On Finishing Bad Books

I may have at least danced around this topic in an earlier post, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently—when (if ever) is the right time to put down a book you’re not enjoying? (And is there a different answer to this question if you’re a writer? Does it matter whether the book is in your genre?)

In general, I finish every book I start, especially fiction. The few exceptions prove the rule—I don’t remember the last time I didn’t persevere through to the end of a novel, even ones I’ve actively disliked from page one. Normally I don’t have to be too thoughtful about this tendency—I read too fast and have a NYC commute to fill; a disappointing book is usually only with me for a day or two, and then I can move on to something else. But this week I’m reading Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, and have nearly 1,000 pages to think about the fact that I don't really like it. (Some combination of its size, jacket copy, and Oprah’s Book Club sticker made me think it would be more like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and less like Dan Brown. Don’t get me wrong, Dan Brown can be fun, but not when you were had a Man Booker-winner in mind.) The prose makes me cringe; the characterization and gender politics are…dated at best; and although the plot is a I guess a page-turner, 1,000 pages are a lot to turn. (I feel okay saying all this because Ken Follett is far more successful than I’ll ever be and doesn’t need or desire my approval.) I’m about a quarter of the way through now, and don’t plan to bail—but the length of the novel is forcing me to think more seriously about why I’m so committed to finishing bad books. 

I think it stems partly from a workshop and litmag-honed conviction that you can learn as much from bad prose or failing structure as from good. Partly, it's that I’ve been trained (probably mostly by television) to want to see a story through to its end, even if I’m not enjoying it. And of course I’m also just a rabid completionist, loath to bail on a title if that means I’ll have wasted X hours reading it but don’t even get to put it on my list. I also hate the vertiginous déjà vu of hearing someone discuss a book I read part of but didn't finish—not feeling secure in my opinions or comprehension of the conversation or even my memories. (“I think I read that?” is a terrible feeling.) And though I've never experienced a reading equivalent of hate-watching, there's a grim satisfaction in finishing a book and confirming that yes, you did dislike it; you gave it every chance and still it let you down. 

I know plenty of people don’t agree. One former roommate of mine was my polar opposite on this question; her shelves were full of great books that she’d loved but had put down (“for now”) halfway through, to finish months or years later when she was in the mood again. I find this mind-bogglingly unrelatable, but she was a thoughtful and happy citizen of the literary world and I’m glad I got to see her reading habits in action, to remind me there are many more than one way (my way) to do things. It's certainly true that every minute I spend finishing Pillars is one I won't get to spend reading something better.

There’s one last reason, though maybe indefensible, to be a completionist when it comes to disappointing books. There’s always the hope, especially in the case of doorstop tomes like Follett’s, that there’s another shoe yet to drop. It might get better. Maybe there’s a keystone character or plot twist that makes it all slot into place; maybe you realize halfway through that the first half was bad on purpose. I still have 750 pages of The Pillars of the Earth to read—anything could happen. Right?