The Dilemma Of The Half-Finished Book

Water for Elephants
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It sits there, accusingly — half-read, unfinished. Is it worth even more of your time, as they say, a sunk cost, or should you just abandon it?

I just flew home today with two half-finished non-fiction books in my carry-on. And, like some faithless lover, I stood before the racks filled with their shiny, new, uncracked competitors this morning in Tucson, pondering which new books, if any, I’d buy. Wretched woman! How could I so heartlessly dump the two I’d already spent real money one, one even a new, full-priced hardcover? Had I lost my reading stamina?

I could practically feel my unread ones whimpering: “What about me?’

There’s a few of these stacked near my desk at home, too, equally accusatory in their physical presence, their dog-eared pages, their unconcluded arguments. I felt so much better recently when a poll of a bunch of famous authors, asked which books they never finished, included “A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth, a bloody doorstop of a book I really wanted to love (a Christmas gift from someone in my family), but just couldn’t and gave up on.

Question is: if you stop reading a book, whose fault is it? You got bored? Fed up? It just wasn’t engaging enough? Badly written? Over-hyped? Is this the writer’s fault? The editor’s?

Or, in the age of CPA, continual partial attention, are we losing the ability to actually focus for several unbroken hours on the written word, whether on a Kindle or paper? I think not: I raced through “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen on vacation and couldn’t put it down. Three women on my flight from Atlanta were glued to their Kindles for most of the two-hour journey.

Now I’m also halfway through writing my own book, a memoir of working retail, and trying not to balk, like a horse at a jump, at finishing it. Partly, it’s fear. Being such an avid reader myself, who opens every new book with a sigh of anticipatory pleasure, ready to be charmed and bitter when I am not thusly rewarded, I hear a chorus of bored imaginary sighs from the worst possible readers, those who paid full price for my book and found it…wanting. Leaving it half-read.

Like every author, it’s my job to grab them all by the lapels, so to speak, happily dragging them into a narrative and writing style so alluring they just can’t bear to leave.

Gulp. No pressure.

What book could you never get around to finishing? What book kept you up all night turning the pages til you’d devoured it in one go?

27 thoughts on “The Dilemma Of The Half-Finished Book

  1. palavering

    I’ve wanted to believe that almost all books are precious and make the reader a better, more knowledgable, person for having read them. Not true! Some books are poorly written, even though the subject matter draws you to it. Others are well-written, but the subject matter is uniniteresting.Books are much like people; they can draw attention, but there’s nothing to them. Others surprise us with the “content of their character.”

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    All very true. The two I picked up with real enthusiasm both turn out to be meandering, too narrow or too general. The writing is fine but I want to be grabbed — not snoozing.

    It’s a little depressing that 200,000 or so books are published every year and that it is so very difficult to get many books published — yet so many of them are lousy.

  3. bonniestone

    I’ve been having trouble finishing books lately and I’ve often wondered why. I have plenty-enough for a shop of my own spread across two houses nonetheless-that I still need to read and many I have started but not finished.

    Some, like Illium, were too “guy” and did not appeal to me in the least while their descriptions on the back cover were incredible. Others I love but just put down for the sad necessity of that work stuff and managed not to pick up again. Still others are more spiritual books that need to be ingested slowly-I still haven’t finished Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth and I started it several months ago. Then there are the ones which you wonder how awful the “bad” manuscripts from their lot were just to allow them to be published as the “good” ones. I’ve had a few of those lately as well.

    I also wonder if I’ve just become a bit too picky. Being at quite a different time in my life and with different needs than I was when in, say, middle or high school. Perhaps I really do require an incredibly extraordinary work of fiction to shake the unfinished book blues.

  4. Thank you for your great post. In response to your question about unfinished books, I have way too many to share a number – both hardcover books as well as Kindle books. I am one of those readers that gets immediately enthralled with a book subject, title or recommendation and must buy it immediately lest I forget. This book buying approach could be because my genre preference is business-related so I have to have it N-O-W because the learning/insights I walk away with can have an immediate impact on how I can improve my work performance.

