1 January 2017 Susannah

Do You Ditch or Endure?

Do you ditch or endure?

Dr Samuel Johnson once advised his friend Boswell that books, once started, should be read all the way through. Boswell’s view was that “this was surely strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?”

Do you favour Dr Johnson’s approach, or Boswell’s? Do you finish every book you start, or do you sometimes give up and leave a book unfinished? As I’ve recently done just that, I’ve been thinking about what is a fair trial of a book. How many pages should one read before ditching it? One hundred pages, three or four chapters, half way through? I hate abandoning a book before completion and do not do it often, but as I grow older I find myself getting more impatient with a book that bores me, or I feel is badly written, and have a growing fear of dying before reading even a fraction of all I still want to read. Reading time is so precious – should we use it on a book we’ve grown tired of?

A US maths professor has come up with something called the Hawking Index, a way to estimate how far into bestsellers people actually read. The name comes from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time which, according to this measure, is one of the least-finished books. Which popular books have you purchased with enthusiasm, only to let them gather dust, book mark still marking Chapter 3? I suspect that Finnegan’s Wake, Ulysses, Moby-Dick, Possession, Remembrance of Things Past, War and Peace and many other books score highly on this index. What classics have you abandoned part way, in spite of the best of intentions to persevere?

Laurene Sterne, by Joshua Reynolds

Laurence Sterne, by Joshua Reynolds

And yet some of the world’s great books are not easy reads, and if you abandon them, you are missing so much. I did not find it easy to read Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and yet my life was enriched by the experience. I have even re-read it, I still chuckle over Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadham, and the lecture I gave on it is still one of my all-time favourite talks.

We live in a world of instant entertainment, and perhaps that makes today’s readers a little too inclined to leave a book when they dislike a character, or have to look up too many words in the dictionary, or they’ve been rather distracted by other things.

So maybe you should consider making 2017 the year when you pick up a book previously abandoned and give it another try, or consider more carefully before tossing an unfinished book aside?

What books have you ditched and which ones have you endured? I’d be interested in your list and whether you thought it was worth persevering with a difficult read. Please tell me by leaving a comment.

  Susannah Fullerton: HAPPY BIRTHDAY – Dr Samuel Johnson
  Susannah Fullerton: HAPPY BIRTHDAY – James Boswell

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

   Project Gutenberg: books by Samuel Johnson
   Project Gutenberg: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne


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Featured image credit- Book: chapter six. from KaboomPics. http://kaboompics.com/one_foto/330/book-chapter-six
Body image credit- Laurence Sterne, by Joshua Reynolds (died 1792). Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6592909
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Comments (50)

  1. Keryne Rosato

    I give a book 10 pages to give me something – an interesting word or phrase, an idea, something unusual or thought provoking – it doesn’t have to be much but it has to be SOMETHING to make me keep reading. I have no qualms about not finishing a book, there are too many others waiting in line!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree! I think the older we get, the more ruthless we have to be about ditching any book that isn’t grabbing us. There are too many fabulous books out there waiting to be read, and never enough reading time.

  2. Rosaleen Kirby

    As someone who has spent much of her professional life trying to convey to (frequently reluctant) teenagers the joys and many benefits of reading for pleasure, I say ditch, ditch, ditch. I cannot count the number of kids and young adults who have told me that they don’t read because reading is ‘boring’ and I have always told them that it is because they simply haven’t found the right book yet that will ignite the spark for them that will last forever if it is nurtured. So the idea of forcing them to carry on with a book that is just not speaking to them (unless it is a prescribed text – another issue), seems like madness to me as their negative ideas about reading will only become more entrenched. I always tell them to give it a ‘fair go’ before abandoning it – maybe 50 pages, depends on the size of the book, and if they are not getting anything from it, to bring it back and I will help them to find another that works for them. I usually do.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree, Rose, that it is dangerous for teenage readers to plough on through a book they are hating, at the risk of being put off reading for life. Nothing is worth that! And what an important job it is to find something that they will enjoy. You could well have changed lives as a school librarian.
      Let’s catch up soon for some book talk.

