Spoiler alert: I did not love it. But I kept reading, for several reasons.
First of all, accountability is a powerful thing. I’d never read Middlemarch and I wanted to be able to say I’d given it a good effort. I didn’t finish before book club – but I made it to page 650 (out of 800 in the edition I had), so I was satisfied with my effort. (Two other members who attended the meeting didn’t finish either.) I also liked (some of) the characters, especially practical Mary Garth, and I enjoyed Eliot’s pointed, witty narrative asides.
I know several people (including my pen pal Jaclyn) who love this book. And I figured that it’s probably a classic for a reason: I expected I would be glad I’d read it. So I decided to finish it, even after the deadline (my book club meeting) had passed.
As I was finishing up Middlemarch, I faced another bookish dilemma. I review several books each month for Shelf Awareness, and I get to choose which books I review. It means I don’t usually have to finish a book I’m not enjoying – which is my general policy these days. (As Anne says, life’s too short.)
I sent the following email to my editor:
I’m reading the new Isabel Allende novel (The Japanese Lover) and Recipes for Love and Murder by Sally Andrew. Allende is a widely respected novelist, and I’m sure this book will be hailed as a great effort and as Literature. (I remember enjoying The House of the Spirits.) But I’m not loving it. In fact, I’m liking Andrew’s book a lot better – it’s a clever South African mystery and I really like the narrator.
I know you generally tell us to review what we like – but sometimes I worry about skipping over a Big Book or “literary fiction” in favor of a mystery or something less “highbrow.” My question is: should I make a real effort to review the “big” books even if I don’t really like them, or keep reading/reviewing according to instinct and whim? Is it a problem if the Shelf “skips” some of these books? (Am I even making any sense?)
My editor (God bless her) replied succinctly, “We are better off reviewing really good books, rather than trying to shoehorn a book into a review because of the author’s stature.” (She also suggested passing the Allende on to another reviewer who might like it better.)
I happily put down the Allende after reading her email, and relished that South African mystery. But it reminded me how powerful the “shoulds” are.
We think we “ought” to finish a book because it’s a classic, or because it’s “cheating” not to finish, or because it’s the new Big Book by a popular author. The perceived judgment we might receive if we don’t finish is strong enough to keep a lot of us reading books we don’t enjoy. And sometimes (this is the kicker) it is worth it to persevere.
I’m glad I finished Middlemarch, because it’s a classic I’d been meaning to read for a long time, and I did enjoy it. But I’m also glad I put down The Japanese Lover, because it just wasn’t my thing. Both are equally valid responses to two variations of the same dilemma.
I bet I’m not the only one who struggles with this question. Do you abandon books you’re not enjoying – all the time, sometimes, never? If you’re a sometimes-finisher, like me, how do you decide?