Reading to the Bitter End

by limebirdkate

I find when I pick up a book and start reading it, that 99.9% of the time I have to finish it. Even if I’m not enjoying the story. Even if the protagonist irks me. Under those circumstances, though, I don’t read it word-for-word. I tend to skim the text. I’ll breeze right through the lousy setting or the overdone description and try to get the general gist of the story from chapter to chapter.

I am a fairly good skimmer. I skimmed a lot in school. I know how to read the topic sentences and pick out key words and draw out the main ideas.

Skimming has been my reading salvation since having kids. My reading-for-pleasure time  has been cut to 2 hours a day. If that. And I’m lucky if I can get through a page without some sort of interruption.

This is why my choice of reading material is crucial. The boring, poorly written books don’t stand a chance under such strenuous, demanding conditions. My attention span is stretched plastic wrap-thin these days, and only the stellar books will get read word-for-word.

But still, I can rarely bear to leave even a terrible book unfinished to the point where I don’t at least know who the killer is, or whether the protag is really a cyborg, or who gets Bella—sexy vampire or studly werewolf.

I have this insatiable need to know. I suppose this is why I’m a writer to begin with because I’m constantly asking questions, the why’s and the how’s and the what if’s. Starting a book and then closing it, never to know the story arc and how it all ends is like eating half an ice cream sundae. You don’t feel satisfied.

But having said all of that, there is one book out there that I started and could never finish. I picked it up on several different occasions thinking, ‘Okay, I’m going to read this thing all the way through—even if it kills me!’ Well, guess what? I couldn’t.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt.

I wanted to read it because I visited Savannah, GA and absolutely fell in love with the city. This book was recommended to me because supposedly the author had perfectly captured the essence of the city and all its folk.

Well, I couldn’t get into it. That book remains my one and only book that I started and never, ever finished. Sometimes I tell myself I will try it one more time.

Then I remember that life is too short.

Do you always finish books you read, no matter how awful they are? Which ones were especially painful to get through?


75 Responses to “Reading to the Bitter End”

  1. Love this post Kate! I think I’ve mentioned to you before that mine is definitely the Stieg Larsson triology. I just couldn’t get into them at all, I didn’t understand the hype! I’m the same as you though, I desperately try to finish books if I can, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen! x

    • Ah, yes, good one. I did read the first book of that trilogy and have no interest in reading the others. I didn’t understand the hype either, but a lot of that financial info went over my head and is not what I find interesting to read anyhow.

  2. On my own blog I wrote a post last September about knowing when to cut our losses, and I mentioned about how hard it can be to stop reading a book once we’ve started – I think for me it’s because time is so precious, I don’t want to think that I might have wasted a lot of time reading a book that I then give up on, so I soldier on through with it. Or maybe it’s the optimist in me that keeps thinking it will suddenly get really good. I have a couple of books on my shelves that I gave up on, but they always bug me, every so often I think to myself that I must go back and finish them some time. One person commented on my post that he somehow feels like the characters in the book won’t be able to finish out their lives if he stops reading! Obviously logic tells him otherwise, but he can’t avoid the feeling.

    • Yes, there is that feeling of having invested time in it, so you don’t want to waste all of that. Sometimes I feel like I just need to know what happened at the end so that I can put some closure to it. I love the idea that if we don’t finish, the characters remain stagnant–I guess that is a more creative way of describing why we keep trying to muddle through a bad book.

  3. haha, very true. I find I am the same. And yes it’s true. There’s just something about us writers who want to know everything and that’s why we can’t bare to put down even the most dull of books.

    • We writeres do want to know everything, absolutely. We hate being left in the dark. We’re insatiably curious, but we might even be a bit hard to please. Being writers, we look at book differently than non-writers. That may or may not put us at a disadvantage?

  4. I found this really interesting because I have got to the stage in my life where I really will stop reading a book if I’m not enjoying. The main reason for this is that I find that I start avoiding the book and do other things instead of reading. As I adore reading, this is not good for me; as soon as I make the decision to dump the book and read something which I enjoy, I start reading again. I don’t like dumping someone’s book but I really haven’t got a choice as it becomes like a bad smell sitting by my bed.

    • Hi Loony,

      haha, I love that–a bad smell. That’s very true. It just stares at you, doesn’t it, waiting for you to pick it back up again. These days spending too much time reading a book I don’t like doesn’t seem productive. I have far too many thngs to do, and I’ll go and scrub the bathroom over reading a bad book. The time to waste just isn’t there.

