When to Stop Reading

Jean Little, author of Listen for the Singing.

One of my writing friends whose work is so good I’m sure it will soon be published suggested that I read a couple of poor historical novels. What? Why should I do that? She wanted me to see exactly how bad the books were and why.Ā  I read the first one right through as it redeemed itself in the subject matter. The second never made it to my 50-page rule. I will read up to 50 pages just to be sure I give the book a fair chance before I ditch it. This means I read most books to the end.

But, even though it was historical, that other book couldn’t hold my interest. I took it back to the library after 20 pages, so glad I hadn’t spent money on it.

This experience got me wondering if there is any benefit for a writer in reading poorly written books? Certainly after turning the last page of a never-to-be-forgotten book like Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance or Margaret George’s The Autobiography of Henry VIII the characters resonate a long time in one’s head. And I’ve mentioned before my tears after reading one of Jean Little’s YA books. That poor novel which I mentioned above and am reluctant to name in deference to the author? Not so much.

As I sit here trying to recall the books’ titles, I realize that the only thing I got from reading those badly conceived books was a lesson in what not to do. I still think, however, my time is better spent finding excellent authors as osmosis surely works in this case. Somehow our minds take in the evocative settings, the cleverly constructed sentences, the marriage of plot and character so that, when we write ourselves, we are much more likely to emulate these exemplary authors. At least we know what is in the pot at the end of our writing rainbow.

And that is why I will still put down a book if, after 50 pages, it has not snagged me in the outer threads of its web and forced me to keep winding into its center.

What is your magic page number if a book doesn’t live up to its promise? Do you see any benefits to reading less than stellar writing? Consider leaving a comment on this topic in the space below.

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41 thoughts on “When to Stop Reading

  1. I’ve given up after as little as three pages and as much as 3/4s of a book. If I can’t find a single thing I’m interested in after 3 pages, that’s enough for me to stop. I do understand the benefit of reading poor writing and that I can learn from it, but it’s hard to spend time reading bad writing when there are so many good books to read.

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    • Funny you should mention 3/4 of a book. I put one aside not long ago at that point and I can’t even remember now what it was. Shows you it wasn’t a good book. Thanks for commenting, Kristina!

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  2. I just finished a disappointing read, Elaine, so your timing is perfect for an fresh, unfettered response.
    I should have been interested in the book, the blurb promised the kind of story I adore.
    The book hit all the notes structurally-speaking and the author did pen some lovely lines, yet the conflict lacked the tension I needed in order to keep the pages turning. The characters were flawed to make them real, but so flawed I couldn’t like them, let alone root for them.
    I finished the book because of the hook: a dead baby in the heroine’s family history. I kept reading only to find out what the story behind that baby was.
    Like a carnival ride I wish I hadn’t boarded, I only wanted to reach the end. The ride itself was of no consequence.
    That is not the way I want my writing to urge my readers to the end. There’s a valuable lesson there, and wouldn’t you know it, I came across a review of another book by this author, and the reviewer’s opinion was so like my own, I could have written the review myself.

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    • I think of that old adage ‘clothes don’t make the man’ and think it could apply to book jackets, Sherry. And I, too, read a book a couple of years ago which I should have liked but the main character was so flawed I lost sympathy for her. Wouldn’t it be funny if it were the same book? Can’t remember the name of mine, though.
      Excellent addition to the discussion, Sherry.

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  3. I will usually go until at least page 100. This is actually longer than I think a book should take to get interesting (particularly if it’s only 300 or so pages), and even if it does get go by this point, I’ll likely still consider it somewhat poorly written for having such uneven pacing. Like you, I’m actually hoping the story will grab me within the first 50 pages (actually, I’m hoping it will grab me from page 1), but I usually give it the extra 50 pages because I know how long and hard the novel-process is and want to honour the author’s efforts the best I can.

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  4. I will usually continue reading the book till the very end. I think I’ve only stopped reading two books during my life, mostly because they had content I couldn’t stomach, but I will try to finish every book I pick up. I’m a little OCD about that, haha.

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  5. Magic number? I don’t have one. Whether the book is good or bad, I’ll finish it. Finish a good book is a given. I want to get to “The End” with the hero and heroine, bask in the glorious feelings they share with each other, and smile ’cause it really was a great story.

    Finishing a bad book is harder to do. Why finish it then? Torture, I suppose, lol. No, seriously, to see if it gets better and to see if the ending redeems the beginning and middle. Sometimes it happens but usually doesn’t.

