The Art of Giving Up on Books

by Carl Foster
published in Reading

The art of giving up on books is something I have practiced in short seasons for two years now. I never would have done it before, because books are sacred and I had convictions about finishing each one before I moved on. Practical reasons compelled me to betray those convictions. And I think you should too.

When you give up on a book, it does not mean the author is talent-less or you are lazy. When you give up on a book, you discover what makes you read, and articulate your definition of how a good novel works.

Realize You Can’t Read Everything

While picking out books for my high school English classes, I realized that my range of literary interests was not as diverse as my classes were sure to be. My own library is almost entirely Russian Lit and Postmodern anti-narratives. I thought of the girls at that moment, of the football players, and of all the other races of the world outside my individual self: So many different viewpoints and predilections for me to encourage with books. My library paled before my eyes with its thousands of jabbering ideas and tales of serfdom. These young people  have no idea what a patronymic is, and they would be baffled if I made them read the broken English of the Beat Generation and then counted them off for using the same style on their papers.

It became imperative to acquire a broader collection of books: eternal books I believed to be thorough, relentless genius. If I founda book that I cannot put down, that I though about any time I was not reading it, that was the book I want to put in the hands of a teenage student who realistically, may or may not ever touch a book again based on the content of my English class.

Develop A System to Decide

When I got a book, I would examine it. Flip through the middle, look for a few snippets of dialogue to catch up to, see what the chapter system was all about. Then I would begin, hearing them out for a few days. Like a Hollywood executive I might tell the book, “Thank you, I think we have what we need,” unless I was too dazzled to interrupt. My library account became a bloated bibliography of short-term borrowing.

Instead of keeping my place with a bookmark, I started underlining the page number where I left off (if I owned the book). This strategy has made me aware of another aspect of how I am reading: Am I cresting only one page a day? Am I taking on huge sections at a time?

The idea is to get in touch with yourself, after all.

If the first fifty pages has thirty lines where I stopped reading, that tells me this particular book is not keeping me in my reading chair at night. To judge this way sounds harsh, but there are too many millions of good books. You are not excommunicating them forever, just looking for ones that accomplish the most without letting up from beginning to end.

Of course the payoff of being picky with novels has great value for writers. When we are passionate about books we dig into them. We return to them because we cannot help ourselves. We walk around with a stifled passion to talk about this book we think somebody else should read.

In the end, it can guide our creative interests.

Don’t Feel Guilty

Writers may feel reluctant to reject an author’s work for several reasons. Writers tend to be respectful of other writers, simply because they know it could be them on the stage. I might try to like a book like Finnegan’s Wake because of the intense effort that went into writing it. Meanwhile I find it difficult to read more than two pages from the book each week.

Then there are the confusing plots and elusive themes: These challenges sometimes keep us reading long after our passion has cooled, just because we really want to know what the author is trying to tell us.

Pliny the Elder said, “There is no book so bad that there is not some good in it.” Wise words from thousands of years ago, when there were fewer books, fewer means to write them, and if you had written one you were likely to have very important ideas. Nowadays the literary world is too vast to contemplate. Patiently waiting to be amazed does not serve the aspiring writer or teacher. Especially if you are at home, because no one is watching to see if you set down one book and pick up another one.

There are a million wonderful, life-changing novels out there; as readers we are granted one lifetime in vast library composed of only those books we happen across; and while “powering through” a book can provide us with experiences we might call “challenging” or “rewarding,” the fact is that if the first 100 pages are not highly engaging then the book is flawed. For you. And that is fine.

It could be your mood; that this book is not right for this moment in your life. Whatever the reason, leave it. The important thing is to hone your sense of continuous enjoyment. To extend your pleasure. Sustain the literary jamboree.

Also, to allow you to enjoy a novel for a greater portion of your life. Each one is like going to a place you like, and once you have gone you can come back anytime you like. So many novels I clutch in my hand and think, “If only I had gotten to this one sooner!” Memories of it could have run further and further back into my past.

The Reward of Reading With Purpose

One has to wonder, if we are reading books that don’t provide a long ride of unflagging interest for us, what might that do to our concept of a book? If a canonized book can get away with being tedious at times, or incomprehensible to the modern reader, it may lower a person’s standards for their experience of reading. He or she enters a spiral of middling books and mild interest that varies only slightly.

I stress that books like these are not bad books. That any book is a bold work of self-expression, and “rewarding” and “challenging” they are indeed. But when Stanley Kubrick was looking for his next screenplay, he would take a box of novels into his office, read one for thirty or forty minutes–then blap, throw the book against the wall.

Movies cost millions of dollars to make. Kubrick didn’t want one with any essential parts, such as the beginning, that he found boring. Imagine the moment he said, “A Clockwork Orange, eh? OK, let’s have it.” And in a foul mood of prolonged critical thinking, with books scattered all over the floor, he realized he was not going to put it down, and this was something he had to share.

image201302270003Carl Foster lives in a national park on the west coast, and his work has appeared in The Oxford American Journal, The Barnes and Noble Review, and Frostwriting. He has made less than $1000 from writing in the past year, but of all his income he is proudest of that small amount: The exchange rate of U.S. dollars to his ideas is coming close to that of the Azerbaijani manat. He can be reached at

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