      • Yes, I do think that not having time to waste is a major factor in not finishing a bad book. In fact, it is the same when I go to the theatre to watch a live play – if it’s bad, I am so annoyed that I could have been doing something productive instead, that it can make me feel quite stressed.

      • Live theater, movies, you name it–anything that isn’t worth my time will make me very annoyed afterward. It’s a sad feeling when you start thinking you could be weeding the garden instead!

  5. Fiction is easier for me to finish than nonfiction. I have a list of nonfiction books on interesting topics, but I always seem to get distracted, but when there is a plot, even a mediocre one, I (like you) have to know what happens (even when it’s predictable, I have to be sure) so I usually finish most fiction I start.

    That said, it’s been three years and I still haven’t finished Anna Karenina…I’m more than halfway through, and it’s probably been about 8 months since I opened it…it’s shameful that I can’t seem to finish this classic, but yet I’ve finished (and sometimes regretted reading) all sorts of other novels including Fifty Shades of Grey (still wishing for my time and brain cells back).

    • Hey buddhaful!
      Oh yeah, nonfiction can be tough for me too. I really have to want to know the story before I start reading a whole nonfiction book.

      Yes, I have not been able to sit and read Anna Karenina either. I take one look at how thick it is and I know that i need to be committed for the long haul. Not that I mind long books–I actually love long books, but classics? I have to be in the right frame of mind where I don’t expect a lot to happen in a short number of pages. And my reading time is so fragmented, 15 minutes here, 10 minutes there. I don’t think that kind of reading time is conducive to digesting a classic novel.

  6. Skimmers, we have that in common Kate. I have also done this since a young girl.

    Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I love this story, saw it twice on TV. My husband and I visited Savannah years ago; we walked the streets soaking in the history. Like you, we fell in love with the city.

    Blessings – Maxi

    • So, you recommend the book? Okay, that’s good to know. Maybe if enough people say I need to try it again, I will. 😉 Savannah is a lovely city, isn’t it? I would always go back there for a visit.

  7. “at my age” (I hate that term) I feel too invested in the time I have to waste it on a book I don’t like. Oddly, the first time I picked up Garden I didn’t like it and couldn’t get into it. Later I visited the city and decided to look at the book again. Loved it that time.

    • Hi Terri,
      Absolutely, time is too precious to be wasting it on bad books. So, you’re the second person to say you loved Garden. This is good for me, because I want to love it, having been to Savannah and loving my trip. Thanks for commenting.

  8. It took four tries to get through “Sword of Shanara” by Terry Brooks. The first 110 pages were BORING. Even the author admitted he was not happy with the beginning. Finally, I started reading at page 200 and finished the 700+ page monster. There have also been a few non-fiction books that I haven’t finished. Mostly due to information overload.

    • Hi Dennis, I am not familiar with Brooks, but how interesting that even the author said he didn’t like the beginning. That’s too bad he has to live with that. Information overload is a big reason why non-fiction books don’t work for me either. That and lack of a connection to the reader, for instance ‘why do I care about this story?’

  9. Interesting post, Kate.

    I find it’s not just boring books I can no longer tolerate, but even quick potty-reads (that’s what my husband calls them), like comic books, that don’t satisfy my story craving.

    A lot of authors feel like they’re expecting readers to skim. Or, they’re just skimming through the story, themselves! That’s the worst offense I’ve ever read, and it happens with one of my favorite authors: Tom Clancy. He packs so much research into his books, and it might be interesting if I were researching the same topic, but get on with the story, already! (To answer your second question, I should never have even bothered picking up Patriot Games.)

    I never feel bad about dropping a book halfway (or less) through, though. My time is too precious to waste on something that can’t keep my interest. By the way, I don’t mean to imply here that my choices are worth more than anyone else’s choice. I’m speaking specifically for stories that don’t interest me. Like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil might be for you, it’s just personal preference.

    It’s okay to try and read a book again, if you gave up on it once. But how many times do you really want to give something a chance?

    • Hi Mayumi,
      I could never get into Clancy, for the reason you say–way too much factual information that I can’t even understand. Time is too precious, and we can’t spend it on wasteful products. I try to be extra picky with the books I select so that I don’t have to worry about forcing myself through the book. And you’re right, how many times do I want to give it a chance when there are soooo many great books out there that I haven’t read yet.

  10. I used to have a policy that I would finish every book I start. Then a judge of a writing contest I entered recommended we should read widely. ie stuff we wouldn’t normally seek out, different genres etc. I tried. I’m still trying but sometimes, but not always, I find myself watching the hand loops hanging from the train’s ceiling swaying from side to side because it’s more exciting than the frickin’ book.
    Then I chuck it. Exactly as you say, life’s too short.

