I Never Used To Be A Quitter

But in the last two months I’ve fired three of the books I was reading: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, and The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison.

I LOVE to read and I consume several books every month—mostly novels, memoirs, and essay collections. It stands to reason that occasionally I’ll pick up a dud. But three in a row? What’s going on?

Why I Set Aside Those Books

IMG_0385Each book was favorably reviewed and the subject matter sounded interesting. I expected to like the books and looked forward to reading them.

At first, I read with enthusiasm, but I stopped enjoying myself about 80 percent of the way through The Signature of All Things. I made it through only 60 percent of The Invention of Wings and about 20 percent of The Empathy Exams.

Reading historical fiction and learning about unfamiliar cultures usually appeals to me. For a while, I enjoyed those aspects in all three books. Soon, however, the level of detail each author incorporated stopped being fascinating and turned tedious. I just don’t want to know that much about moss (Gilbert), the infighting among abolitionists (Monk Kidd), or peculiar subcultures (Jamison).

I enjoy character-driven stories. Each of the book’s main character (and the narrator in the memoir-based essays in The Empathy Exams) is unusual and had the potential to be interesting. While I was curious about the main characters, each had a quality that was fundamentally off-putting. I stopped wanting to spend time with those people.

Is It Me? Is It Them? Does It Matter?

1. Life is too short. I’m not going to waste time on books I don’t enjoy. There are too many good, satisfying books I could be reading instead.

2. I no longer care why a book doesn’t meet my expectations—it’s still fired. I used to assume that if a book was disappointing, that the failing was probably mine instead of the author’s—perhaps I wasn’t intellectual or sophisticated enough.

However, in the last decade I’ve read too many mediocre books, so I no longer blame myself. Too often I’ve thought, “Wow! How did that get published?” The publishing industry has been changing rapidly in the last decade, and publishers are risk-averse. If one book is successful they try to clone it (e.g., vampire novels). Other times publishers invest in concept books in which the premise is interesting but the writing isn’t strong (e.g., The Hunger Games). Plenty of good books are still being published, but finding them has gotten harder, especially when only a handful are featured in reviews and blogs.

3. I need to rely on reviewers less. Or I need to find reviewers whose taste is more similar to mine. I read reviews of the three books mentioned earlier, and yet, I was disappointed.

I’ve learned to dig into Amazon and Goodreads’ reviews, but I disregard their suggested reading lists. Just because I read XYZ, doesn’t mean I want to read another book with the exact same subject matter.

I take the reviews in the New York Times Review of Books and Washington Post with a grain of salt (or a whole box?) Their critics are often captivated by the literary experiments some authors engage in. The book may be a clever exercise but if it fails at telling a good story, I’m disappointed.

Reading is too important to give up, but I do wish I had a better way to choose books. How do you discover the gems? Do you ever fire the books you’re reading books? Why?

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10 thoughts on “I Never Used To Be A Quitter

  1. Sometimes the ‘sleepers’ (not reviewed or listed anywhere) pack the most punch. I say 50 pages are enough, either you’re hooked or not. Although I find that it may be that it’s just not the right time for that book/author. I like the notes by booksellers on the shelves of the indie stores and have favorite authors to go to. I admit to eye-rolling and foot-dragging when my book group chooses a book I know I don’t want to read. And then, it turns out, I was wrong. More than once, I must say! There are so many amazing books out there and not nearly enough time to read them all. Toni

    • You make a good point–bookseller’s remarks really help. I think I did better selecting books when I read fewer ebooks. I’m learning to dig deeper into online reviews and read samples. Not the same as holding a book in your hand though. I’ve had the same experience with my book group– good surprises from unlikely sounding choices. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. I often give up on books, there are so many out there awaiting my attention, it makes no sense to continue to slog through a poor one. I agree that publishing too readily concentrates on previous winners. I can think of many authors who are “one hit wonders” and the rest of their books disappoint.
    I often will look for prize winners like Booker, but the summary has to appeal above all. NYTimes bestsellers are mostly garbage, IMO. Our personal choices are just that, personal. So just because a book got critical acclaim doesn’t guarantee it will match our preferences.
    As a funny aside, we have a small town library that still uses index cards in the back flap for check out. There are a number of women in town that share my tastes and when I see they have checked it out before me, I often take it out, too, LOL. Many times it is a happy match!

      • I’m currently reading The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, an interesting mix of tragedy and hope set in early 1900s Pacific Northwest. I finally got around to read Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, a blend of fantasy and reality where we ponder what exactly are the boundaries within the human mind. I also enjoyed Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch. Claire of the Sealight by Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat, was poignant. I like the way some books cause you to see the world differently.

  3. Oh drat! I actually liked the “Signature of All Things” (I’m a bio geek, so I can get into mosses) and the “Invention of Wings” (I’m also a history geek). But I read them mainly because I really like each author’s writing style. Not to say each hasn’t disappointed me, too. That said, I just fired a book I picked up “Mermaids in Paradise” by Lydia Millet (I have not read her before), but noted her book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize — how bad could it be! Turned out is was not a book for me — maybe it’s a generation thing, or the plot was turning dysfunctional. It does have me questioning literary critics, reviews and the Washington Post.

    Sticking with book was for when we were in school and it was required reading for a grade. Life is short and nobody is grading us on our reading tastes. ; ) At least I hope not!

    • So glad we aren’t in school doing required reading anymore! Glad you mentioned that you had a different experience with some of the books I fired– I believe those books were well crafted (and so did a lot of other people), but so much depends on the reader’s taste.

  4. Yes. Life if too short to stick with a book if you aren’t “into” it. I too did not finish The Empathy Exams…I loved the first title essay, but for the most part was disappointed with the rest and never finished it. I think the best books have been ones friends have read and simply shared their enthusiasm afterward–not recommending it, just expression a sense of emotional satisfaction.

    • I really liked the first essay in Empathy Exams too, but lost interest after that. I love getting recommendations for friends–what are you recommending? I really enjoyed Vacationland by Sarah Stonich and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

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