  3. Sherry

    When I was younger, I felt that buying a book or checking it out from the library constituted a sort of literary contract so I felt obligated to complete it! With age came wisdom and, just as stated by some of the commentators above, life is too short to waste time with a book that doesn’t give you joy or an opportunity for introspection or a series of new facts or insights! When I find myself “talking” to the author about the failings of the book or offering suggestions for improvement, I know it’s time to quit! For me, the kiss of death for a book is when it’s a “bestseller.” Just because everyone buys it, doesn’t mean it’s a “best-reader.” I rely on recommendations of people whose judgment I respect. As for the classics, They’ve been around forever for a reason but that doesn’t mean that they’re all enjoyable.

    As for audio books, great for listening on long car trips or while walking on a treadmill but, for me, they are absolutely NOT the same as reading! I find that the actor/narrator gets between the author and me. Sometimes, while (really) reading, I come to a sentence or a paragraph that I want to reread. (Because I enjoy it or because I need clarity). That’s not convenient while listening. In addition, there’s the matter of the physical book. There is something intimate between the author and reader that occurs when you hold his/her book in your hands and turn the pages and smell the binding and …let me not go on before this comment becomes pornography.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so interested in your comments on audio books, but don’t think I agree. Yes, I love to hold the book, smell it and be able to turn back and re-read a paragraph, but I do not feel the reader gets between me and the book but rather gives me an interpretation of it. I can see a whole new meaning when a different word is emphasised, and find new humour in a book I know well when I have someone else read it to me. And you can always go back a track and listen to a part again – I do that often, just to enjoy a particularly wonderful passage.
      I agree about bestsellers, and might add Booker Prize winners. Everyone feels they should admire them as they won a prize, but that does not necessarily mean they are fabulous books. Thanks for your thought-provoking comments.

  4. Margaret Debenham

    I’m definitely an “endurer” – I do occasionally ditch, but only if the grammar and/or really poor proof-reading make me angry! It did take me three attempts to read right through “Tristram Shandy” (starting again from the beginning each time), but, like you, on attempt three I loved it (I haven’t done a reread, though). I only succeeded with “Don Quixote” on the second attempt, but again I’m so pleased I endured, as it is wonderful. I have only two books temporarily on hold at the moment (I guess I have to get into the right mood)- William Cobbett’s “Rural Rides” (not sure I really need to know the ins and outs of growing a successful cabbage crop, but his political views are interesting if rather way out there), and White’s “Natural History of Selborne”, which is charming in small doses (and I can visualise the landscape, as Selborne is so near Chawton), so I will get there in the end!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have read so many quotes from Cobbett’s ‘Rural Rides’ that I almost feel I have read the whole book, but I really should tackle it one day. He was such a remarkable man, trying to show the state of England at the time and the plight of the poor though, like you, I could manage without the cabbage detail. And I feel ashamed to admit I’ve never read Gilbert White either, or been to Selborne. I’ve been too focussed on Chawton and its occupant to take the notice I should have taken of her near neighbour. Good luck with both, and I am so glad you got through ‘Don Quixote’ and “Tristram Shandy’.

  5. Penny Morris

    I certainly endure. I did a BA in English Lit a few years ago as a mature aged student,and being overly conscientious as we tend to be, had to read books that at first I thought I could not finish but needed to in order to join in the tutorials. Among them I discovered some absolute gems that I have since reread. So while a book may not be to my taste, there is always something to gain from finishing it. I may choose however to not read another from the same author.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      There is something unsatisfying about leaving a book unfinished. I agree that you always find something that it makes it worthwhile finishing. Isn’t a degree in English Lit just the best degree! Well done on doing it as a mature student. That’s what my Mum did and she adored every minute of it.

  6. Carol Taylor

    I also failed with War & peace plus Anna Karenina until I listened to the latter on Audio. Absolutely wonderful & all those long Russian names became clearer & almost endearing.

    I will do the same with War & Peace when have a lot of time to listen.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I loved listening to ‘Anna Karenina’ on audio, but have only read the book version of ‘War and Peace’. One of the pleasures is hearing all those Russian names correctly pronounced – you are often not sure how to say them when you read the book by yourself.

  7. Susan

    I confess that I ditch a book if I encounter the gratuitous killing or injuring of an animal–a dog, for example. I never read those writers again. I feel the same about books where a writer appears to enjoy the physical or psychological pain of a character way too much. I don’t need those pictures in my imagination.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for your comments, Susan. I agree a book is best ditched if it is disturbing. Books should bring pleasure, not pain.