    • Writers should read widely, agreed, but when we read something terrible it certainly isn’t going to help me with my writing endeavors. Well, it’ll help show me what not to do. 😉 Still, it’s a lot of reading time and I’d rather enjoy myself when I’m reading a book.

  11. I once had a completion complex and would forge on to the last page on some pretty dreadful stuff. No more. Life is too short and those good books aren’t gonna read themselves!

    • Completion complex–haha, that’s clever. That must be my problem. And I want to read the stuff out there that I know I’ll love because I don’t have that much time to read, period. Gone are the school days when I had to read a book I didn’t like, right?

  12. Kate,
    I liked this post…so true! When I don’t enjoy a book as much as I would like I start reading faster…I can’t wait to get through it, but I usually don’t quit.
    I’ve never been able to read Faulkner…I haven’t tried recently, but maybe I should try again…
    The only other book I never finished was “Bleak House”. I had to read it in college and had to buy the crib notes (the only time I EVER did that). I could have been bogged down in that all semester…

    • I think a read a bit of Faulkner in school, but nothing that I have picked up willingly. He is one of those authors that I would like to read on my own, though, without dissecting it the way they do in school. Bleak House. Don’t know that one, but it seems to me there was movie called Bleak House. Would that be based on the book?

  13. Kate, I used to be like you… seeing every book through to its bitter end. But no more. Life is way too short. When I can’t get through one, I simply put it down, no guilt. There are so many awesome books that I haven’t read yet that I don’t want to shortchange myself!

    My daughter’s name is Savannah (we love the town, too). And I really liked Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil! But I think that’s the thing about which books we all like… there is no rhyme or reason. It’s all so subjective.

    I hope you find lots of good books and don’t have to weed through too many bad ones. ; )

    • Another vote for Garden! This is good. I’m thinking I need to give it another try. Especially now that it’s been so many years since I did read it. I feel like I might be a different reader now, a little more patient. So, who knows. But yes, this is true, what one person loves in a book isn’t necessarily the case with everyone.

      Right on, no more bad books!

  14. Good discussion topic here, Kate. Two books came to mind as I read your post.

    1) The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. If the word ‘detective’ is in the title one assumes there will be some mystery; there will be a body; there will be some-thing going on. The title tends to lie to the reader. I made it through the first 40 pages and while the narrative was lovely, there was nothing going on to keep me. I left.

    2) Julie and Julia by Julie Powell. Read to page 68 and was so worn out by the brassy, sassy New York babble I just had to give the book back to the friend who loaned it to me.

    • Yes, I would assume as you did that there would be a body or some sort of a mystery going on there. How strange!

      Julie and Julia–that one is about Julia Childs, correct? When the protag decides to cook a meal of Julia’s everyday for a year? I saw the movie. I didn’t pick up on brassy, sassy NY babble in the movie (assuming this is the one based on that book). Maybe you’ll like the movie better? 🙂

  15. I’ll finish just about every book I start,even if it’s bad, because it then becomes an exercise in editing. Even the worst book can at least teach us writers what to avoid, and it’s often easier to tear apart someone else’s work than our own. You do it enough, it becomes harder to ignore the problems in your own writing.

    Seems like a win to me.

    (The only two books I’ve never finished are Don Quixote and Dhalgren. Don Quixote I might give another chance… Dhalgren, no.)

    • Good point, and that’s something I unconsciously do when I’m reading a bad book (or, even a good book with a poor passage or something). I will tell myself what the author should have done instead, yada yada yada. It is much easier to tear apart someone else’s work, that’s for sure!

      I have never read the two books you mention, although I have heard similar sentiments regarding Dhalgren.

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • Wow. I respect that. I couldn’t do it though. Not without being able to correct things.
      But what if the entire story… The premise… The characters… Is just just BAD?

      • I rarely find myself in that situation. But sometimes it’s worth reading something bad, (esp. if it’s popular), just so you know what other people are talking about, and can discuss the work intelligently.

        At least, that’s what I told myself when I slogged through Twilight.

      • Oh yes, I slogged thru Twilight, also. Why, praytell, did that story need 4 books???

