Giving Up on a Book: 10/17/21
I got thisclose to giving up on one of the big books of the year. I'm glad I didn't
I have been an unrepentant book abandoner for quite some time. While I will give just about any book a chance, I also reserve the right to put it down and never pick it up again at any time. I feel no guilt or regret about this. Sometimes I’m even enjoying a book reasonably well and in the moment, when I go back to it, the spark just isn’t there, so I move on and often never return.
As an example, last year I wrote about how I quite enjoyed Charlie Kauffman’s Antkind for the 350 pages I read, but I also had no particular desire to make it through all 700 pages of the full manuscript. When David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks was in the 2015 Tournament of Books, I stopped reading at page 516 and then discussed why with my friend Kevin Guilfoile.
The impulse to move on is even stronger when - as is presently the case - I have a giant stack of hotly anticipated new releases to get to. I not only have something else to read if I give on a book (I would never be caught short no matter what), I have books I’ve been looking forward to for years waiting for me.
All of this is to say that I recently came very near to giving up on a book. I was so close, I even tweeted about it.
The book is Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, and now that I’ve finished it, I’m glad that I persevered, because it was very much worth it. One reason I almost put it down has to do with the structure Doerr employs, where he braids together five different narratives stretching across literally thousands of years time. One-hundred-fifty pages in and I still couldn’t quite feel invested in any of the individual stories, and couldn’t yet see how they might coalesce into a satisfying whole.
Another reason was that a busy schedule meant I was only reading before bed. While Doerr uses short chapters, making it a good fit for pre-bed reading when sleep could attack at any moment, I wasn’t making enough headway to appreciate the full scope of the story Doerr was unfurling.
In truth, Doerr got some allowances that not every author would receive. His previous novel was All the Light You Cannot See, a very satisfying novel that also won a Pulitzer Prize. He’s also been a longtime contributor to the aforementioned Tournament of Books, and I know him to be a generous and good-hearted person and dedicated artist. His collection of short stories, The Shell Collector is one of my favorites of the last decade.
At the moment of truth I told myself that I would sit down and read at least 50 more pages and if I wanted to put it down after that, I would do so conscience clean.
I read 150 pages and was irritated that sleep was a necessity to having a halfway productive next day because I wanted to finish it.
Coincidentally, even as I’ve been drafting this newsletter, an article went up at the The Independent by Rupert Hawksley - who is apparently not a professor of the dark arts at Hogwarts - in which he argues that readers are obligated to finish every book they start, that to not finish a book is “an insult” to the authors who wrote them.
While it’s fine if people are dedicated book finishers, but the argument that not finishing a book is an insult to the author is too dumb to even engage with. Please feel free to buy and not read as many copies of my books as you like.
This experience doesn’t mean that I’m going to give up my practice of giving up on books, but it is a good personal cautionary tale to make sure I’ve given a book the chance it deserves before moving on to something new.
So, who is with me as a willing abandoner of books, and who is a slog to the bitter end type?
My column this week explores the feelings of a books columnist who realizes he’d never heard of the author who just won the Nobel Prize in Literature and what that says about how we experience literature from beyond our borders.
I’d never heard of the Bailee Gifford prize, but apparently it’s the most prestigious prize for non-fiction in the UK. They have a short list that includes a very American story, Patrick Raddon Keefe’s Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty.
Seems like I’m recommending an episode of the Ezra Klein Podcast every week, but it makes sense because he interviews a lot of authors. In this one, a fascinating conversation with actor Nick Offerman about his new book, which is rooted in his engagement with the work of Wendell Berry, and a hiking trip he took with Jeff Tweedy and George Saunders. I want to join that hike!
The New York Times is recommending ten books this week.
The New York Times is also soliciting reader nominations for the best book of the last 125 years for a future feature. Make your voice heard.
If you’re looking for a round-up reviews, LitHub has you covered with “5 Reviews You Need to Read This Week.”
Not even Halloween and yet Barnes & Noble is ready to tell us the best books of the year.
Biggest week-to-week jump ever!: $187.25 for the year. Amazing!
If you’d like to see every book I’ve recommended in this space this year, check out my list of 2021 Recommendations at the Bookshop.org bookshop.
Recommendations are always open for. Wait times should be minimal and some will even be featured in the print edition of the Chicago Tribune.
1. The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
2. Home Waters by John Maclean
3. It All Comes Back to You by Beth Duke
4. The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
5. Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah
Nancy S. - North Aurora, IL
For Nancy, I’m thinking a book that has some sweep of history combined with close attachment to character, which begets, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
1. People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry
2. Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
3. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
4. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
5. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Belinda T. - Cleveland, OH
The trend here is books with some measure of uplift in the midst of struggle, which brings to mind Angela Flournoy’s story of a complicated family, The Turner House.
Happy reading one and all!