The debate: is it ok to stop reading books you don’t like?

Are you the type of person that absolutely has to finish every book you start? Or are you an advocate for not continuing with books you're not getting on with? Two writers hash it out over email.

Is it ok to stop reading books you don't enjoy?

From: Sarah Shaffi
To: Stephen Carlick

Subject: Abandon that book you're not enjoying

Hello Stephen,

I heard you talking about a book you're halfway through and not enjoying, and I have to ask, why on earth are you continuing with it? Do you like feeling frustrated, angry and annoyed? Because if so, please carry on, but trust me when I say life can be better.

Sure, we all have to sometimes do things we don't like (ironing, getting up early for work, spending time with your other half's tiresome cousin), but that means that when we're indulging in a hobby, we should be enjoying it. And so, I say to you: stop reading books you don't like.

I admit, it might take a while for you to not feel guilty about it, but remember, it's a book, not a cute puppy you've refused a treat to. It can't look at you with big, sad eyes until you capitulate. If you've given the book a chance (50 pages should do the trick) and still want to throw it across a room/hate every character in it/haven't taken in a word the author has written, then there's no reason to give it more of your time.

Look at your to-read pile, and just think: if you stop reading that book you don't like, you could have the chance to find one you do.


From: Stephen Carlick
To: Sarah Shaffi

Subject: Re: Abandon that book you're not enjoying


Hello – I didn't realise you'd overheard me. :)

Want to know something I once heard? That when famous mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, he gave just a three-word reply: "Because it's there." Unless I'm mistaken, what he didn't do was get a quarter of the up and say: "Err, not for me." 

My point is, just because something's frustrating doesn't necessarily mean it's worth giving up. It's true that I don't like ironing, or getting up early for work, but I think that if I showed up to the office at noon, half-awake and with a third of my shirt ironed, the boss might well ask for a little more dedication.

Pardon the snark, but I feel passionately here. You're a smart and accomplished reader! Haven't you ever read past an arduous opening 50 pages and been rewarded, ultimately, with layers of character nuance and complex meaning? Have not some of your best, most satisfying reads been something of a challenge? There's nothing wrong with enjoying oneself, but I think life is better if you can find the good in things you don't like at first, hobby or not. Doesn't a food-lover challenge their palate?

I look, as you suggest, at my to-read pile, and I see a challenging five-course meal. Look at yours: do you see just a sampler plate?



From: Sarah Shaffi
To: Stephen Carlick

Subject: Re: re: Abandon that book you're not enjoying



I doubt there are many authors who would love hearing that you read their book just "because it's there". You brought up food, and really, shouldn't selecting a book be like selecting a five-course meal? A series of things you love, with some surprises and delights, something new, something to challenge your palette, thrown in? Something that leaves you satisfied, but also craving just a little bit more of the dish that you most loved, no matter how full you are? Something where you thought, "oh"? A book you don't like won't give you that.

I'm not saying books that are challenging shouldn't be read. Challenge is good, nay, great. It's the books you actively don't like that shouldn't take up your time, and not all of those are challenging reads. Think of it not as giving up, but as letting go for both your sakes. You will find a book to read that you like a little more, and the book you gave up on will find a reader elsewhere that really loves it.

Look, I know this isn't easy. Reading purely for pleasure is a skill we lose in our school years, where we're forced to finish books by (mostly) dead, (mostly) white, (mostly) male writers no matter what we think of them. And so, as adults, we feel we have to finish a book, because anything less than that is a failing grade.

But it's not failure to acknowledge that a book isn't for you. You don't owe the book anything, and it and its author don't owe you anything. The joy of books is that there are some you will love, some that will make you think, some that will leave an impression, some that will provide comfort, some that will teach you something. Don't you want to read those books, rather than the ones that will leave you feeling exhausted, bitter and angry?


From: Stephen Carlick
To: Sarah Shaffi

Subject: Re: re: re: Abandon that book you're not enjoying


I'm a big enough person to admit that maybe I got a little grandiose, for a moment, with the Everest stuff. Because you have a point, absolutely: there's this pervasive paradigm that if one doesn't finish, say, Ulysses or War and Peace, it's because they're not smart enough to understand those (mostly) dead, (mostly) white, (mostly) male writers that society has dubbed "genius". I'll admit that sometimes I feel pressure to finish those tomes of perceived literary heft before moving on to lighter volumes. I do hope, though, that it came across in my first missive that part of being "challenged" is, to me, also trying to find literature from other perspectives, which challenge and expand my worldview.

To wit: I was reading a quite celebrated book lately in which I found the protagonist... let's say "wearisome". I wanted to quit reading, but it felt oddly to me like giving up on them; I wanted to have faith that I was missing something, that the character was interesting in ways I just couldn't see yet. I pushed on, not "because it's there", I suppose, but because I wanted to conquer that empathetic challenge. 

That said, my bookmark's been on page 160 for a week. So maybe getting that far was, itself, the challenge? It certainly wasn't easy – and not because the prose was challenging.

So maybe there's middle ground here. I like your notion that reading for pleasure is a skill, and maybe that's the key: that finding what brings you pleasure in reading is the challenge and, vice-versa, sometimes the challenge can be a pleasure. I just started Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai, and it sits beautifully in that sweet spot between complexity and captivation. 

I never want to be "bitter and angry" about reading, but as maybe my final point: I don't actually think being "exhausted" necessarily needs to be a bad thing, as long as you can recognise the point in a book at which you're no longer getting anything out of it. But that's not the hill I want to die on.

...and actually, come to think of it: Mallory never did make it back down the mountain.

Lesson learned,


From: Sarah Shaffi
To: Stephen Carlick

Subject: Re: re: re: re: Abandon that book you're not enjoying


Being pushed out of a comfort zone, reading a voice we've never encountered before, confronting something in our collective histories that's been hidden: these things may not be easy, but I believe, like you, they're worthwhile.

Perhaps one day you'll come back to that book you're stuck on page 160 of, and discover something new in it that changes it from something to be conquered to something to be experienced. Or perhaps you'll never finish it. Both options are valid.

Maybe let's throw it open to readers: tell us, is it ok to leave a book you don't like unfinished?

Let us know your thoughts by emailing editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk.

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