  16. It has taken me over a year to get through Mists of Avalon. I love the story, the characters, the writer… I just find it painful to get through for some reason. I’ve read two or three other books along side of it for entertainment even! I’m almost finished with it though… 100 pages or so left. Maybe by Christmas… 😉

    • Hi Eliza,

      Well you are a good sport to not give up. It’ll be interesting to hear how you think of it when you’re done, and whether you feel like it was time well spent. More than likely you are getting something valuable out of it that you aren’t aware of, and perhaps that is why you keep at it. Good luck finishing it! 🙂

  17. I don’t have a problem not finishing a book. Actually, there’s a book by my favorite author that I have picked up and tried to read three times and still can’t get past more than a couple of chapters. I tell myself often to just push through it and finish it…it might be great after all… but I’m going to need a GREAT deal of patience first.

    • I think that’s the hardest–when you can’t get through a book by your favorite author. Gosh, it’s not King, is it??? 😉 I know what you mean about patience. If I told myself to sit for 30 minutes every day and just get through the book, I might. But I’d need a stiff drink by my side.

      • I don’t think I’ve met a King book I’ve never finished… You know, I may have to take back my statement…I could see laboring through a King novel to the bitter end even if I wasn’t particularly fond of it.

      • A true fan. I’m sure he’d love to meet you one day. 🙂

  18. I have to say tha I tend to leave books and get back to them a few months down the line. I do, however, can’t put down Marian Keyes’s books!

    • Hi Juliette, Leaving them and coming back is a good option. Sometimes I have to be in a certain mood for books that I’m not used to reading. Like a lot of peace and quiet for sci fi because I need to focus on all the quirky time shifts. Maybe I just haven’t been in the mood for this particular one.

  19. Well I made it through Twilight, which I’m fascinated by, but I just couldn’t stomach another word of that last Fifty Shades book. I just about managed the first two without hurling myself off a cliff, but not that last one.
    My Kindle still has scuff marks from hitting the wall. -_-

    • Hi Ileandra,

      I have not read the 50 Shades book, but I’m hearing from everyone around me that I must read it! I dunno, I’d read it as an experiment, which is what I did with the Twilight books, but if it’s the same thing over and over, then I’d be bored by it.

      I’m proud of you for trying it though. Now you know what you’ve got to do to top it! 😉

  20. I always finish a book! Even this one particular series that was riddled with errors. Like you, I just had to know. I must confess though, I hated Moby Dick and never finished it. Don’t judge me. All the skimming in the world couldn’t salvage that story for me. Haha.

    • Hi Journey, that might be the worst, when there are errors in the book. That’s okay, I never even picked up Moby Dick. 🙂 Thanks for commenting.

  21. I’ll usually always finish a book–even a bad one. I finished Moby Dick for goodness sake, but suffered greatly from extreme boredom. His writing was amazing, but the topic of whaling for 300 pages in the middle was like wading through quick sand–or slow sand, because I read that part pretty slow. There have been about 3 books I haven’t finished in my lifetime. One just was so offensive with the subject that I couldn’t stomach it any more. One was too preachy and made me want to gag, and one was so boring that I wanted to kill the characters off myself just to see some action.

    • Hi Char,
      You know what, I have never read Moby Dick! I somehow got out of that requirement in school, because there were other students reading it. Oh well. Right, I’m with you: Offensive books I have to draw the line. Boring ones, I must say, I do give them as many chances as possible, just to see what happens at the end.

  22. I read several of the classics in high school and can’t remember a single one of them (must have skimmed a lot). I never feel bad about tossing a book that isn’t interesting to me. There are so many good books out there to read, I want the good ones! They teach me more about writing than anything else I can think of.
    I’ll read several chapters into the book, I’ll give it a good chance. If I still can’t identify with it, out it goes.

    • Me too. I can’t really remember any of the classics I read either.

      Yes, I want to read ones that will make a difference to me too and the bad ones just don’t cut it. I agree that reading helps with writing, and while the bad ones can show you what not to do, seems like a waste of time to do it that way.

  23. I used to force myself to finish books even if I didn’t like them, but then I started reading much slower for some reason & decided that I didn’t have time to waste reading books I didn’t like when there is so much I want to read! With the notable exception of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series, which I didn’t like until the last hundred or so pages of each book. Every time I started a new one was really depressing because I only ever got into them right at the end!

    I do tend to keep reading past the point where I’m bored of them though, just incase they get better! It would really annoy me to give up on a book & then be told that the second half is pure genius if only I’d stuck it out that long!

    • haha, yes, that’s how I feel too–I would hate to hear a bad book is really great and I should have stuck with it. That’s the main reason I read the Twilight series, because of the hype. And although I thought it was overly long and drawn out and repetitive I stuck through the darn things because I needed to know what everyone else was raving about!

      I was left disappointed.

      Seems to be the majority opinion–that we all don’t have time to waste with bad books, so we tend to drop the book in favor for something better.