    What ends up happening is collecting a large number of books that I am very excited about reading, but don’t have the time to read. So I start and stop; pick up and forget; move on and remember through no one’s fault but my own for having a “have to have it now” approach on books.

  5. raincoaster

    I worry that, having been a professional blogger for a number of years, my attention span just isn’t long enough, but you know what? It’s not true.

    There are a lot of boring books in the world, and you don’t HAVE to finish them. If you were driving down a road and you realized it wouldn’t take you where you wanted to go, would you keep going? We are trained to finish books in school, where of course we’re tested on them, but it’s not a moral obligation, unless you promised the writer you would read it.

    Now, what’s TRULY satisfying is finding a book so awful that you don’t feel bad about just chucking it in the bin. Chuck it hard, in a tin bin, so it makes a glorious crashing sound going down. “Elf Defence” was the last one that got this treatment from me. Thank god I haven’t seen a stinker like that since.

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  7. Caitlin Kelly

    Bonnie, maybe we do get fuzzier – which makes sense – after a few decades of reading and require better material to truly engage us; few of us likely eat or drink exactly what we did in college so our tastes likely change. I sometimes turn in desperation to hoary classics and find out why they have lasted — Alan Paton’s “Cry the Beloved Country” was one that totally delighted me after years of putting it off.

    Barbara, me too! I recently bought and gulped down Daniel Pink’s latest, Drive — SO disappointed! I am also hungry for smart books that will help me work better, and so few are excellent that when I do devote my time, it’s gone for good while a better book remains unread.

    Raincoaster, I like that decisive clanging sound of binning a boring book. I don’t feel compelled to finish every book — but I also do empathize with authors who, many times, have still worked like dogs. I know how hard it is to sell and write and promote my own books so I hate to read lousy ones.

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    That word was (!!) meant to be fuzzier, not fuzzier; nice Freudian slip there … Oh dear, typing on an Itouch before coffee. Sorry!

  9. Steve Weinberg

    Most book authors I know occasionally wonder if they will complete their current manuscript under contract. Caitlin will finish writing her current book under contract. How do I know? Because she has already finished writing/published a previous book. Book authors as passionate and talented as Caitlin almost always finish their second and subsequent books after proving to themselves with the first book that the finish line is obtainable.

    My most recent book (number eight) took 10 years from proposal to publication partly because I’m a maniacal researcher and painstaking writer, partly because of interruptions beyond my control.

    Now, about reading books from start to finish.
    Each of us reads specific books for specific reasons. When I read a book because it constitutes research for the books I write, I always finish. When I read books as a professional reviewer for newspapers and magazines, I always finish. But when I read books for pleasure, sometimes I never finish, sometimes I skim to the end. So many books, so little time to read them all. That means if a “pleasure” book fails to capture me due to stylistic or substantive shortcomings, I rarely feel guilt at stopping short of the final page.

  10. palavering

    Why would such pompous comments as Mister Weinberg’s be called out? I have completed too many books to call out titles here; indeed it is not necessary to report my findings. Mister Weinberg insults too many great writers here with his egregious and egomaniacal comments! I am pleased to say I have read none of his literary droppings until this date.

    1. Steve Weinberg

      As a writer, I’m frequently surprised by how some readers react to my words–whether those words show up in my books, my magazine features, my reviews, my T/S blog.

      Palavering, I’m sincerely curious about your negative reaction to my posting on Caitlin Kelly’s blog. What phrasing of mine did you find pompous? What phrasing of mine did you find insulting to other writers?

      I certainly didn’t intend to insult anybody, and after re-reading my posting, can’t ascertain any insulting sentiments.

      I hope you’ll let me know.

      1. palavering

        I thought you were off subject: first your kudos to Caitlan, as though you were a supreme authority. Second, because you praised yourself and your accomplishments, I thought, insufferably. I thought an apotheosis was coming.
        You were off subject most of the time. I hope I’ve satified your curiosity. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. I would like to end this debate, at this point. We both have better things to offer.
        I didn’t write an ad hominem attack, as Caitlin seems to be suggesting. Moreover, I don’t think she should defend you or anyone one else who posts an opinion. I still enjoy her work, though.

