On Not Finishing Books

Last week I did something about which I’m not proud. I created a new bookshelf in my Goodreads profile, one for “unfinished” books. And I put two books on it.

Generally, when I start something, I like to finish it. That’s particularly true of artistic things, which can sometimes change radically as they go along. When I get a new album I listen to is all the way through, several times, even if it’s not clicking with me. I want to give it a fair chance. I don’t think I’ve ever walked out on a movie, even while watching at home. It’s only a couple of hours, after all.

But books can be different. After all, they take more time and (in some cases) effort than albums or movies. That’s particularly true for me because I do a lot of my “reading” in the car, via audiobooks. It can take me weeks (if not a month) to get through a decent length novel. Given that, is it OK to bail on a book before I reach the end?

Maybe the better comparison is with TV shows. Most of them involve a considerably larger investment of time than a movie, if we’re talking about shows that go on for seasons. Given that, I don’t think I’ve ever felt bad deciding, after watching a couple of episodes, that a show’s not for me. After all, if two or three hours of (to pick a random example) Orange Is the New Black doesn’t really do much for me, why should I sit through 48 more hours of it?

But books are different, right? I’m a writer for fuck’s sake! Shouldn’t I be more dogged in my determination to finish a book I start? Shouldn’t I be willing to take one for the team, to do what I’d hope any reader would do with one of my books?

I don’t think so. It comes down to time, really. It’s not quite like this:


But it’s close. The thing is, the books I’ve decided to give up on aren’t “bad.” I don’t (to borrow a phrase from an Absolute Write forum thread) throw them across the room with great force. I want to finish them, but my heart just isn’t in it. I read for pleasure, just like I write because I enjoy it. If it starts to feel like work, something’s wrong. I already work in my life without literature adding to the load.

That the books I don’t finish can’t be labeled as “bad” (if any art can ever be so labeled) is obvious just by looking at them.

The first, the one that prompted the shelf construction, is The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu.


Liu is decorated with sci-fi and fantasy awards for his short fiction and he recently translated the Hugo-winning The Three Body Problem from Chinese, the first novel in a non-English language to win the award. Plus, he’s a lawyer and I always like reading books by lawyers who don’t write legal thrillers.

The Grace of Kings is Liu’s first novel at it’s a neat setup. It’s an epic fantasy with an Asian background, rather than European, complete with the steampunk touch of airships (Liu calls it “silkpunk”). It involved a ruthless empire and the unlikely heroes who bring it down and the aftermath of their revolution. Should be right up my alley, but it just didn’t work for me. The last straw was the interesting back story of a minor character that came across like a Wikipedia entry – all the facts, none of the drama of the story. Others love it, so I’m sure I’m missing out, but I thought it was time to move on.

The other book on that shelf really pains me, as it’s To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis.


I first experienced Willis’s world of Oxford historians who do field research via time travel in “Fire Watch,” which I thought was great. I moved on to Doomsday Book which I truly love. In both the entire process of time travel was dangerous and subject to cock ups that could put the traveler’s life in danger. It was, as the kids say, serious bizness.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is set in the same world and involves the same kind of travel. Except it’s a comedy and, in the part I read, makes hay with an historian using the machine to travel back in time to escape a particularly annoying donor to the college. It just seemed . . . wrong. It would be like if the first book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series was a serious, violent space opera about rampaging Vogons. Bad poetry, towels, and mice running the universe after that just wouldn’t seem right. So it was my own dissonance that caused me to give up on To Say Nothing of the Dog.

Thus, to those two books, and the others that will inevitably wind up on my “unfinished” shelf, I say – it’s not you, it’s me. Really, truly. But life’s short and I just have to move on. At least I still feel kind of bad about it.


One thought on “On Not Finishing Books

  1. Happens to me as well. I’m not an avid reader. Reading is a leisurely form of entertainment for me, and so when a story gets too complicated I often find my brain does not want to put forth the effort to remember and understand it all. Most of those novels I give up on are good books and I do want to know their stories, but I have enough stresses and puzzles to wade through in everyday life. I don’t want reading to be work. I want it to be simple and fun.


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