    Reading a poorly written book is insightful. I notice errors – spelling, grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, etc. – and am more aware of them when editing my own work or a friend’s.

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  6. There is no magic number for me, but I’ve learned to stop reading when I’m not enjoying a book. I must confess that until the last couple of years, I forced myself to finish every book I started. I didn’t want to be a quitter. I’m sure there is some cool medical name for this disorder that tortured me. Now, I’m sure I can tell within 50 pages. I think I’ve quit a book in fewer.

    BTW- that is a cairn terrier in the image with your post. šŸ™‚ I am a cairn terrier fan (as proven by the two that live in my home and pretend to be human).

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  7. I don’t give books fifty pages, Elaine. If after a few chapters I don’t care about the characters then I won’t read on. I don’t just don’t have reading time to waste. I agree with you. I’d much rather read a well written book and be inspired to improve my own writing.

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  8. I am one of those who sticks it out to the end, no matter how disgusted I get with what I’m reading. Guess it gives me an outlet to rage and rant about all those ‘bad writers who get published.’ Got to find some justification , right?

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  9. I decide whether to read a book by opening it randomly and reading part of a page. If it is written badly, has poorly written dialogue, or seems boring, I will look at the 1st page. Based on those 2 pages, I keep it or return it to the shelf. I won’t give up on a book easily once I start reading it. Sometimes I put it down for awhile, then go back to it weeks later. If it truly does not interest me, I usually find I am drawn to a different book, and read it, and totally forget the other.

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    • What an organized way to choose books, Janet! If I like the look of the cover, the inside flap intrigues me, the author seems interesting, and a random reading of several paragraphs shows writing skill, I am likely to pick that book off the shelf.

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  10. Not sure, as I don’t have a certain number. If it’s a non-fiction book I might grin and bare it, if it’s got good information worth the trouble. If it’s a fiction book, I’m not as generous. Often, if something doesn’t catch me in the first chapter, it’s over. Sometimes I might go another chapter in to give it a fair chance. Before I even start a fiction book, it’s got to grab my attention with the descriptive blurb or the few spots I glance at on a quick thumb through.

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  11. I usually try to plow my way through to the end, but there have been a few I just couldn’t make it that far. I have enjoyed a number of James Mitchener books, but have had a hard time getting through all those pages of background. Once into the books, though, I enjoy them. Except for “Recessional”. I tried that a few times but couldn’t get very far. I finally gave up completely. One other was called “Shira”. I couldn’t even remember what it was about, but I would pick it up every so often to try to make it to the end, but never did. It was painfully boring. I just Googled it to see what info I could find and discovered the main character was bored with his life and his job. No wonder the book was boring? šŸ™‚ The problem with persevering with poorly-written books is that when I do finish them I kick myself (figuratively speaking) for wasting so much time. Fortunately I haven’t run across too many bad books recently.

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      • It wouldn’t have been so bad if he was just bored temporarily and then found a way to overcome it. It may even have been helpful. But nothing seemed to change through the whole book, and it wasn’t a short one either. I don’t suppose it would have been so bad if one of the other characters was bored or boring if only the main character had displayed some sign of life. šŸ™‚

        I wrote a children’s book which starts out with the young boy being bored with too much rain in the early days of summer holidays. But the first sunny day soon came and he was off for adventures.

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  12. Your point makes me think of family dinners growing up — we were expected to clear out plates before leaving the table. I now feel completely liberated when I know I’ve eaten my last bite and allow myself to leave the rest on my plate. I’ve certainly stopped reading my fair share of books, too. At some point, we’re know we’ve had enough, and we’re done.

    If over-reading is like over-eating (osmosis as you say), then publishers are definitely in danger of publishing crap. Maybe there’s more than simply their workloads to not reading past the first page of every manuscript, afterall?

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    • Even though I occasionally cease and desist when a book doesn’t measure up to my standards, I still have a twinge of guilt. Your comment makes me wonder if it’s connected to my think-of-all-the-starving-children-in-Africa stories in childhood. My parents subscribed to that idea of eating every last bite on the plate. Thanks for commenting.

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  13. Certain number of pages? Nope. I have struggled through many bad books in the past, sure that I could never just end in the middle of a story only to find it was a waste of time. Now my time is precious, and even the very best books get put down in the middle. It truly takes something fabulous at this point in my life to keep me reading instead of writing. I may be at the first two chapter limit, after that, why bother?

