 100, before you start to ask yourself the question: is this a book that I should abandon?

According to a beguiling new infographic produced by Goodreads, we react to this question in a number of ways. If you're like me – and 38.1% of you are – you'll read on no matter what, since abandoning a book is tantamount to heresy. It doesn't matter if the book is bad, if the book is dull, if the book is so eye-bleedingly hard that every single word makes you painfully aware of what a bear of little brain you are – you'll go on reading until you're done (and when you're done you might treat yourself to a book you know you'll enjoy, maybe re-reading a favourite, in the hope that it cleanses your palate of the bad experience). The majority though, will quit a book after a chapter or, if you adopt the seemingly made-up rule suggested in the infographic, after a hundred pages minus your age.

What it is that makes a book abandonable? Well, obviously, there are those that are "difficult". Not for nothing is Ulysses amongst the most abandoned classics. I'm sure there's room on that shelf for Thomas Pynchon's V, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Don DeLillo's Ratner's Star as well (although as a person who never abandons a book, I take an obscure satisfaction in having finished all of them). But actually there's no shame in saying that a book is too difficult. Not only is it an acknowledgement of your own limitations, which in itself is a kind of wisdom, it's also a kind of challenge, an admission that a book is too much for me now but might not be in the future (it took me three swings at V before I finally made it all the way through).

Challenging reads are probably a small niche within the abandoned bookstacks . I'd hazard a guess that the main reason people abandon books is because life is too short. Again, those good people over at Goodreads have conducted a straw poll and the chart is currently topped b JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy and EL James's Fifty Shades of Grey. Whilst this demonstrates that the kind of readers who like to take part in straw polls have short memories, it also indicates quite well what kinds of books are most frequently cast aside: the books that disappoint (Rowling's earnest novel for adults is a little too far from the ice cream and ginger beer of Harry Potter for most readers) and those that you read simply because everyone else is reading them (I haven't succumbed to Fifty Shades of Grey myself but I've had enough people tell me it's as bad as Twilight to know I'm not missing anything).

Which I'm sure makes me sound like the worst kind of book snob – but we're all book snobs, whether we admit it or not. Choosing one book over another is a kind of snobbery. It's all about our choices. The sad thing is that those choices sometimes, possibly frequently, let us down. Whether we regularly abandon books or not, we all, from time to time, find ourselves lifting our heads from the book (or screen) we are reading, to gaze out of the window and sigh. This book wasn't what we hoped it would be. But then there's the hope, isn't there? That the next book – or the next book – or the next book – will be worth every bit of time we invest.


Peter Wild

The GuardianTramp

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