How do you judge when to stop reading a book?


I am one of those people who, once I start to read a book or watch a film, find it hard to stop until I finish it, even if the book and film are becoming tedious. Something really awful has to happen for me to stop. Tedium alone is not sufficient. Librarian Nancy Pearl, who sometimes appears on NPR as an engaging reviewer of books, says that she too used to find it hard to stop reading a book but now she has adopted a ‘rule of 50’.

Give a book 50 pages. When you get to the bottom of Page 50, ask yourself if you’re really liking the book. If you are, of course, then great, keep on reading. But if you’re not, then put it down and look for another. (Always keep in mind that there’s nothing to stop you from going back to it later, whether that might be in six days or six years. Or 60 years. There is many a book that I couldn’t get into the first time, or even two, that I tried to read it, and then, giving it one more chance, totally fell under its spell. The book obviously hadn’t changed – but I had.)

And if, at the bottom of Page 50, all you’re really interested in is who marries whom, or who the murderer is, then turn to the last page and find out. If it’s not on the last page, turn to the penultimate page, or the antepenultimate page, or however far back you have to go to discover what you want to know.

I realized that my Rule of 50 was incomplete. It needed an addendum. And here it is: When you are 51 years of age or older, subtract your age from 100, and the resulting number (which, of course, gets smaller every year) is the number of pages you should read before you can guiltlessly give up on a book. As the saying goes, “Age has its privileges.”

And the ultimate privilege of age, of course, is that when you turn 100, you are authorized (by the Rule of 50) to judge a book by its cover.

Not a bad rule.

Now what about films? There the time commitment is obviously less but as I have got older I find myself becoming less willing to expend even that limited amount of time. I don’t have a rule for it but usually the kill switch is triggered when I find that I don’t really care about any of the characters or what might happen to them.

Comments

  1. says

    Page one is often the deal breaker for me. If the author dangles a hook in front of me that turns out to be rusty and smelling of week old fish, the book may become sub orbital. Life’s too short to waste on bad writing. And I’m not even 60 yet.

  2. says

    Life is too short. I don’t want to be on my deathbed going, “I wish I had never read those Dan Brown novels when there was perfectly excellent Terry Pratchett on my bookshelf and now I am never going to finish the Discworld books.”

  3. Johnny Vector says

    I haven’t had to put down a book in some time, but since I almost never watch a movie in a theater any more, I’ve gotten a very itchy trigger finger regarding giving up on them. When I was flying to Japan 6-8 times a year, I started watching a fair number of movies. But even on an airplane, where “mindless entertainment” ought to be fine, I was giving up on most movies within 20 minutes.

    Largely I think it’s because after 50 years of watching them, “I’ve seen this movie before” applies to nearly every story, so what matters is how well it’s told. E.g., when it’s Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle telling it, any old odd-couple police buddy movie story will pull me right in (especially when the writer/director is a McDonagh, and the score is by Calexico). Take note, movie producers.

  4. Johnny Vector says

    Marcus @#2: That right there is the reason I haven’t had to put down a book recently! Working my way through the Discworld canon lately. (With a short detour to some Gaiman right now, since I hadn’t read any of his yet.)

  5. chigau (違う) says

    I still tend to read the whole book, even if it takes several tries.
    Movies, I fast-forward.

  6. jrkrideau says

    When much younger, I would plug on through just about anything, well except Ayn Rand—I think I got through about 15 pages of some crap, no idea which piece of crap—and Thomas Hardy. Oh, and the Bible. That thing is boring.

    Partly this was due to the fact that I lived in the country and reading material was in short supply. One read what was available because nothing else was going to be handy for a long time.

    By my early 30s I started to realize that I was in a city with libraries and bookstores. It was about then I started to say, this is a terrible book and move on. I have no particular page limit. One page, 50 pages, it depends on the book.

    I am much more likely to keep slogging away at non-fiction unless it is obviously complete nonsense. Again no particular page limit though usually it is obvious quickly so my average is probably 5 pages.

    I have never gotten into movies. I think one needs to start watching them when young. I was 50 or 60 km from the nearest cinema. Other than a few movies on TV such as the Wizard of Oz, I doubt I have sat through 20 films in my life so I do not have any real kind of rule. Oh wait. If an “historical” film is totaly inaccurate, I am out in 5 minutes. I do remember going to see a Sherlock Holmes film once. It violated the canon about 100 times in the first 90 seconds. It took me another 30 seconds to get out.

  7. says

    I mostly watch movies so I can compare them to Kurosawa and Kubrick. I’m sure that makes me obnoxious, but all Hollywood has to do is stop making superhero movies and “blockbuster thrillers” that star special effects, then it’s problem solved.

    One of the risks of blogging about propaganda (as I do) is you wind up having to read horrible stuff. As I was going through security for the flight out here the TSA lady (who was black) got very stony-faced when she saw my copy of The Passing of The Great Race (speaking of books I’d throw against the wall except its a 1st edition) I said “it’s for research on propaganda” – at least it’s not Fifty Shades Of Gray

    Last time I read any Discworld I started with Mort in case something happened to me before I finished.