  8. Alexandra Young

    Hi Susannah,
    I once tried reading Proust “Swanns Way” found it quite hard going and have not tried picking it up where I left off years ago.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Hard going is the right description, but a few years ago, before leading a literary tour in Northern France, I decided the time had come to read all of Proust. I was so pleased I did. It was not easy, but it was rewarding, and then to see the places which Proust describes, and to visit the recreation of his room in a Paris museum, were such exciting things to do. So sometimes it really does pay to persevere.

  9. Phil

    Well I must admit I have changed my attitude to this as I’ve got older. I used to be obsessive about finishing, not sure why, just seemed the right thing to do. But now (in 70’s) I’m much more relaxed about it – if not enjoying, I stop. Maybe ‘cos I’m now more aware that time is limited? Or it might be the 100-age suggestion: at 20 you’d have to read 80 pages – by then you might as well finish it. Now only need read 25 pages, a very different commitment.
    As others have said above, it isn’t usually related to liking/not liking the characters, or having to look up words, but more to do with poor writing- bad grammar, over-dramatisation, boring, confusing, etc. My decision is also affected by the ‘standing’ of the book – if considered a classic I’m more likely to persevere.
    I loved ‘Possession’, one of my all time favourites, same for ‘Brief History of Time’ – not that I could explain the physics to anyone afterwards!
    And I will test the suggestion of 100-age next time I’m considering ditching.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I will also start thinking more carefully when I reach page 43, as that is where I’d have to ditch if I follow the 100-age suggestion. I do agree that if you know it is a classic, you should give it more time. Many decades have sorted out that this is a book with something that has made it last, so we should surely give it at least 50 pages?
      So glad you also love ‘Possession’.

  10. Heather Hill

    The Summer Queen (one of a trilogy) by Elizabeth Chadwick, easy but frustrating reading if you do not stop to find the meaning of words unknown to yourself, so many things I needed to look up e.g. “braies” BUT now I know so many ancient words – what a bonus!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      What fun! Can you ever manage to use them in conversation? I long to use some of Georgette Heyer’s fabulous Regency slang in conversation. I think it is alwaays worth oausing in a book to look up a word in the dictionary, or at least making a note to look it up later.

  11. Evelyn Batfay

    One book that took me a good while to get into was “The Book Thief”. It came highly recommended by someone I met on a holiday trip so I persevered through several chapters. I am glad because it turned out to be a book that made a big impact on me. On the other hand, if a book is starting to irritate because of the poor writing, implausible plot lines, inconsistent characterisation or simply because it is just plain boring, then I happily ditch it. Life is simply too short.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I also found ‘The Book Thief’ hard to get into, but am glad I stuck with it. I think we all work out fairly quickly how far we need to go with a book before making that decision to ditch when the writing is really poor quality, but sometimes when it is just a bit challenging, it can be worth sticking with it.

  12. Gabrielle Black

    Librarians use a rule of thumb – subtract your age from 100 and that is the number of pages you should read before you ditch it!
    Of course, the older you get, the less time you have and the fewer pages you need to read!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, reading time is so precious, but I’m not sure if 43 pages is enough for me to feel I’ve given the book a fair chance. I’d have given up on ‘Possession’ if I’d used that rule, and then missed a fantastic book.

    • Susan Horrobin

      Gabrielle, Thankyou for your help at Double Bay Library. It is nice to see your comment here. Cheers, Susan Horrobin

      • Susannah Fullerton

        Gabrielle is my favourite librarian, and I just love the new Double Bay Library!

  13. Patricia Farrar

    I must confess – I’m a ditcher. However it isn’t usually the plot or story-line that makes me ditch but the style. No matter how gripping the plot, if the language makes me cringe then I ditch it. I once tried reading Patricia Cornwell’s book about Jack the Ripper but it was written so appallingly I could not persevere. Caroline Overington’s “The Last Woman Hanged” promised to be a thrilling read but after 10 pages I thought that if I saw another rhetorical question I’d scream. I know this is not great literature but any book that someone has taken the trouble to write and a publisher has spent money to print should meet certain standards. If a book doesn’t meet mine, I ditch it!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, poor writing can distract your attention from the story and get so irritating. I think I also ditch a book when I find that not a single character attracts or interests me. I need to have some rapport with the main character.