  11. Caitlin Kelly

    Palavering, it’s a T/S decision to call out contributors’ comments.
    But, as a point of basic and essential courtesy, please refrain here from insulting fellow commenters. Steve is a friend and colleague I’ve known pre-T/S, and he’s someone whose work I respect.

    Disagree with anyone you wish, but it must remain civil, at least on my site.

    1. palavering

      I was civil. Weinberg’s initial comments were about your book, and had nothing to do with the subject matter. The remainder of his diatribe (mostly about his books) was self-aggrandizing, at least, and of no value to the reader, in my view. Moreover, what difference should it make that he’s your friend? This site is not about friendship, but about points of view–and now you would deny me mine?

  12. Caitlin Kelly

    Steve, I also am pretty unforgiving of books I turn to for sheer pleasure. They have to delight and engage me in style and/or substance– and few do.

    Another reason to complete a ms. — income!

  13. P.J. Tobia

    Don DeLillo’s “White Noise.” Three times I’ve started it and three times I put it down, unfinished. I just don’t like this book.

  14. Caitlin Kelly

    P.J., do you know why the book isn’t working for you? The question for me, sometimes, is whether I’m being lazy by not trying harder — just because we don’t enjoy something doesn’t mean it can’t stretch us or teach us something new.

    I worry sometimes I reach for the too-easy instead of trying to sharpen my brain through an unfamiliar voice or really challenging material. I am surprised sometimes to find I’m not terribly engaged by books on the NYT best-seller list that clearly work for millions of others….

    I tried to read a book I bet you know, Rory Stewart’s book about walking across Afghanistan. I was eager to read it and deeply curious about the topic but still got a little bored and gave up on it halfway through.

    I think, as a fellow writer, I owe my colleagues a fair shot at my attention. But time is short. My next anticipated book is David Finkel’s.

    1. P.J. Tobia

      I think I just don’t like the characters in White Noise. I find it hard to care about some professors in a made up college town, who have a bunch of gripes about their marriage. Bo-ring.

      I also like a challenging read, but the themes have to be really big and awesome in order for me to get into it(think Faulkner and GG Marquez.)Lately I’ve been drawn to some lighter fare, but I think that’s just my current circumstances and the fact that I read so much heavy stuff for work.

      As for Stewart’s book, you’re like the third person that’s told me they couldn’t finish it! I couldn’t put the damn thing down. I guess its just a matter of taste…

  15. So much of it depends on so many things. Like Steve W., if it’s research for something I’m working on, I’ll trudge through no matter what. If I’m reading it for pleasure, well, it needs to grab my attention. Also, it needs to get me at the right time, with the moon in the 7th house and if I’m not under 3 deadlines at once and all that. In the fall, I picked up McCullough’s “Truman,” never figuring that I’d last through all 1,000 pages. Yet, because the subject matter is so fascinating and McCullough is such a master, I was never bored for a moment.

    As a former lit. major, I find that I’m a much harsher fiction critic and I toss that aside with ease if it’s not working for me. You’ve got 50 pages – captivate me or I’m moving on.

  16. Caitlin Kelly

    Fifty pages is a lot…I give them a chapter, maybe. The two books I’m stuck on right now are both non-fiction, both were to be read for pleasure. When it starts to feel like heavy lifting, we’ve got a problem.

    I agree that a great writer can, and does, pull us into the most unlikely stuff. I was very curious about the subject, but also really enjoyed McCullough’s history of the Brooklyn Bridge.

    I’m enough of a geek I enjoy reading history, especially social history, and have recently read and enjoyed those on London, Paris and England in the 18th century — all of them written by British historians. They write with wit and style and dry history becomes a page-turner as a result.

