Unfinished Business?

Although I was kind of a goody-two-shoes teenager (and by “kind of” I mean very) I promise there are rules I break. I drive five miles above the speed limit a lot of the time. I swear. Sometimes I even pay the Verizon bill a couple of days late (living on the edge, that’s me). But I am a book finisher.

And by that I mean I’ve finished nearly every book I’ve started in my entire life. Really. I can actually name every book I’ve started and not finished in my lifetime, and there aren’t more than ten. I know what you’re thinking: a) I bet that’s an excellent quality in a book reviewer and b) you clearly waste some serious time reading entire books you hate. You’d be right on both counts. I’ve never failed to finish a review book I started, never said “this isn’t for me…does someone else want it?” If it isn’t for me, I finish, review it, and tell you why it wasn’t for me. But yes, I’ve read more than my share of godawful books.

I recently finished one of them, and it got me thinking about why I must finish books. The book in question was the critically acclaimed Cutting for Stoneby Abraham Verghese. It’s a poignant tale of two twin brothers of Indian and English ancestry who grow up in Ethiopia. I hated it. Hated nearly all the main characters, hated the graphic violence, hated the plot. And I especially hated the protagonist’s “love interest” – a piece of work from start to finish who taunts him, pees on him, causes him to leave the country, and then gives him near-fatal hepatitis. It’s the type of smug, dreary work that reminds me why I love romance novels. But I never considered not finishing it. I was reading it for book club, and by God, I was going to get through that thing if it killed me (so I could tell everyone in my book club how much I hated it).

Maybe it’s the same left-brain tendency that drives me to maintain a meticulously organized sock drawer. Maybe I’m afraid the book police will pop by and haul me in for questioning. Mostly, I think I just need the closure I get from finishing what I start. And very few books have prompted the “life’s too short for this” response – even some who probably deserved it.

You may wonder, with all the clunkers I’ve read over the years, what didn’t I finish? Well, for years (like, until I was thirty), the only book I hadn’t finished was Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle. I started it when I was eight or nine, and was just bored to tears. I chalked it up to a basic lack of interest in animal stories. My kindergarten teacher used to read these bland, boring tales about woodchucks, mice, and squirrels. All the other kids sat on their mats, apparently riveted by all the “action”. I’d just sit there and think, “Why can’t she read something interesting?” I tried The Mouse and the Motorcycle because I liked everything else I’d read by Beverly Cleary. But it made me think of Miss Metcalf and her boring squirrel books. So I never did find out what happened to that mouse (and by the way, I don’t care).

I also confess to reading only a third of Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man by Fannie Flagg. It gave me that same sort of feeling of terminal boredom. This was a book club book as well, and though I didn’t hate it, I just couldn’t summon up enough energy to care about the plot or the characters. I liked Fried Green Tomatoes, but Daisy Fay was a dud.

I also bowed out of – and this was a shocker for me, as many consider it a classic – The Three Musketeers. I think I managed to get about a quarter of the way through before I had to face it: This was a book about grown men who acted like eight year olds. Why people have been reading it since 1844 is beyond me. I had no problem deciding I would not be one of those people.

But by and large, book after book, I finish them. Whether I race through, slog through, or force myself through. I write them down in my journal, proudly mark them as “read” on Goodreads, and (sometimes) tell people what I thought. What about you? Do you have to finish what you start? Or is life just too short for that?

- Blythe Barnhill

28 thoughts on “Unfinished Business?

  1. I usually finish most books I start reading. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or not. Last year I said that I wouldn’t continue reading a book if I didn’t like it after the first 100 pages. This year I’ve read more than 100 books and I only gave up on one of them…

  2. Hey – I’m about to not finish a book club book too. Sarah’s Key – I can see all the big suprises coming and I’m having a tough time with the subject matter. I’m really okay not finishing books…there are too many good ones out there right now to spend my precious reading time with one that I’m not loving!

  3. Basically I am a very fast reader, so about 98% of the time, I finish what I start. However, now that I am in my 60′s, I have a formula – 100 pages in if I feel like I just cannot go on, I read the epilogue or the last chapter. If what I find there intrigues me, I finish the book. Weird, I know, but I have had occasion to be thankful that I did!

  4. Of books that I started, I have not finished exactly 2 – A Room with a View (literally got to the penultimate page and stopped because I hated it so much) and some other “great work” whose title escapes me now. It was terrible about 3 pages in. lol

  5. One summer, while I was in college, I got ambitious and started reading “War and Peace”. I was halfway through it, when PBS aired a BBC mini-series of the novel (featuring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre!). After I watched the series, I decided there was no point in finishing the book since I knew the outcome!

  6. I used to be a “finish regardless” type of reader, but the older I get the less patience I have. My reading time is precious; I will not waste it on disagreable books. I’ll start a book and if by chapter 3 I don’t like it, I’ll read the last 10 pages to see how it resolves. If I’m intrigued, I’ll sometimes skim just to find out what’s going on. If not, it’s off to the next book for me. As for book clubs, with old age comes some priviledges: I get to tell ‘em the book sucked and I didn’t waste any more time on it!