  14. Jami Leigh Acworth

    I, like Susannah, find it quite difficult to ditch a book so it doesn’t happen very often. I’ve found a work-around for those ‘must read’ classics though which appears to be working out for me so far. If I come across a book that I want to read but fear that I will find it tedious or that it will take me too long (I am a very slow reader) then I listen to it as an audiobook. This has served me rather well for getting through the likes of Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. I was also very glad that I ‘read’ Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things in this manner as I found the plot extremely tedious but the language beautiful. Currently I’m listening to Dickens’ David Copperfield which is read expertly by the rather dishy Richard Armitage – excellent to visualise when getting through those sometimes dry sections of Dickens that are inevitable.

    Does listening to an audio book count as having ‘read’ a book? I’ve made the decision to include them in my ‘have read’ lists but a small part of me does feel a tad guilty about it like perhaps it is cheating a bit.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Jami, I am so glad you are also a fan of audio books. And YES YES they most definitely count as having read a book, so long as they are unabridged. I totally agree that it is a fabulous way to get to know a more challenging novel. I adored ‘David Copperfield’ read by Martin Jarvis, but Richard Armitage is also an excellent reader. I think my favourite classics on audio are Trollope’s novels read by Timothy West. However, I have been known to ‘ditch’ audio books because I do not like the voice of the reader. It has to be right. So others should follow Jami’s advice – if you are tempted to ditch a book that you do want to have read but are finding hard, then consider trying the audio version.

  15. bechelamer

    I almost stopped reading current bestseller The Birdman’s Wife after the most unpromising opening sentence I have encountered in a while; however, I kept reading and, while I wouldn’t class the book as a literary masterpiece, I did enjoy its interweaving of the events of Australian history and natural science in the nineteenth century. I have given up on Diana Gabaldon despite many friends’ assurances that the books are gripping and “unputdownable”. Nothing gripped me in the first 40 pages except boredom.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Now you’ve really got me curious as to what that first sentence is??? Yes, I also gave up on Diana Gabaldon – strained my credulity too much when the heroine met the Loch Ness monster.

      • bechelamer

        “Stepping down from the carriage into the mad bustle of Bruton Street, it was as if I had entered another world.” Yawn. Also ungrammatical.

  16. Ashley

    I was relieved to hear that you had ditched a book; I ditched “Love, Rosie” by Cecilia Ahern. I was reading the book during deployment, and severely missing my significant other which did not help matters. I started it hopeful, though wary, because while a good letter can enrich a novel (a la Ms. Austen) I find it hard to read novels composed solely of correspondence. As such, my frustration with the book boiled over around page 150 and I calmly strode to the stern of the destroyer and cast it off into the Southern Indian Ocean.
    I have not gone to such extremes, but usually I find giving a book till 1/3 or 1/2 of the way through is a good tell. Sometimes I will check the reviews to see if others comment that the novel builds slowly and is worth the effort, but short of that I don’t waste my time if I cannot get engaged.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Drowning a book!!!! That’s one I’ve not heard before. I have enjoyed a really good laugh (which makes me think I must do a piece in my newsletter on books that make you laugh) over your story. I have not read ‘Love, Rosie’ so cannot comment on that particular book. It sounds like you had better not tackle ‘Clarissa’ by Samuel Richardson, as that is written entirely in letters (the epistolary form) and is one of the longest novels in the English language.
      And now I’m wondering what the fish made of ‘Love, Rosie’??

  17. Jeanette Pluss

    Thank you once again for brightening my day with your “Notes” Susannah. I once read that to see if you will like a book, turn to page 99, if that holds you you will probably like the book!! Or at least the style in which it is writte.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Now that’s an interesting theory. I will give it a try. Thanks for sharing it.

  18. Rosna Storey

    Dear Susannah,
    Like you I hate ditching a book but persevere particularly if it is one that has been chosen for my Book Club group.
    Many years ago I tried to read the The Iliad by Homer and cast it aside. Now that I am older and wiser perhaps I should try to read it again?

    I would like to take this opportunity to once again thank you for your wonderful lectures. They are among the highlights of the year for me. So looking forward to the next series at The Art Gallery.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Thanks for your lovely comments about my lectures. I do so love giving them, so it is great to know that they give pleasure.
      I read ‘The Iliad’ at university and have to admit to not having read it since. The lecturer for that class was probably the poorest lecturer I ever had, which didn’t help. And yet it is such a seminal text – so influential on literature and art. So perhaps that should be a 2017 resolution for us both – read ‘The Iliad’? Or perhaps try and get an audio version of it.

