Giving up on a book

I haven’t done this in ages, but for the first time this year and for who knows how long before that, I’m setting aside a book I’m not getting along with. I should give up on books I’m not loving more often, I know that, but I generally don’t anyway. I want to give a book a chance before I quit reading it, and once I’ve done that, I usually find myself far enough into it that it doesn’t seem too hard to just carry on.

But I was reading Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children before I left on vacation, and while I found it interesting on some levels, I also found myself on page 150 or so out of 500+ pages wondering if I was ever going to be able to finish the thing. I felt like I’d already plowed through a lot, but that tons more was waiting for me, and I wasn’t sure the book was going to change or develop much to make the plowing on worth while. And then vacation intervened, and I had a lot of other books to read, and I haven’t picked it up in a few weeks now and will put it back on the shelf soon.

The book is a family story. It’s about a woefully mismatched couple with a large brood of children, and it describes the family dynamics, including the horrible fights the parents have and the way the children try to keep peace in their family. It captures the father’s highly imaginative use of language and the games he plays with his children, as well as the mother’s longing for a different kind of life and refusal to accept the circumstances she finds herself in. The eldest daughter, Louisa, is a child from the father’s previous marriage, a fact her step-mother never lets her forget. Louisa, in the heartbreaking way of children, accepts this and doesn’t question it, although she has also begun to explore the world outside the family more and is retreating into the private world of adolescence. There is cruelty in the way the parents treat the children, but, somehow, there is also love and moments of happiness. What else can young children do but make the best of the situation they find themselves in?

I liked the way the book explored this dynamic —  the problem of children trying to understand what is going on in their family when it both nurtures and harms them, in ways they aren’t grown up enough to comprehend. Certain kinds of dysfunctional families are very interesting to read about, and this family reminded me very much of the family in Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle. In both cases, the parents have wonderful things to offer to their children, but they can’t seem to grow up enough themselves to be capable of taking care of others.

The problem, though, is the pacing. I read and read, and not much happened, and there wasn’t enough narrative tension or tension among the characters to make me want to keep going. I think I can be a patient reader, but there wasn’t enough to reward my patience.

It’s a memorable book, though. Even if I never pick it up again, I’ll remember the family. Maybe I’m missing a really great ending, and if you have read this book before, you can let me know if I have, but I think with some books you don’t have to read the entire thing to get something from it.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

12 responses to “Giving up on a book

  1. Ann

    I used to feel very bad about giving up on a book and realised that for me, at least, this was the result of being made to feel at school that not finishing a book was almost a capital offense. Ironically, when I came to understand this I changed the way I taught and always allowed children to put a book down provided they could give me an explanation as to why it wasn’t the book for them, but I still went on forcing my way through books that I hadn’t connected with – just in case!
    Now, as I recognize that there is never going to be enough time to read all the books I do make a connection with I’ve adopted my friend Peter’s 50 page rule. If I am not convinced by then it goes, I’m afraid.

  2. I always used to finish a book once I’d started and then I realised that I was never going to be able to read all the books I want to read and why waste time on one I wasn’t enjoying. I still feel I need to give a book a chance though, so it’s not often that I give up on a book.

    This one sounds slow going and probably wouldn’t hold my attention for long – I’m more impatient with books these days than I used to be!

  3. I don’t blame you in the least, and feel just as you do about giving up on a book. I hate doing it, but sometimes it has to be done. I have a copy of that Christina Stead, and will try it one day, but it hasn’t leapt into my hands yet. Your summary makes it sound intriguing, but the absence of plot can be very difficult to deal with.

  4. Ann — well, perhaps this first step of mine is the beginning of my own recognition that life is too short to read books I’m not enjoying. How great that you decided to change the way you teach based on your experience of being forced to finish books. I’m sure the students appreciated it. The 50 page rule makes a whole lot of sense.

    BooksPlease — it’s such a hard thing to learn, to be willing to quit with books. I just have to remind myself of what you say about the shortness of time and the incredibly large number of books out there to try out. Perhaps if I keep reminding myself, I’ll learn the lesson!

    Litlove — I’d be very curious to see what you think of the book. I think you’d enjoy reading about the family dynamics, and maybe you wouldn’t mind the book’s slow pace. It’s certain an interesting example of mothering in fiction, if you still need more examples!

  5. I do put aside books, but I tend to feel guilty about it–mostly because once it gets set aside I know there is little chance I will pick it up again. Sometimes if I make myself slog through a book I’m not enjoying I tend to get resentful of it, which isn’t a good thing either. I’ve heard Christina Stead is very good, but I’m not at all familiar with her work. Too bad it wasn’t a shorter novel, but 500 pages with a book you’re not enjoying can be extremely tedious!

  6. I have a hard time not finishing books either, but the other commenters are right: life is too short to force yourself to keep reading things you’re not enjoying.

  7. Like you, I almost never give up on books (only one that I can remember in the last few years, except for ones for my degree when I ran out of time before an essay was due) – and this is one I’ve had on my maybe-I’ll-read-it list for a while. But I might not bother now…

  8. I have a hard time putting books aside too but I have gotten better at it in these last few years. It’s still not easy though. I find that it helps to immediately jump into a book that catches me up. Then I don’t feel so bad because the great new book helps me forget about the one that I wasn’t getting along with.

  9. Danielle — that’s exactly it. I just didn’t feel I needed another 300 pages. Someone could come along and tell me the pace picks up, but I doubt that’s the case. Oh, well. I’m glad I didn’t push myself with this one, and I would like to let myself quit books more easily in the future.

    Debby — I think you and the other commenters are correct, and I need to keep that in mind when I run into this problem next. I should be enjoying what I’m reading!

    Simon — why not join me in refusing to read books you’re not enjoying! We can abandon books in solidarity and try to get over our guilt …

    Stefanie — good advice! When I gave up the Stead, I started reading Powell and then Wilkie Collins, and those two did the trick, I think. I’m left with no desire to go back to Stead.

  10. Good for you! I talk a big game when it comes to giving up on books, but I really rarely ever do so, and those I don’t finish often haunt me for a while. Sometimes, years later, I’ll pick up one that has particularly haunted me and wonder why I couldn’t get through it, but usually I find I easily forget them.

  11. SFP

    Not that I’ve read all that many Steads yet, but I have a suspicion that she does a better job with the pacing in her shorter works. The last Stead I read was For Love Alone, very autobiographical, and it could have been a much stronger work if it had been edited down. It’s been 11 or so years since I read Man Who Loved Children and it’ll be interesting to see how I react to it when I get around to it again in a year or two.

    Anyway, I don’t see the point in continuing on with a book if you’re not enjoying it. There’s nothing wrong with quitting a book.

  12. Emily — you’re right, I’ve pretty much forgotten the Stead and don’t feel sorry for setting it aside.

    SFP — I remembered that you had read Stead, so I was curious what you thought. I wonder how you’ll feel about it when you read it again too. I really liked a lot of things about the book … I just couldn’t take the length, so trying something shorter of hers might make sense.

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