When is a book worth reading from start to finish?

I decided to rework this old essay from my original 52 books blog and re-post it, because this subject seems to be on people’s minds right now, at least considering how many of the book bloggers whose blogs I regularly visit have written about it in the last couple of months.

Everyone has different criteria for deciding if a book is worth finishing.
Some will read any book to the end, slogging through piles of tripe or suffering endless boredom just so they can say they have read it. Several people I know of did this with The DaVinci Code and/or The Name of the Rose. (Please note that I am not belittling either book. It just so happens that many people think the former is tripe and the latter is boring).
Others will give it a couple of chapters (or 50 pages or so in the case of “chapterless” books like those of Terry Pratchett) before deciding.
Still others will read the reviews, read the blurb, skim the book and read the ending, and then decide they’re not interested.
Each method has its merits.

As for myself, I have occasionally finished badly written books because the story or concept was interesting in spite of the bad writing, or there was something I just had to find out (usually the resolution, but sometimes some small detail). More often, I will just stop reading.

If a writer's style annoys me, I stop reading if it continues to annoy after I have read about 20-25% of the pages. This means about 50 pages of an average length novel. One example is Elizabeth Peters. I started reading one of her Amelia Peabody mysteries and found the style very annoying, so I stopped reading. However, I tried again and loved both of the books in the series that I have read so far.

If a book is dull but well written, I give it about 100 pages, because some stories start very slowly, especially long novels that need to explain a lot of background before the actual story starts. If it has not picked up by then, I stop reading (unless the book was recommended by a reliable reader, in which case I may read another 100 pages). This happens mostly with long novels and non-fiction, especially travel books.

Sometimes I come across books that tell a good story and are, for the most part, well written, but there is something missing, some spark or soul that would make an average book into a good one and a great one into a masterpiece. Those I usually finish. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd and The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde are good examples.

Sometimes books are spoiled for me by other books. Those I put aside to read at a later time when I have forgotten the book that did the spoiling. I stopped reading Gail Anderson-Dargatz's book The Cure for Death by Lightning because I had recently read The Secret Life of Bees, had not liked it much, and found too many similarities in the first chapter of Cure (both are about girls from dysfunctional families). I am assured by people who have read both that Cure... is far superior to Bees..., but I need to distance myself before I can enjoy it.

I am always ready to give authors whose books I have not liked in the past a second chance, and have usually not regretted it. Even the best of writers sometimes write bad books.


George said…
I'm in the "read 50 pages and decide" camp. If a book can't engage me in 50 pages, then it's time to move on to another book. That being said, I've tried to read Proust's IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME three times. I know it's a classic, but maybe the translation is turning me off. I have the Lydia Davis translation of SWANN'S WAY so that might make the difference on my next attempt.
Rose said…
I just have to ask. Surely you are a librarian? If not "officially", then you are certainly one at heart. Or, if not, would you be one in another life?
Your pal, a librarian.
Bibliophile said…
Rose, I am not a librarian, but it is a career I seriously considered when I was choosing a subject at university. I have sometimes wondered what would have happened if I had.

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