At what point is it okay not to finish reading a book? Ten pages in? Fifty? This is a quandary I have been facing this week as I’ve worked my way through the opening chapters of a novel that, by all accounts, I should like. It has been well-received by critics. The topic is one that I generally find interesting. The characters are believable. And the writing style, while not as artful as others I’ve encountered, is sufficiently engaging to keep my interest. Yet there have been a several moments as the story has unfolded (specifically, uncanny “coincidences” in the plotline) that have given me the urge to chuck the book into the trashcan and move on to the something else.
You see, I’m one of those readers who tends to see a book through to the end no matter what. Maybe it’s my Midwestern upbringing or my Protestant work ethic, but somewhere deep in my psyche is the conviction that, once a chosen task is begun, I have a moral obligation to complete it. Over the years, I’ve wasted an enormous amount of time reading all sorts of books that, in retrospect, were not particularly good and really weren’t worth the effort. But I finished them, dang it!
Recently, however, something has changed. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and I realize that life is short, or perhaps it’s the result of reading hundreds of really bad student essays during my decade and a half teaching high school English. For whatever the reason, I no longer want to read books I don’t like.
Yet does this reflect a growing shallowness on my part? Have I fallen victim to the same social and cultural forces that have conditioned my students to retreat from anything that is not immediately engaging or may require some sort of sustained effort on their part to fully reap its rewards? I can think of plenty of books (particularly some of the “classics” that were assigned by my teachers in high school and college) which were not particularly riveting at first, but they turned out to be some of the most memorable books I’ve experienced. At the same time, how many books have I blazed through that I found delightfully entertaining while I was reading them but have long since forgotten?
As C.S. Lewis notes, good readers can learn something valuable from even the worst books. The question is, at what point is it fair to say that a book is simply not worth the trouble? Personally, I’ve going to give my current novel another twenty pages or so. Okay, maybe thirty. We’ll see how it goes.