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    • And I often find myself starting at the beginning again after laying a book down for a couple of weeks. I just can’t remember enough of the story to keep going. This is no reflection on the book, just a comment on my busy life.

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      • I sometimes have that problem too, Elaine. Especially if I’m reading several books at the same time (a common habit for me) and forget about one of them for a few weeks. I also have a bad habit of “burying” a book under a pile of something else and completely forget I was reading it. (I know, bad habit, and I do it with my mail sometimes, too. Really bad habit.)

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  14. I find that I usually can judge my interest in the book by the cover text and the intro.
    I have found that pattern to miss on a very few occasions.

    The Rule of Four is one of them.
    Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason were highly praised when this book came out.
    I just looked up my stopping point, Chapter 11, page 127.
    I really looked forward to reading this based on so many reviews that were positive.
    It was so hyped up and reviewed that I wondered if it was just me?
    I found it boring and slow.
    Too slow to continue.

    Another example is Descartes’ Bones, by Russell Shorto.
    This book has a very interesting premise.
    It covers a topic that I find interesting, philosophy.
    However, the whole theme of the writing was just too slow for me.
    I ended up skipping ahead and simply skimming until the end.

    A last example is The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross.
    This one is religious in nature.
    It is not a story so much as a thesis.
    However it is written in such a fashion that I could not stay with it.
    I don’t mind some contention but I need continuity too.
    This book did not do it for me.

    I remember struggling with Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance many years ago.
    When I asked others what they thought of the book, most said it was deep and only for a few talented readers who “got it”.
    I have since tried to pick up where I left off.
    I have left it again and again.
    It may be deep, but I don’t care.
    It just doesn’t make a compelling story for me.

    Not every book will please us.
    I guess that is the nature of information transfer, which is the root of a book, to transfer information to us in the form which pleases us and keeps our interest.

    Some information flows into us easily while other information refuses to penetrate even our outer shell.

    I absolutely love books. I love e-books too.
    However, the quality of the experience can’t be overrated.

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    • Your comment makes me wonder is we really should expect every book to please us as we are all as individual as snowflakes and that individuality is something to cherish. Hmm. Food for thought. Thanks, Paul.

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  15. I don’t have a magic number, but it’s taken me a long time to force myself NOT to finish a book. Getting books from the library is perfect tho -I get 99% of my books from there- as you’re not financially invested. As a writer I think it’s better to read books that you can learn from. But even books that are so-so can have an aspect which is worth learning from. Good post thank you.

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    • A life-long book collector, I’ve had to start using the library now that I’ve downsized. You are right that books from the library are just a little easier to put aside. There’s even a smidge of satisfaction that the book is ready to go back sooner, even though I haven’t read it.
      Isn’t it interesting how many people have this idea that we must finish the book? Thanks for your thoughts, A.K.

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  16. I usually know after the first 2 paragraphs, but if I’ve paid money I may read up to five pages of an amateurish novel. You’re right: osmosis is a wonderful thing. However, it works with both good and bad writing. Bad stuff can be contagious, breeding compromise, acceptance and (ugh) imitation.

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  17. In the past 60 years there are probably four or five books I couldn’t finish. I like to give the authors a chance to prove their worth. I may not like a book to the end, but there is always something I learn. In some cases – how not to write.

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  18. I don’t have a specific page count. I’ll read a bit more if the book comes highly recommended – one of my husband’s favourite books I just could not stand. I read it at a pace of about two pages a night just to get through it. I used to read all books all the way through to see if they would redeem themselves but eventually I decided that life is too short. My writing teacher suggests that when selecting a book to buy you don’t look at page one but page three or ten or so. Page one will have been polished to hook you but a few pages later the writer’s style will become truly clear.

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  19. I believe reading poor writing is nearly as important as reading excellent writing. When I read good writing, after reading one time just to absorb the story, I read again, as many times as necessary, to understand what the author did that worked, why it worked, and how.

    For bad writing, I sometimes study even more intensively, to be sure I know how to avoid doing the same thing. If the story itself was good, just the writing was bad, I sometimes analyse to find what the author could have done differently and saved the story.

    I’ve been told, and I believe wholeheartedly that writers need to be able to look at a piece of writing and quickly determine both good and bad elements, and how the effect was achieved.

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