Sunday, May 09, 2004

When do You Quit?

Laura Miller in the New York times Sunday Book Review asks "Why subject yourself to an irksome book when so many sublime ones are available?" She suggests that there comes a time in every reader's life when she realizes she doesn't have to finish every book she starts. I remember I came to that point when I was about 19 or so. I was reading a fantasy novel, the title of which I can no longer remember. It was about a dwarf or something and none of the names were pronounceable and the story was deathly dull. I'd struggle through a few pages and put it down. After a few days I'd feel guilty, it must be something wrong with me because it couldn't possibly be the book. I was so naive. I must have guilted myself through about 100 pages of torture before I decided enough was enough. I no longer blame myself for books I can't read but I still give them too much time. I keep thinking that it has to get better. It's just starting off slow, the next chapter will pick up and I'll be glad I stuck with it. Then I find myself halfway through the book. I've invested so much time in it I have to finish it if only to find out what happened. According to Miller, Michael Chabon is merciless, if the book doesn't hook him in the first two or three pages he won't read it. Myla Goldberg gives a book 15-50 pages and a book editor Miller knows allows five pages. But I have read books that have begun well and somewhere in the middle something goes terribly wrong. I always finish these books whether or not I want to. Something about the seething anger they engender keeps me from stopping. And if the book turns out to be particularly bad, I sometimes find myself having a great time making fun of it as I read. Afterwards it's always entertaining to tell other people, in the most melodramatic of ways, what a horrible book it was thereby warning them not to fall for it and garnering laurels for my own great fortitude, a sort of red badge of courage. As I get older I find I am more willing to not finish a book if we don't click. Even so I finish most books I start, occasionally deluding myself by declaring I don't read bad books. But of course I do. Everyone does. The question is, when do you quit?