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?


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.

Reader Problems

Back in January, I described my 2016 Reading Challenge and said my aim was to read at least 50 books this year. Telling people about this challenge has resulted in responses ranging from wide-eyed astonishment and ‘gosh that’s a lot of books’ to a dismissive ‘50 books? That’s nothing. You can manage at least a hundred. A novel only takes me a day to read. Three days if it’s Russian.’ Personally, I figured a book a week was a decent, very achievable rate, considering I read fast and have plenty of free time, but didn’t want to burden myself with so much reading it started to feel like a chore. Nor did I want to put myself off tackling longer or more difficult books.

How’s it going? Well, we’re now 15 weeks into the year, and I’ve just polished off my 30th book (The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared). So, yeah, seems like two books a week is no problem – although I’ve only read one Russian novel thus far (War and Peace). Beyond the satisfaction of seeing the numbers clock up, it’s been great to get properly stuck into reading again, rediscovering the old pleasure of spending hours curled up in an armchair with a hot drink and a good book.

Books are great, and I’ve enjoyed nearly all of what I’ve read, from the lightly comedic to the dark and disturbing. And I’ve been connecting with people via literature more – being lent books by friends, and lending out books myself to share the joy. Of course, it hasn’t all been plain sailing and smooth reading. I’ve had to give up on two books (not counted in the 30): Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, which was just boring, and London by Edward Rutherfurd, which was so rapey and gross it left me feeling nauseated. And then there was Half Lost by Sally Green, the book I’d been most looking forward to reading this year and which I devoured in a single gulp on its day of publication. It was a colossal disappointment which left me feeling extremely angry at how the author chose to end it. But hey, I can treat such experiences as a valuable lesson in How Not to Write.

And to anyone looking for advice in how to read more books, I would say the following:
A) Try something different. Nothing wrong with having a favourite author slash genre (nearly half the books I’ve read this year have been fantasy) but there are good books in every genre, so put away those preconceptions and see if you can surprise yourself. My experience is that people are very willing to give you recommendations (and frequently lend you the actual books).

B) Don’t be afraid to give up on something that just isn’t doing it for you. Life’s too short to spend your time wading your way through hundreds of pages of boredom, when you could be reading something way better.

C) I’ve noticed that online advice often suggests reading in short bursts, fitted around your ‘today’s busy modern lifestyle’. Now if that’s the only time you can find to read, fair enough, but I’ve actually found that I enjoy a book more if I can get properly stuck in. An hour or so of dedicated reading time each afternoon, plus the aforementioned armchair and hot drink… that’s the kind of challenge I can really get behind.

My to-read shelf as of today

My to-read shelf as of today

UPDATE 22nd APRIL: I have now read 32 books, so I’m still on course. Emboldened by my success thus far, I’ve decided to tackle another long Russian novel, this time The Brothers Karamazov. And I can tell you, there’s nothing like reading a nineteenth-century novel with a 21st century attention span to really try your patience. ‘Get on with it, Fyodor! Enough babbling about Orthodox church politics of the 1860s, get to the sex and violence already!’

I should also add that another way I’ve managed to increase my novel consumption is by listening to audiobooks, which means I can be ‘reading’ at the same time as driving, exercising, or doing household chores. It’s a great way to read more if your life is too busy to sit down with a book very often, or if you struggle with the written word because of dyslexia, eyesight issues etc (I myself get sometimes get migraines or eye strain and have to be careful). And certain books – most notably so far Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys as read by Lenny Henry – are actually much better in audio form.

My 2016 Reading Challenge

As mentioned a fortnight ago, ( I have a resolution to read at least 50 books this year. The impetus behind this resolution is partly business and partly pleasure. As a writer, I want to see what my contemporaries are doing, and to learn more about the craft in general. As a civilian, I want to rediscover the joy of being swept into a different world. A good book is totally immersive and brain-stimulating in a way nothing else is: words on a page translated into pictures of the imagination.

I’ve established some rough rules of engagement. I’m being strictly quantitative in some respects: I’m reading at least one per week, setting aside time each day to read, and setting a daily target of pages to get through. And I’m recording each book in a spreadsheet as I finish it. In some other respects, I’m being more laissez faire. Books of all types and formats count: novels, non-fiction, comic books, audio books, fan fiction. And I’m trying to be as diverse as possible in my reads, on every axis: old books and new, classics and trash, books in every genre by authors of every background. I’m encouraging friends to recommend and/or lend me books of any kind, so that I can experience the full rich variety of literature. It’s easy to get sucked into reading the same type of thing all the time, and while as a fantasy author I clearly need to keep up with the genre, I don’t always want to be reading trilogies about dragons.

My to-read shelf as of today. Nothing better than the glorious sight of colourful paperbacks waiting to be cracked open and devoured.

My to-read shelf as of today. No more glorious sight to than an array of colourful paperbacks waiting to be cracked open and devoured.

Right now I’m listening to the audio book of War and Peace, and reading a paperback called Heat Stroke: Weather Warden book 2, which was a gift from a friend. One is a monument of European literature about Napoleon’s army getting inconveniently in the way of some Russian aristocrats’ love lives. The other is a book about a weather-controlling genie who wears lime-green stilettos. I started reading it, thought ‘what a load of rubbish’ and immediately read 100 pages. Each is enjoyable in its own way, and every book teaches you something – about writing, about reading, about human nature, or about the Battle of Borodino.