  24. I, too, have a very difficult time not finishing a book, even if I don’t like it. Like you, I’ll end up skimming. That being said, the last couple Patricia Cornwell books I haven’t been able to finish. And I used to love her books. Something’s changed with her writing, and I just haven’t made it through, which makes me sad because I love forensic thrillers.

    • Hi Carrie, I love Cornwell too, not only for the thriller part but also because I love the character of Kay Scarpetta. But you’re right, I noticed a change too and I wonder if it has to do with writing to a deadline. I found the same thing happening with John Grisham–I used to love his books but then I thought his writing became sub-par. I wondered then if it was because he had to spin out a book every year or less?

      • That’s probably true. It just seems with Cornwell, the books have become all technical with little logical plot. And the characters always seem to be in angst. Conflict is good. Angst is good. But sometimes a little relief is needed.

      • Yes! Exactly, you hit the nail on the head. I wonder why her books lean more toward the techie talk, when you’d think writing the plot and engaging characters in variety would be much more fun to write.

  25. You’re not alone in your need to finish a book even if you don’t like it that much, I have a lot of friends who feel the same way. But I’ve never had a problem tossing a book against the wall if it doesn’t grab me after 3 chapters (or less). Like you said, time is precious, and with so many demands on my attention, I try to choose my books carefully =)

    • That’s how it will have to be for me, as well. Life is such that I can’t be spending it with a terrible book. I might still have to read the end just to know, but I’m sure the middle will ultimately be skipped if I’m not interested enough.

  26. I’ll give it my best shot, but sometimes I just can’t finish one. It doesn’t mean the book is bad or something’s wrong with my tastes. Like people, we just didn’t click. In those cases, I just move on to the next one.

    • Umm, excuse me Ms. Mcdowell, but aren’t you supposed to be on vacation??? 🙂

      I like your point, that it could be a benign issue and not necessarily a bad book or impatient reading style. Maybe we just didn’t click, and we need to move on. I am pretty picky because I look for a lot of areas to hold my attention. I’m rarely satisfied with only great characters, or only a great plot, or only wonderful writing. I like a combination of great elements.

      But I should know enough about what I expect in a book to decide sooner rather than later if this book and I are a good match.

      Thanks for taking a break from your vacation to comment. 😉

  27. One of my blogger friends wrote this in a post: “I won’t read books that are not captivating. I won’t hesitate to stop halfway through. A book is not a commitment; it is entertainment.” I used the quote for one of my “Writing Quotes for the Week” because I thought it was good for writers to hear. It’s good for readers to hear, too.

    I don’t usually start a book unless I know a lot about it. The bigger problem I have is putting a book down!

    Book I couldn’t finish: The Help was one. I tried to read the first chapter and was done with it. It bugged me a bit because it seemed like the maid’s black dialect wasn’t consistent. I was seeing full, grammatically correct sentences within the “I done” and “She be” sentences, which clashed. I don’t think she would have spoken that way. So, it was a turn off. I may give it another chance now that I’m trying to read more novels. Did you read it?

    • That is a super quote. Definitely one to remember. Interesting though from the writer’s point of view, how much of a commitment that book might be to them.

      I did not read The Help. I saw the movie. I have heard some interesting backlash about the book, some of which had to do with historical accuracy, or inaccuracy, I guess.

      I can understand your disappointment with the dialect. I would be turned off by that too. And seeing as how the story is centered around cultural and class differences, then I think that’s an area that should have been tightened.

      Admittedly it is a book I’m curious to read because as I understand it, the author braved multiple rejections before she landed an agent. Actually, let me rephrase, I’m curious about her query process and whether she revised between query rejections, or simply stayed with that one final draft — if that’s the same version that got all of those rejections.

      Thanks for swinging by. 🙂

  28. No! I refuse! There is no way that I will spend my precious, limited time doing something I’m not enjoying… By CHOICE. NO way. If I’m not into it in about 3 pages, it’s not going to happen. If someone tells me it’s really good, I may give it more of a go. If I get to page 10, and I am not loving it, or at least softening toward it, I won’t bother. I call it quits. There are far too many great books out there to waste time reading a bad one. My GF, on the other hand, will give a not-so-good book a really looooong go. It amazes me. And we each react the same way to movies and tv shows. She’ll keep watching, but after 5 or 10 minutes, I tap out. Lol.

    • More and more, after reading all of these comments, I am feeling the same way as you. It’s not wroth wasting time on terrible books. It’s funny how we all have different thresholds, isn’t it. Thanks for commenting!

  29. Interesting! I couldn’t finish that book either…You have a wonderful blog!


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