  8. efogoto says

    I read a book until I get bored and don’t care about the characters, then I drop it. I make it through most books, but I’ve made pretty good headway into a few and then abandoned them without remorse. I go longer when I’m reading away from home and there’s not much going on, like in a commute.

    Movies I watch at home because fast forwarding will get me through the slow parts that pad way too many movies. If I’m already fast forwarding and hit it again because the movie is still too slow, those I eject right there..

  9. sonofrojblake says

    As a low-income working class child my upbringing fostered an unfortunate habit. My mother made sure we were at the library regularly. I’d take out the maximum allowable number of books (5), and read them all. What baffled her at the time was that I’d start one, then part way through move on to another, and another, until I had all five on the go. All five would be finished, then it was time to go back. She preferred to read sequentially rather than in parallel.

    This approach is fine when you’re limited to five books, but now I’m an adult with disposable income… I’m part way through something like sixty books right now. I don’t stop because I’ve had enough, I stop because there’s another book. I keep promising myself I’ll stop buying books until I’m at least something like caught up. Yeah, sure.

    I only learned you could and should stop reading a book before the end when, at ten years old, a favourite teacher told me the title of the best book ever written. I duly checked out Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, and discovered the most plodding, boring, appalling heap of trash I’d ever encountered. I ploughed on, and eventually complained to my mother. She suggested I simply didn’t read the rest. It was a revelation to me. Thanks again mum!

    @efogoto, 8:
    “eject” – lol.

  10. blf says

    I’m another person who either reads a book all the way through at (typically) one sitting, or else never finishes it; and who has an “itchy trigger finger” on movies (which is perhaps why I so rarely go to the cinema (the last movie I can recall seeing in a cinema was the first of Peter Jackson’s LotR movies !)). When I stream movies, I often find myself yelling at the screen “get on with it!”, and if I find myself fast-forwarding “too much” (hard to define) do tend to give up. There is no, as far as I know, hard-or-fast rule for either movies or books…

    Thinking about it a bit, I wonder if the “rule” is how much my mind wanders from the story — the more it wanders and ruminates on other things, the less I follow, suggesting I am losing or have lost interest, and will (eventually) give up.

    Which doesn’r explain the phenomenon of the unread book or unwatched DVD. I have a number of both, but cannot explain why (in most cases) I’ve never read much(or any) of the book, or even bothered to break the seal on the DVD.

  11. mnb0 says

    Fortunately one department in which I totally can rely on my instincts is books and movies. When I don’t feel like anymore or lose my attention I stop. When I finish a book or movie I never regret it, even if it’s kinda crappy.
    So this is a non-problem for me and I won’t let the 50 rule command me to keep on reading when I’ve had enough at page 12. That happened several weeks ago with this Dutch book:

    https://www.hebban.nl/boeken/de-skinner-methode-bronja-hoffschlag

    Totally boring. Forget about the highly possible blurb.

  12. says

    For movies, I find that about 20 minutes is my mark. It’s not a deliberate choice, it just seems to be the time it takes me to completely lose my patience. For books, I rarely read them in one sitting, so it comes down to whether I feel like picking it up again. If I don’t, then I don’t.

  13. Jenora Feuer says

    @efogoto:

    I read a book until I get bored and don’t care about the characters, then I drop it.

    S.F. writer Dorothy J. Heydt defined that as the Eight Deadly Words: “I don’t care what happens to these people.”

  14. Matt G says

    I ditched the Bible after three pages. Painfully boring.

    Gave up on a detective thriller (Grisham?) after 15 pages because of all the smug clichés.

    Made the mistake of reading all 6 Thomas Covenant stories (Donaldson) as therapy after 9/11 and discovered that I hated the books I had loved as a teen. I found myself editing every sentence to get rid of the never ending stream of superlatives.

    I would say I stop reading a book when I get annoyed by either the story or the author’s writing style.

  15. ivo says

    Since time is precious and I own too many books already, nowadays I research a book thoroughly before I start reading it, so chances are high that I won’t start any book which is either badly written or not down my alley.

    Still, I usually read several books at the same time, partly because they are meant to fill different reading niches (the commute fixer, the pre-sleep relaxation, the in-depth non-fiction on a favorite topic, etc – – I’m not always in the mood for a textbook on formal logic but sometimes that is precisely what I need) but partly also because I’m a book junkie and love the feeling of plunging into a promising new read. The latter inevitably creates a Darwinian selection leading me to stop reading any book which is not captivating enough. Such half-consumed books tend to cumulate in piles around my flat, until I’m forced to sift through them and decide for each whether to give up on it for good or put it back in the library and give it another chance down the line, possibly years later.

    This may sound inefficient, but I found that my enjoyment of a book is highly dependent on circumstances so I prefer to give a (certifiably good) book several tries before giving up in it.

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