It’s going well so far, both quantitatively (4 weeks in, 6 books down) and qualitatively – I’ve read a classic mystery (The Moonstone), a comic book about a women’s prison in space (Bitch Planet), a novel based on a comedy-horror podcast (Welcome to Night Vale), and some recent works of fantasy and horror. I’ll keep you updated as the year progresses…

Warning: May Contain Spoilers

Update from my shopping trip a fortnight ago: you’ll be pleased to hear it was a success. I now have a new teapot and several attractive-yet-practical new frocks to complement my existing writers’ wardrobe of pyjamas, thermal underwear, fingerless gloves, and a fleecy onesie. Give me the right clothes, a Dropbox folder, and a cup of tea, and I’m unstoppable.

So this post is slightly behind schedule as it was my birthday on Friday so I decided I deserved a day off. Some people might say that, as a self-employed author, I have every day off: but those people don’t appreciate how much work goes into this blog. Also it’s my birthday, and my blog, so I can do whatever I want. And today I want to talk about spoilers.
You may remember my last post – all about death – started with a ‘contains spoilers’ disclaimer, including on the list of spoiled books the Harry Potter series. I had a moment of hesitation about including it, since the precise book in question, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, came out more than 12 years ago, so you’d have thought everyone who was bothered about it would have got round to reading it by now.
Except that, if you hadn’t read the books the first time around, and you’d just started the series, you might not be very happy to have advance news of a major character’s dramatic death unexpectedly plonked in your lap. Better safe than sorry, I figured. Now, not everyone has the same sensitivity to spoilers – some people don’t seem to mind them too much, others peek at the last page of the book before they even get started. But I’ve always found them annoying – I still angrily remember someone spoiling the end of Watership Down – and they can be difficult to avoid. Even if you deliberately stay away from the obvious sources – like fan fiction or discussion forums – you can still come a cropper. Never mind friends with big mouths, how about book reviewers? How about blurb writers? How about cover artists? The copies I read of both Dune and Ender’s Game featured cover art which spoiled the surprises therein, and good luck with reading a paperback book without even glancing at the cover. I’ve also learned never to read either the introduction or the back of any classic novel, since the publishers seem to assume you’re a lazy A-level student and that you couldn’t possibly want to read a hundred-plus-year-old book for pleasure.
I always try, therefore, to slather on the spoiler warnings, especially on the internet where you have no idea who might stumble across your words, and not to spoil anything for anyone – but where should you draw the line? Should you try not to let slip that Romeo & Juliet end up dead? (oops) Surely, as with copyright, there has to be a limit somewhere. But should all out-of-copyright works be fair game, or do you figure that at least someone might not know Elizabeth Bennet ends up marrying Mr Darcy? Oops, sorry, guess I just spoiled Pride & Prejudice there. Does it matter? Surely everyone’s seen the TV version with Colin Firth swimming in the lake? Actually, maybe not – the people who’ve just started their degrees in English Literature this year were not even born when that first aired on the BBC in 1995.
And that, I think, is the point we need to bear in mind, the point the Wordsworth Classics editions forget – that what we might think of as established, as known, as already-read, as canon, will always be fresh to someone. There will constantly be new generations of young readers who want to discover literature for themselves, whether that’s Jane Austen or JK Rowling. And we should all, I think, do our best not to spoil it for them. Don’t forget, a boy who was the same age as Harry Potter when the first book came out in 1997 is now old enough to be reading the book aloud at bedtime to his own children. I hope he doesn’t give anything away.

A Prison of the Mind

Earlier this week, I signed a petition, directed at justice secretary Chris Grayling, urging him to reconsider the rule changes which ban prisoners from receiving books and other items from outside. This issue is getting quite a lot of attention in the media – social and otherwise – and a large number of high-profile writers (including Jeffrey Archer, one of the few to have done time in both jail and Parliament) have joined the campaign. Now, I am utterly unqualified to comment on the treatment of prisoners so I’m not going to try – I’ve put a few links below for more information. The reason I signed the petition has less to do with my views on rehabilitation, and a lot more to do with a gut reaction: quite simply, the idea of being denied books strikes horror deep into my soul. Books can provide so many things: education, enlightenment, escape (metaphorically speaking). As an avid reader and aspiring author, they are such an important part of my life that I can’t imagine living without them. Well, actually, I can, but I don’t want to (a vivid imagination can be both a blessing and a curse). And so, I regard restricting access to books as a punishment of extreme cruelty, a prison of the mind, which I wouldn’t inflict on even the most hardened criminal.
I’m pretty sure that others who support this campaign will share my abject horror of booklessness. Indeed, many writers have exploited such feelings, since love of reading is about the only thing you can be reasonably confident your readers will have in common. Just think of the awful parents in Matilda who try to make their daughter watch TV rather than read, or the ‘firemen’ of Fahrenheit 451 who burn all books they find. For my money, the best (for which read stomach-churningly horrifying) depiction of book deprivation can be found in The Handmaid’s Tale, a book which literally gave me nightmares and sends my pulse racing and my palms sweating even as I type these words. And no, I am not exaggerating, not in the slightest. Thank you, Margaret Atwood.

But is there such a thing as too much reverence for books? This is the question raised by an intriguing birthday present I received last week from a writer friend. It’s a book called ‘Wreck this Journal’ and it has the tagline ‘To Create is to Destroy’. It consists of a series of instructions to, as the name suggests, wreck it: one page tells you to rip it, another tells you to smear your dinner on it, another tells you to take the book in the shower with you. As the photograph shows, I’ve made a start, but, indoctrinated by my father into treating books as precious things, it was a struggle. Once I got started, however, I have to admit that it’s a strangely liberating experience, to defy my own reverence for printed pages and just unleash creative destruction upon them. It’s a great idea which I encourage all writers to try. But, here’s the thing, you have to develop that reverence to start with, and you’ll never get it if you’re denied the books.


Article by Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, which started the campaign:
Authors’ letter to the Telegraph:
Guardian article about the campaign:
The petition: