Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Thoughts on an abandoned book...

How do you feel about abandoning a book mid-way? With fiction in particular, I try not to give up on a book and do my best to read all the way through to the end, even if I’m not enjoying it. Part of the reason is that after investing a certain amount of time into a story and its characters, I’d like to see how things turn out. Another reason is that I don’t feel that I’m able to properly discuss – let alone “review” – a book if I haven’t read it cover to cover. Not only might there be important plot elements left unread, but if you stop reading halfway (or even 3/4s) there is still ample room for the writer to twist the story around, or to say something that might grab your attention and make you re-think what you’ve just read. The last line of the book can be just as crucial as the first, and often it can influence how you interpret the overall tone of the book. In particular I’m thinking of Charles Willeford’s Pick-Up.

Recently I’ve been trying to read China Mieville’s The City and The City, which came highly recommended from a good friend, whose taste and opinions I admire, but also who knows the type of books that I enjoy. Previously she turned me on to John Franklin Bardin, who is now one of my favorite writers. So, I eagerly jumped into The City and The City and found myself entranced by its Quantum Physics/Police Procedural fusion. At first, that is. But the more I read on, the more frustrated I became with not only the book’s forced blend of reality/unreality, but also the belabored language which felt repetitive and wordy.

The premise of the novel is that it takes place in a fictional European city – rather, two cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, which occupy the same geographical location but which are separate worlds. The citizens have been trained to “unsee” the other world, since they share the same space. It is highly illegal to “see” through the divide and see the other city, which means that to “breach” and cross-over without proper authorization is a most severe crime. But when a young female student is found murdered, the police begin to think that “breach” was involved, and they have to cross over to continue their investigation.

I tried for a week to finish the book, but couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to open it even while waiting on the subway. While I really loved the quasi-sci-fi atmosphere of the story, I found that there were just excessive amounts of detail about the location, and not enough about the characters or the story. The author would always interrupt the flow to tell us something more about the cities, which is often interesting but not always essential. After a certain point I had my own image of the two cities and was ready to dive into the story – but the writer didn’t seem to want to trust the readers to use their own imagination. By spelling everything out, the novel began to lose its magic and mystery.

So, halfway through, I had to stop. I returned the book to my friend, thanked her for the recommendation but was honest about how I felt. We had a nice chat about it, and I think we both see each other’s point of view. While I didn’t care for this book so much, I do look forward to more recommendations from my friend.

How do you feel about stopping a book halfway through? Has anyone read The City and The City? Perhaps I’m missing out on the best part.

By the way, this post is a partial explanation of why I haven’t written much on the blog over the past week. I have a couple books read and another almost finished, and I’ll be reviewing those shortly.


  1. Don't feel bad Cullen, I also abandoned The City And the City. It had a very promising start but bogged down I thought. You articulated the problems with the book very well. I skipped to the last two chapters to see what happened then returned it to the library.

  2. I have been slogging my way though the first Jack Reacher book by Lee Child for the last couple of days, and I have finally accepted that it's time to throw in the towel on this one. I am just at the point where I know that if something isn't connecting now, it's time to move on. There are books that I wasn't into in the past that I have made it through and enjoyed later, and and books from my past that I can't seem to get through today. I think a lot of it is where you are at as a reader at the moment.

    One thing that I am noticing is that as I read more of the 50s plot driven books, I find myself getting tired of books that should have been 200 pages but have been stretched out to 400 pages.

  3. I have no problem at all bailing on a book that isn't working for me. I do not feel I "owe" the author or anyone an obligation to stick it out to the end. I have too many books on my TBR pile to waste time on something that I do not find interesting, compelling, or well written. My wife, on the other hand, will stick to the bitter end with a book she dislikes because "she's already put time into it and wants to see how it all turns out." My situation is I don't care enough to see how it turns out. Good riddance to bad books. In my experience, if they're not good at the beginning, they won't get better in the middle or the end. All this said, it isn't often that i toss one, but it does happen and i am happier when i've set it aside and reached for a new one.

  4. My policy on books is a three strike rule. If I'm having trouble getting into a book, I set it aside and go to something else. Returning later, if I encounter the same troubles, I do the same.
    I give a book three chances because I know that possibly, just possibly, it might be me. My mood may be wrong for a certain type of book. But if I can't get into the tale after three tries, I toss it aside for a lost cause.
    There is just too much out there I want to read, or think I do at any rate, for me to continue to waste my time.

  5. Mack - Glad I'm not the only one who felt this way. Have you read his other books? You also have some great recommendations on your blog MACK CAPTURES CRIME - I saw MANUAL OF DETECTION in a bookstore and was intrigued, glad to hear you liked it.

    Eric - I completely agree. In both movies and books, I'm becoming more intolerant of wasted pages and time in a story. Pacing is so important.

    Frank - I feel the same way about my TBR pile. What ultimately convinced me to put this book down was a copy of the new Pelecanos which was waiting in my backpack just begging to be read.

    Randy - That's a great idea. I might have to start employing it myself.

  6. I abandon more than half the books I begin. Sometimes I only give it five pages. If that voice doesn't grab me, I bail. It's never over plot issues. If I like the voice I will go with it to get groceries.

  7. The older I get, the quicker on the trigger I get. I'll usually give a book 20 or 30 pages to catch my interest, but that's all. Sometimes I do go back and give a book another try or even a third one. That's rare, though.

  8. With a To-Be-Read pile of 50 or 60 books I'm pretty quick to abandon a book that I'm not enjoying.

    I didn't always used to be this way--but my outlook changed after slogging through 800 pages (or did it just seem that long?) of Battlefield Earth. I kept telling myself that the story was just about to get good, but it never did.

  9. I'm like you in that I tend to force myself through a book even if I'm not enjoying it. If I get more than 30 or 40 pages in I'll usually finish, although I have been known to skim the last parts of some books. On the other hand, I sometimes feel by doing so that I'm wasting time on books I don't like when I could be reading ones I do. I've never read anything by Mieville. I've glanced at one or two and they just did not look appetizing to me. I suspect I'd react much like you did here.

  10. This is an interesting topic, the age old question of whether to finish or credit the book with a DNF. I tent to give a book 100 pages (im a fast reader) and asses it from there. I can count on one hand the books I’ve put down but much like Iren I now tend to read more 50's plot books rather than your generic police procedural


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