  7. Nah. I’m only generous enough to give a book until page 30. If it hasn’t grabbed me by that point, I toss it and pick up another. This routine may be repeated two or three times before I find one to finish. And, if the writing style is bad or it’s been so poorly edited I want to find a red pen, I don’t give it the usual thirty pages.

  8. Nope, not anymore—and not for a long time, either. At the beginning of reading romance, I felt I needed to finish every book I picked up and I don’t know exactly why. Maybe I thought there were only an infinite number of romances out there and I didn’t want to run out. LOL. I have no magic number of pages to read before I quit or any similar formula. I know the point that a book becomes senseless or silly or any of that and then it becomes a DNF. I have no regrets and don’t go back to try again. I trust my gut. That doesn’t mean I’m always right and that the story may get interesting later—it’s just that I don’t second guess anymore and move on.

  9. I have put 16 book on my DNF shelf over on Goodreads in the past three or so years. I only put books on that list that I’ve given an honest effort, books I get a decent way into. If I just read a few pages or a chapter or two, I don’t add it to the list, I just return it to the library or give it away.

    I have no idea how many books I’ve not finished in my lifetime, but it’s been plenty. I tried both Tom Jones and Don Quixote without success, to name a couple of classics. And I’ve started plenty of decent books that just didn’t suit my mood at the time so I stopped. Some I go on to pick up again at a later date and finish, others I never bother with. Just because I don’t finish a book doesn’t mean it’s not a decent book or that I don’t think others will enjoy it. Often, it just doesn’t grab my interest fast enough, or I realize I’m not in the mood for a angsty book, or I can’t stand another humorous contemporary right then.

    Some books, however, I finish even though I hate them simply because I want to write a review of them, and I won’t write a review of a book I finished. When my snarky mood hits and I want to trash a book, I generally finish it, even if I only skim the last half. ;-)

  10. Oh–I am so closer to bungluna in reading habits. I am easily attracted to books that get good reviews(Oooo, shiny!). If it sounds interesting, I’ll borrow it from the library. Alas! about 50% of the time, the reality (for me) doesn’t match the review. So I skim, I flip through, I send it back. With No Guilt What So Ever!! But then there have been books that I’ve started reading, liked well enough, put down to pick up something shinier, and just never picked back up! Somewhere along the line I lost interest in that book and was never driven to finish it. And that doesn’t bother me either, because there are ALWAYS more books!
    And even with all the browsing and not finishing, I still manage to read(start to finish) about 150-175 books a year.

  11. Interesting responses. i probably should have added that among my less-than-ten DNFs are two that I abandoned, intended to get back to, and didn’t. And it wasn’t that the books were terrible, I just needed to read something else and they fell by the wayside. One was Snow Falling on the Cedars, and the other was The Robe. Book club books both.

  12. Yes, pretty much. If I’m really bored with it, I start skimming, but I’ll finish it. I can count the number of books I haven’t finshed either, and I think it’s around 5. And I feel so guilty, I have to put them away, sell them or give away just so it isn’t in my sight. I know…I’m strange and weird. I live with it.

  13. I finish 99.9+% of the fiction I start to read. One in a thousand or fewer books don’t work for me at a level sufficient for me to not finish them. Part of that is preselection: most of my reading is in the F&SF and romance genres, with almost no depression-prone “classics” or “literary” fiction. One DNF years ago was an SF reuse of Greek myths that just didn’t work at all for me (I like many reuses of myths & folktales). Two DNFs have been chick lit with protagonists too neurotic for me to stand.
    I don’t have a page abandonment threshold because I have read quite a few books that take a long time to get good–sometimes as much as 1/3 or 1/2 of the book.

  14. Like several others who have posted above, I’m in the “Life’s too short” camp and don’t hesitate to stop if I don’t like a book. If it becomes a DNF, I’ll skim the ending just to satisfy my curiosity. However, there have been a few books that I didn’t like at first but which I wound up liking a lot. An example is “Empire Falls” by Richard Russo; if it weren’t for my son’s very strong recommendation, I would have quit by page 50.

    As for “Cutting for Stone”, I liked it a lot until the ending, which I found contrived. If a romance novelist had manipulated her characters the way Verghese did, she’d be roundly criticized. Before the last 50 or so pages, however, it was a page turner for me. I found the characters interesting and the glimpse of life in Ethiopia during turbulent times fascinating. I brought it on vacation with me and left it for my BIL, a doctor, to read.

  15. For the most part, if I start it I finish it. There have been two DNFs for me that I can recall:
    Little Women; it just bored me to tears and still cannot force myself to pick it up again
    Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance; I was a senior in high school and it was assigned in my theory of knowledge class . . . I hated it frok page one and refused to finish it. I got really lucky that class didn’t test on reading.
    I do however have many books that I have started and just not gotten around to finishing. But I will eventually because I am somewhat anal retentive about finishing books.

  16. I used to finish every book, but stopped doing so as life really is too short and my TBR pile is too high (not to mention the buy/get from library lists).

