The Gift of Giving Up

Last year, I read 100 books. This year, I’m well on my way to repeating that, with my official Goodreads counter sitting at 92 as of November 4th.

However, I have recently had a rash of giving up on books before reaching the end, which has slowed my reading rate. This has made me wonder: do I have issues with my stamina and my attention span? Should I be less of a quitter and stick it out even when I’m not really enjoying a book?

Intrigued as to what others thought, I fired questions at both the Fantasy Faction group on Facebook, and the Sword & Laser discussion group on Goodreads, to find what other people thought about giving up. I rapidly got back a whole load of responses (thanks, guys!). My favourite response on Facebook was from one Miguel Angel Martinez, who memorably said: “Never give up, never surrender! No matter how much of a slow ride to Hell it may be. I am 200 pages into the *last* Sword of Truth book and have been there for two years! But I am going to finish it, g’damn it, even if it costs me what’s left of my sanity.” Most others, however, were of the opinion that, while they didn’t like to give up on a book, they would do if it annoyed them enough. There was also some discussion about whether how much you’ve paid for a book does or should make a difference – Michael Rowe said that he likes to get his money’s worth by finishing everything he’s paid for. Not everyone agreed with his assessment of what constitutes getting one’s money’s worth.

Over at the Sword & Laser, as Brendan pointed out, there’s something of a culture of celebrating giving up on books – there’s even a cutesy name for it (to Lem a book, after the Polish SF writer Stanislaw Lem). One thing I found interesting was the relationship between how picky you are in choosing your reads, and how likely you are to ‘Lem’ something. Colin said he almost never gave up on books and commented ‘Maybe this means I’m not daring enough in my selections’, while others said that doing extensive research before starting a book meant they rarely left something unfinished.

The consensus on both sites was, that since life is already far too short to read all the books you want to read, it’s not worth carrying on with something you hate.

As for me… well, I tend to read just about anything that comes to my attention without bothering with a lot of pre-read research, and I try not to play it safe with my selections. Inevitably, this means that I’m not going to enjoy everything I read. I do often feel slightly guilty about giving up on something, especially if it’s by an author I usually like and/or want to support. Recently, for instance, I had to give up on Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, despite having enjoyed the previous books by her I’d read (including the prequel novella The Book of Phoenix). Frankly, I found the relentless violence against women (rape, genital mutilation, more rape) hard to stomach. I tried to continue, telling myself that it’s based on recent real-life events in Sudan and that such stories are important, but it was just too much for me, and so I noped out.

My latest Lem was A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. At first I liked the Oxford setting, but once I’d got beyond the ‘I’ve sat in that library! I’ve drunk beer in that pub!’ I realised it was Another Sexy Vampire story – not a subgenre I find interesting. Having given up on it, I felt vaguely guilty – but then I started reading Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky, a book I absolutely loved from beginning to end. And then I felt thoroughly vindicated.

That’s the thing about giving up on a book you’re not enjoying. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s actually a gift to yourself – of more time to read something you *do* enjoy. And isn’t time to read a good book the most precious gift you can have?

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How to Read 100 Books in a Year

Some of you may recall that last year I had a New Year’s resolution to read at least 50 books, which half-way through the year I amended to 100 books. How did I do? Well, I had a bit of a shaky autumn, but with a concerted late-December push, I got myself over the finish line, and read exactly 100. And yes, I was sufficiently nerdy to keep a spreadsheet recording the details every single book I read. And I can remember enough about pivot tables from my time working in an office so that I can now play around with my own reading statistics, and tell you that, for example, my preferred format (with 58% of total titles) was the paperback, that my favourite genres were fantasy and science fiction, and that, as a result of making a concerted effort to catch up with contemporary writing, I read 68 books from the 2010s but a mere 8 from the entire 20th century (and 6 from the 19th century).

When I tell people about my reading achievement, I get reactions ranging from dismissal (’only 100 books? Easy!’) to disbelief. One common response is a slightly awestruck wistfulness: an ‘I wish I could read more books but…’
Well, if that applies to you, fear not! I am here to share with you my secrets, and get you past that but.

1) ‘I wish I could read more books, but I don’t know where to start.’

I confess this one is a novel (see what I did there?) problem for me, because I always have dozens of books I want to read. However, help is at hand. The simplest approach is just to ask friends and family for their recommendations, and there’s always the good old-fashioned try-asking-in-your-local-bookshop method, but these days there are all kinds of electronic resources as well, from Goodreads to Amazon algorithms to countless book bloggers. The main thing, I think, is to accept that tastes differ and you’re not always going to enjoy something, however highly it comes recommended. If that happens, don’t give up: try the next thing. Sooner or later you’ll find the book for you, and then you can read everything by that author, seek out things in that ‘if you like x, you’ll love y!’ category, and delve into the fanfic. Discovering stuff you might want to read has never been easier.

2) ‘I wish I could read more books, but they’re expensive!’

They can be. But if you want to read, there’s no need to shell out on a load of brand-new hardbacks. I’m consistently astonished by how few people make use of libraries – they have hundreds of books! And you can borrow any of them for free! It’s amazing! And I can’t speak for all library systems, but the one in Derbyshire is pretty good (for now, at least) at keeping stock up-to-date and arranging inter-library loans for the princely sum of 45p if the title you want isn’t available locally.
If e-books are your thing, I’ve heard about (but not tried myself) something called Bookbub, which sends you emails recommending cheap or free books. There’s also Kindle Unlimited, although I personally found their selection of titles didn’t match up to my reading interests. And, while genuine second-hand bookshops are a rarity these days, there are charity shops a-plenty, not to mention millions of second-hand books being sold online, many for 1p+p+p. Getting hold of cheap books has never been easier.

3) ‘I wish I could read more books, but I don’t have the time!’

This is by far the commonest reason I hear why people can’t read more. My invariable answer is: audiobooks. Listen on long drives. Listen while you cook dinner. Listen while you exercise. Audiobooks let you read while you do that other stuff that keeps you busy. They’re great, and these days thousands of them are available via your phone (I use Audible and I swear by it). It’s never been easier to find books to listen to. Another idea: if you can’t find the time to commit to a full novel, try short stories. You can get a complete narrative in just twenty minutes or so. Perfect for the time-strapped.

In summary, it’s never been easier to find books you’ll want to read, in the format you want, at a price you can afford. In theory, it’s never been easier to read. So why do so many people seem to struggle to consume as many books as they say they’d like to? Well, the answer is obvious: because it’s also never been easier to get distracted. Just as thousands upon thousands of great books are now readily available, so are games and movies and TV shows and YouTube videos and web forums and blogs and cute cat pictures and every other thing you can possibly think of (and an awful lot more you can’t think of and probably don’t want to). And I feel like, behind 90% of those ‘buts’, the real reason is that the person would rather spend their spare time watching Netflix or playing World of Warcraft. Which is fine – I’m not going to get snobby about different forms of entertainment – but I have to say, if you really really want to read more, there’s ultimately only one way to do it: you need to put down the Internet and pick up a book.