Putting a Book Down

I’ve known a lot of people to say, “I finish every book I start.” It’s usually a point of pride – quitting has a stigma. To reach the finish line of every endeavor you undertake is to be successful. For a while, I wanted to be one of these ultra-disciplined book connoisseurs, capable of fighting through any book, no matter how bad, so as to better critique it or at least give it a chance to redeem itself.

But I’ve never been like that. In the few years that I’ve considered myself a serious reader, I’ve left a lot of books behind. Sometimes I’ll stop after fifty pages, but in at least one case I’ve quit halfway through. For a while I felt bad about doing this. It felt somehow disrespectful to the author. I thought it might attest poorly to my own reading abilities, especially in cases where the book I rejected was considered a classic.

My attitude changed when, in my Introduction to Microeconomics course, my professor taught us about sunk cost. Her example went something like this:

“Imagine you’re in a movie theater. You’ve paid $10 for your ticket. You’re halfway through the movie and you hate it; you know that you’ve passed the point where it has any hope of getting better. You’re tempted to walk out, but you think, ‘I’ve paid for the ticket and I’ve been sitting here for an hour – I might as well sit it out so as to not waste my money.’ But this argument is based on a fallacy. If you’re not enjoying the movie, then the more wasteful option is to stay. There are two costs: the literal cost of the ticket, and the opportunity cost incurred by sitting in a theater watching a movie you don’t like. You minimize your costs by walking out.”

At the time, this seemed like a perfectly logical framework by which to justify putting a book down, even if I’d paid for it. I’ve since adapted my view a little bit, moving away from the above example’s utilitarian logic. You can be enriched by something you don’t enjoy at the time. The above movie-going experience might be uncomfortable, but it’s possible that in retrospect, you’ll think about the movie, see something clever, and experience the sort of intellectual stimulation that comes with analysis. You might see the movie again, the experience now different. You might love it.

The above circumstance won’t always be applicable. If the movie you’re watching is certifiably terrible, a Seltzer/Friedberg type travesty, something you just know won’t reveal nuance, then leaving the theater is probably the best option. But I do try to work a middle ground between the two attitudes, embodied by, “I’m trying to ruthlessly minimize costs,” and “There’s merit in finishing – I might find something I hadn’t expected.”

I never walk out of movie theaters. But a book is different. When you start reading a book, you commit to spending a lot of time in its world. If you’re like me, busy and not a professional literary critic, you need to fit reading into your spare time. If I’m not enjoying a book, I take some time to think of why. I mentally catalogue what I don’t like about it, hoping to come a reasonable justification for putting it down. Sometimes I worry that the reason is as simple as, “This bores me,” and that I retroactively impose a supposedly intellectual set of criteria for condemning the book’s quality, vindicating my decision to stop reading it.

But if my reason for quitting is boredom, there’s not anything wrong with that. A book should entertain. And I mean ‘entertain’ in its most literal definition; a book should command your continued engagement. I also don’t confuse being bored with finding a text difficult. I might be tempted to put down something that’s hard to read, but this kind of experience is much more likely to be rewarding if I stick with it.

I haven’t posted a review in a while because I’ve been plowing through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I have a couple hundred pages left. For the first fifty or so pages, I flirted with the idea of putting it down. Wallace’s prose is unique and somewhat jarring and difficult if you’re not used to it. His gargantuan descriptiveness, his run-on sentences and paragraphs, take some getting used to. But once his prose conditioned me to its rhythms, I found that I greatly enjoyed the book. It’s not easy reading. It’s occasionally frustrating, but it’s also exhilarating like nothing else I’ve ever read. A review is forthcoming.

Infinite Jest inspired me to write this article because it’s so concerned with the concept of entertainment. Wallace criticizes an America (or humanity in general?) obsessed with the competitive pursuit of happiness via instant gratification. When I say that I want a book to entertain me, I don’t mean that I want it to be easy or immediately pleasurable. Infinite Jest is entertaining, but not in the hollow manner of a Call of Duty game or a Michael Bay movie. It leaves you with something.

To end this article, I’ll list five books which I’ve put down. Disclaimer: I’m not necessarily proud of this list.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

I read the first fifty pages. I just couldn’t get into the dry, historical style. People tell me it gets better, so I might give it another chance in the future.

Shogun by James Clavell

I’ve heard great things about this book, and my decision to put it down wasn’t a condemnation. I wasn’t intrigued by the first twenty pages, a fact exacerbated by the presence of an incredibly tempting release by a favorite author sitting on my shelf, demanding that I read it immediately.

An Autumn War by Daniel Abraham

The third book in Abraham’s Long Price Quartet, a well-regarded fantasy series. I really wanted to like it, going so far as to read most of the series. Ultimately I just accepted that I’m not really interested in Abraham’s characters or his prose. He sets up interesting world changing conflicts, showing how they impact a select few individuals, but I just wasn’t into his voice.

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

I eventually finished this, but for a long time I left it on my shelf, a bookmark at the halfway point. There’s something about Tolkien’s style and his themes which just irks me: the syrupy, nostalgic ‘jolly old England’ yearning. Also the somewhat blank, archetypal characters fail to really grab my interest. I finished Lord of the Rings because I felt obligated, but I didn’t really enjoy it.

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

I later read and reviewed McCarthy’s The Road, but I found Suttree to be thoroughly uninteresting and rather dull.

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