    I don’t review books, nor do I believe every review should be positive, but if you’re forcing yourself to finish a book just to review it is that really worth your time and effort?

    If I am bored by a book by an author I usually like, I will set it aside and finish at some later point. There are times I start a book I am just not in the mood for for whatever reason. But if it’s a new-to-me author or a book that I really dislike, I flip to the end, read the last few paragraphs or pages (thus satisfying my need for closure) and put the book in the donate pile.

    • library addict:
      I don’t review books, nor do I believe every review should be positive, but if you’re forcing yourself to finish a book just to review it is that really worth your time and effort?

      Well, obviously we believe that it is, or we wouldn’t have much of a website! Abandoning books we didn’t like and only reviewing books we did would not fit in well with AAR’s philosophy.

      • Blythe:
        Well, obviously we believe that it is, or we wouldn’t have much of a website! Abandoning books we didn’t like and only reviewing books we did would not fit in well with AAR’s philosophy.

        I just think there’s a difference between reading a book you ultimately don’t like and forcing yourself to finish a book just to review it. But I am not a reviewer so if I am not enjoying any elements of a book to the point I would have to force myself to finish it I don’t. I have read plenty of books I wouldn’t grade very high, but they all had my curiousity engaged on at least some level that I wanted to finish the story.

  17. I have probably NOT finished as many books as I HAVE finished. I guess I am pickier than most readers? (or more neurotic?) If I find that I have to push myself to read a book then I usually go ahead and give it up. And a book that is slow but okay gets set aside when something better becomes available. Most recently I have been reading Barb Hendee’s Noble Dead series, and it does get sluggish from time to time. It was preempted the minute I had access to Anne Stuart’s On Thin Ice…..but I did go back.

  18. Years ago finishing any book I started was a point of pride with me. Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent” cured me of that forever. When I finally finished it, I couldn’t believe I’d wasted so many hours of my life forcing myself to read something that bored me that much. Since then I’ve been a “life’s too short” reader. If downloading a sample to my Kindle, either not finishing that or finishing and not buying the book counts as DNF, there are more than I don’t finish than that I do. I’ll quit anywhere from the first page to the next to last page the second I realize I just don’t care about the characters or how things come out.

  19. It’s only been in the last few years that I have given myself permission to not finish a book. Now, I have no guilty feelings about setting a book to the side and moving on to another, especially if I got it from the library. However, I have become a little more picky about the books I buy since I bought a Kindle and I am acquiring less from the UBS or PBS.

  20. Life is too short to read books that weren’t written for my brain and imagination. I put them down and find my way to where the characters welcome me, and vice versa.

  21. I never would force myself to reading or finishing a book. It’s my time, my life and I decide what I do with my time (and there isn’t much to spare). I’ve noticed that the older I get the pickier I get. Why should I have guilty feelings for not finishing a book? There are more important things in my life I really have to finish. Books are for pleasure not for chastising myself!
    When I was young(er) I often thought I had to read certain books that were acclaimed or some classics one “had to have read”. Not any longer!
    I read what pleases me. Some books I don’t finish I grab some time later and now I read them and even like them because I’m just in the mood for this book. And as I buy all of my books I’ve always enough books to go back to!

  22. I’m sure there are a lot of great books out there, but if so our local library doesn’t seem to have access to them. Either that, or I have a very narrow range of interest. The truth of the matter is that I am another member of the life is too short club. I check out 6 books every week or two and am lucky if I finish four. Our small town doesn’t have a great selection of book stores and I don’t have room to house too many books so buying isn’t usually an option. It always surprises me there are so many bad (uninteresting) books out there.

  23. I also used to force myself to finish every book but in the past few years, I’ve started to let myself give up on some of them. Most of the time I skim the pages to get to the end but there are a small number that I just couldn’t bring myself to finish. I recently tried to read “Angel in a Red Dress” by Judith Ivory and after a month of trying, I finally gave up on it. I just couldn’t get into the story and really disliked the main characters. I’m usually a fan of her books so I really tried to get into it, but in the end I realized that reading the book was turning into a chore and I knew it was time to find something new.

  24. As Mark said, I finish almost every book probably because of preselecting genres or authors that I enjoy, because I read for enjoyment. So I guess I belong to the “Life’s Too Short” club, too. Two books I can easily recall that became DNF are a “Sherlock Holmes” collection and “Heirs of the Kingdom” by Zoe Oldenbourg.

    I was really motiviated to read “Sherlock Holmes”, so imagine my dismay at finding it lacking, maybe because I was reading aloud to my husband while we were driving on vacation. I may try to finish it sometime.

    I have picked up “Heirs of the Kingdom” several times, but just can’t get through it. It is about a group of French villagers that join a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands during the Crusades. Ordinarily, this is a subject and time period that I enjoy. Maybe there are too many characters, even though I made a list of them and their relationships, maybe there is too much narrative and not enough dialogue, or maybe it just doesn’t translate well into English, but I have finally just said “Enough is enough.”

    Then there are the books that I have finished and thrown in the trash! I’ll save those for another conversation.

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