  19. Janice Gentle

    The book i most regret not having read is “War and Peace”. I have seen the 8-hour Russian film version twice, and another very long version, the opera “War and Peace” which was the first opera in the Sydney Opera House. Perhaps my problem was that i was so engrossed in the central love story (as were these various versions) that i didn’t want to be bothered with the war scenes etc. I still have intentions of reading it – several notable writers make a point of reading it every year! Some books i had tried and given up on (including “Middlemarch”) were chosen by our book group and, forced to read it, i did enjoy it. (I think it helped that i had seen a great TV series of it, so i had clear characters to work with.) On the other hand, if i start reading a book i feel of little worth and i ‘don’t like it’, i have no qualms about not finishing it. When i was much younger, i always felt i had to finish a book once started, but then my critical faculties were less. And do you know the 100pp adage? Subtract your age from 100, and that’s the number of pages you should read before abandoning a book: so at 70 one only needs to read 30 pages! And, as one gets older, the less time one has to waste on inferior books.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Hmm, am not sure about the age theory. 30 pages is not a lot to give a book a fair chance. But I guess as we age, we become increasingly aware of how our reading time is running out.
      Do give ‘War and Peace’ another try, in conjunction with the superb BBC adaptation. My sister Rachel recently read it and was certain she only got through it because of the recent, sexy adaptation with Lily James and James Norton, so perhaps you could try that much shorter film version. I have never seen the opera of it and would love to. Actually where I do want to ‘ditch”War and Peace’ is at the end when Tolstoy starts on that lengthy essay about history and philosophy and goes on for ever – it is almost enough to ruin the book. He could have learned form Jane Austen how to end a novel brilliantly!

  20. Malvina Yock

    Thanks for this, Susannah. I think most people have been defeated by at least one book in their lives… Mine is Tolstoy’s War & Peace, started about ten times, defeated after about 100 pages each time – I found the Russian names difficult. However I recently read Anna Karenina, so at some stage I’m going to give W&P another go. Many people mention Melville’s Moby Dick – the endless pages describing whales are a stumbling block – but I found listening to the audio book was the way to enjoy this classic. If I accidentally drifted in concentration during the lists of whales it didn’t really matter, and I made it through to the thrilling end!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Malvina, have you watched the 1972 BBC adaptation of ‘War and Peace’? I think that might help you get into the book, as it gives you faces to go with those Russian names. But you are right that there are some books that are just never going to grab you. G.B. Shaw said life was just too short to tackle Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ and he lived into his 90s!

    • Yes, I wanted to read the Odyssey and it would make me so drowsy. I was able to find a mp3 of Sir Ian McKellen reading it and it was wonderful. Audible books can work so well. I enjoy them.

      • Susannah Fullerton

        I agree that audio books are fabulous. In fact I consider them one of life’s great joys. I must try the Ian McKellen version of ‘The Odyssey’.

  21. sheila joss

    Ditch every time! I don’t think the Hawking Test is a fair one. Its not a book designed IMO for reading beginning to end but more of a reference, to be consulted at need. There are parts of it i have never read and parts of it that I have read and re read. I agree with Boswell, like friends, there are books for a reason and books for a season as well as books for life. I don’t think for me, the “ditch or not” decision is about how hard or easy a book is but about whether or not it speaks to me at the time I am reading it. A book which doesn’t speak to me now, might well do next month or next year….and I am more likely to ditch the “easy reads” than something that requires more focus. I was loaned The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy by a friend and, despite an effort for friendship’s sake, I had to put it down for my own sanity. oh and my ditches don’t gather dust….they go out into the world to find the person they are right for.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I agree about the Hawking book – far more of a reference book than one you should try to read in a few sittings. I do like the way you summed it up about books speaking to you at the right time. Sometimes you are simply not ready for a particular book. However, there are books that perhaps you do need to persevere with just to get over a hump at the beginning. I know so many people who gave up on Byatt’s marvellous novel ‘Possession’ because the beginning is quite a challenge. And that is a pity, because it is so very good once you get properly into it.
      I loved the Dragon Tattoo series and was gripped from start to finish (except in the middle book which did drag slightly), so it was clearly the right book for me at the right time. Every book will find its readers, if it is well written, and what one person loves, another detests. Thanks for sharing your experiencing of ‘ditching’ books.

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