  17. Great question. The one book that comes to mind — and I know it’s one you love, Caitlin — is Eat, Pray, Love. I can never seem to get past Italy. I want to — partly because I know other people love it, partly because I like yoga, and because at times, I really do like Gilbert’s voice. But I’ve restarted it three different times to no avail.

    There are many other books I haven’t finished as well. Names escape me at the moment, though I’ve been trying to get rid of some books lately and have noticed that there are quite a few with bookmarks sitting inside them, somewhere in the first part of the middle of the book. (And I wonder why I can never find a bookmark!) At times, I feel guilty about this because someone worked long and hard to write the book and (more often than not) I paid for it and should give the narrator a chance and try to finish it. My inability to finish may not be a reflection on the book — it may simply be where I am at that moment in my life. I may be too busy to commit to the book. I may be in a memoir as opposed to journalistic narrative phase. I may be tired of reading about history, etc., etc. I guess this is why I get rid of so few books — I want to believe that I will come back and finish (or, restart and finish) each and every book on my shelf sooner or later, which brings me to a topic of a blog post I was planning to write this week. So I’ll leave it at that:)

  18. Caitlin Kelly

    It’s the three strikes, you’re out! I notice that’s the number you and PJ both cited about books you each gave up on. I’m not sure I’d give any book that many chances when I am finding such great ones to engage me.

    Like you, I know what incredible sweat can go into even getting a book published, so I want to respect that, but I also weary of reaching for these vaunted NYT best-sellers, really expecting excellence, and think “Feh!” So many of them are over-hyped and not compelling in either language or insight.

    Maybe it’s my rampant Anglophilia (as someone educated in Canada, much of what we read in school and college was British, not American) but so many of the writers and books I’ve enjoyed over the years, and recently, turn out to be British. (Today’s post, on memoir, references two terrific recent books, both of their authors British.)

    My shelves groan with unread books. I also buy, and treasure, reference books I can dip into — like a Taschen book on Expressionism I just bought for $14. Those aren’t books to be gulped, but sipped slowly and thought about.

  19. rockyinlaw

    Even I, a member of the nonexclusive hoi polloi, agree with most who have written here. In fact Mr Weinberg describes something very much like my own experience. I do despair now and then that I’ll never again find a good book, but that’s when I find remedy in the past. The classics continue to save me from becoming too jaded, and I have yet to discover them all … Thank goodness for the free public library!! (Though I must admit I do hate to read on their deadline. Oh well. Such is life.)

  20. Caitlin Kelly

    palavering, you used the words “pompous, egomanical and egregious” to describe Steve’s post.

    I won’t argue the point endlessly; in my world this language is, to me — and it’s my site to keep an eye on and try to make people feel welcome — uncivil and therefore unwelcome. Your determination that his comments added no reader value are equally subjective and felt oddly personal. I defend anyone I think deserving of it, friend or not.

    People need to feel they can comment and not be attacked personally when someone disagrees with them. One of the things I value most right now about T/S is the striking overall civility of its discourse. It needs to stay that way.

    rockyinlaw, every author is desperate for many readers; without thousands of you/them, we got nothing! My county-wide library system bought eight copies of my book, which I felt honored by, and it’s in more than 500 libraries worldwide. Authors don’t get rich from library readers but the satisfaction of finding many more readers this way is enormous. I am thrilled to know my baby is being read in New Zealand or Hong Kong as well as domestically.

    I force myself to read more quickly by taking out 2 or 3 library books on 1 or 3-week deadlines. You have to get on with it for sure. I love to read so much I can’t possibly afford to buy all those books — nor do I have physical space to keep them afterward.

  21. Caitlin Kelly

    PJ, I felt that way about Nicholson Baker, who is raved about by some.

    I recently read a great essay,, about forcing oneself beyond one’s comfort zone to try some new genres or writers. I should try some of the Big Boys I’ve never read — Updike, Bellow, Mailer, Vidal — except from what people tell me, they will drive me nuts.

    I like the larger idea of reaching into new areas. For me that could be books on science, technology, medicine, politics. But I’m still avoidant of most fluff and chicklit.

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