Nancy Pearl, DNF and Guilt

22 February 2012

For a really, really long time, I did not believe in starting a book and not finishing it. There were a few exceptions, of course:
  • That one time that I was halfway through a 400-page book that I was not enjoying and I accidentally left it at the BWI train station. I figured it was my subconscious speaking and let myself off the hook for buying a replacement copy in order to finish it.
  • Terribly long, overly detailed non-fiction titles assigned for college courses.
  • Terribly long, overly detailed fiction titles assigned for college courses.
  • Twilight
I've started to change my stance on this, though. Nancy Pearl says the best rule of thumb is to give any book fifty pages; if it hasn't captured you by then, skip it and move on. There are too many books out there to waste time on those we don't like.

She's right, of course. How could a librarian with her own action figure be wrong, after all? I started to apply her advice to my own reading; in 2011, I started and put down 9 books* (about 10% of all of my reading). If I didn't love it, I didn't read it. And it felt good. Really good. I've already abandoned one book this year, and I haven't looked back.

But I guess nothing can be that simple, really, because I find I'm struck with another question: what do I do with the books I kind of like, but certainly don't love? The books that are too long and desperately needed two hundreds pages edited out to maintain their momentum, or the titles that are intriguing, sure, but lack that siren song when you are forced to put them down?

Sometimes, I can tell after fifty or one hundred pages that a book will be... fine. Just fine. Not bad, but not great. And these are the books that give me the most guilt, that I have a hard time abandoning. They are the books I probably should abandon, but have not yet found it in me to do so.

Any advice? Do you read on in these situations, or give up the ghost? 
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*The only one that didn't feel good was Laura Lippman's I'd Know You Anywhere, which I really, really wanted to love. And actually, I did; Lippman's writing was spot-on, and her story so well-done and well-conceived as to be totally creepy. So much so that I stopped sleeping well, and had to stop reading after only a few chapters. This particular DNF I consider more a compliment than anything else; apparently, I'm just a weeny.

10 comments :

  1. Right on! I've followed the 50 page rule for years and it has done me very well. However, there are some books that fall between the cracks, and what to do? I re-shelve them for a later time. Even if years go by, my attitude might have changed about that author/story/mood so that when I pick it up again and keep reading it could very well be a more enjoyable experience . . . or not. If it still isn't then it's time to let it go. Like you said, there are just too many books to waste time on those we don't like.

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    1. Re-shelving is not a bad plan. In this particular instance, the book that prompted my post was a library book, so it wasn't as much of an option... though that's not to say I couldn't revisit it again in later on and perhaps it will hit the mark for round two.

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  2. I know exactly what you mean as I had one of these iffy, "fine" books earlier this year. I ultimately put it aside because it was sucking the joy out of my reading and THAT is a no-no!

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  3. I have the 50 page rule for bad books...but with the "fine" books I usually relegate them to just-before-bed reading, so that if I get dozy and miss a bit here and there it doesn't matter. I save the really good stuff for midday reading.

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  4. I usually have no problem giving up on books I'm not enjoying. However. There are some books that I inexplicably refuse to give up on (100 Years of Solitude, for instance). Usually it's because it's a classic that I want to finish just to see what all the hype was about.

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  5. In an interview once Alice Munro said she didn't read books from start to finish, but just kind of meandered around in them. What?! When you think about it, why not? There might be a good chapter or a good page. Who says we have to read books in page order? If you read as a writer, you might just focus on the juicy bits (the good writing!)....

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  6. I'm a huge fan of putting books down, for the simple reason that there are too many outstanding books in the world that I would LOVE, to waste my precious and limited time reading books I don't. There are a few theoretical exceptions (assigned reading for school, maybe?) but in practice I rarely feel compelled to finish a book I know I don't want to finish. (Notable recent exception: Anna Karenina, on which I'd invested too many hours to quit.) Put the bad books down! That's my new motto.

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    1. PS How dare we question Nancy Pearl, anyway :)

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  7. I'm not good at putting down books even when I don't really like them. I'm trying to get better at this, and I have in the last couple of years put down a few books unfinished (and I was so proud of myself for doing it). I think you have to take it book by book. If you're almost done, might as well finish it. If you can't think of a good reason to finish it, then move on. Now, if only I could follow my own advice . . .

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  8. I don't even wait for 50 pages; I can usually tell before that. I don't feel any guilt about it! If I can put down the book without feeling an urge to pick it up again, I start something else. Whether or not I pick it up again depends on why I put it down: was it more because of my mood in terms of what I felt like reading or because of the writing?

    Any reading guilt I have stems from not reading more and often enough, because of work, mostly, but also feeling guilty about relaxing with a book. I need to get that one fixed.

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