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The Sunday Salon: How Do You Cope?

October 17, 2010

The Sunday Salon.com

A few days ago, Clare from The Literary Omnivore and I had the following conversation on Twitter about a particularly bad book she was reading:

ErinReadsblog: Do you abandon awful books or just plow through? I find they often slow my overall reading down because I’m busy avoiding them.

litomnivore:  I plow. I’m a completionist. Although, this one is a bad thriller, so I can narrate passages in my Batman voice and giggle.

Aside from providing a fantastic (and unexpected) mental image, this brief discussion made me think. I’ve considered which side of the fence I’m on regarding “awful books,” but Clare’s comment made me realize I’ve never gone any deeper than just picking a side. I’ve definitely never thought about how to make reading an “awful book” more fun (Batman voice, anyone?). So today, I’m taking a look at how I cope with the dreaded “awful books,” and why.

A definition, to kick things off:

Cope (verb)

1. to struggle or deal, esp. on fairly even terms or with some degree of success (from Dictionary.com)

I like this definition because it puts me on equal footing with my book, so that we become two entities sort of sizing one another up. Like two people, my book and I may not see eye to eye. In such situations, I have to figure out how to deal with this lack of alignment. (Lucky book…its inanimate-ness exempts it from such strategizing!)

Whereas Clare is a self-proclaimed “completionist,” I am firmly in the “life is too short to read bad books” camp. Which would make me…an abandonist? Or at least, I am when it comes to reading for pleasure. Of course, different reader-book relationships require different coping strategies. I find I have three:

Coping Strategy 1: Abandon the “Awful Book”

If I chose the book to read for pleasure, I give it about 50 pages. If, by then, I’m not feeling it, I give myself permission to set it aside. Otherwise, I’ll just feel guilty about not reading it, and it will weigh me (and my reading) down like a big, papery albatross.

It sometimes takes me a few days to realize I’m not crazy about a book. If, one day, I realize I haven’t read much lately, one of my books is usually to blame. I feel obligated to read the “awful book,” but I don’t want to, so I just allow my reading in general to taper off. So, my rule is: if I’m not trying to find time to spend with a particular book, it probably just isn’t for me. I can get rid of it altogether or just save it for later, but it gets removed from my current reading rotation.

Along these same lines, Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, recently posted an article about reading and happiness. In it, she advocates reading something you actually want to read instead of something you feel like you should read. She quotes Samuel Johnson: “What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.” I do find that’s true for me, and I often feel like I’m squandering time and brain power when I struggle with a book that doesn’t really appeal.

Coping Strategy 2: Read the “Awful Book” as Quickly as Possible

If I’m reading a book I’ve agreed to review, I force myself to read it in order to fulfill my commitment. I might skim, but I’m not a big fan of DNF (did not finish) reviews, so I do try to get through the whole thing. I let myself scribble snarky, sarcastic notes about the book as I’m reading, which I then tone down for the actual review.

I often choose to focus solely on the book in question until it’s finished. My reasons for doing so are twofold: first, I get it over with as soon as possible, and second, isolating the “awful book” prevents me from comparing it with whatever other (hopefully better) book I’m reading.

Coping Strategy 3: Read the “Awful Book” in Small, Spaced Out Chunks

If an “awful book” is for a book group, class, or other meeting, I try to space out my reading so that I take lots of little bites instead of one big, slimy gulp. By breaking it up into chunks, I only have to read a little at a time. It becomes like a daily chore, unpleasant but necessary.

After I wrote strategies #2 and #3, I realized that they are a drastically different approach to the same kind of book: one I have to read but just don’t enjoy. Why not just read the “awful book” for book group super fast and be done with it? I suspect it has something to do with having to remember the information. Whereas an “awful book” can be quickly read, reviewed, and forgotten, it must be remembered for longer if it is to be discussed with other people. Breaking up the text helps the book stick. In addition, an assigned book has a deadline by which it must be read. While a book for review may have an approximate goal for completion, the deadline is usually both more flexible and up to me to reinforce. I could put it off indefinitely! Better to just read it and be done.

So there you have it…my in-depth look at how I cope with “awful books.”

What about you?

Are you a completionist, an abandonist, or both? Always, or just in certain situations? Why do you think you cope with “awful books” the way you do? And of course, do you–like Clare–have any creative coping techniques? I’d love to hear from you!

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26 Comments
  1. October 17, 2010 9:33 am

    Of late, I’m definitely abandonist. It dawned on me that there are just too many good books out there, and I read way too slowly to waste time on a book that is awful. I also seem to own way too many of those good books that are “out there,” so that makes the willingness to abandon even more fierce. My problems are the not-quite-awful books, books that I read halfway through and realize that I’m not going to love, but can’t help being invested enough that I want to know the outcome despite knowing that I’ll probably end up feeling dissatisfied anyway. Those are the books that take up a disproportionate amount of time in my reading because I’m not quite willing to set them aside for good, but I’m not so involved with them that I’ll choose the “not quite awful” book over any of several other activities.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 18, 2010 3:12 pm

      I agree–those in between books can be tough. Often I’m enthusiastic about a book when I pick it up, but as I read, I become less interested in or excited about it. Halfway through, it’s turned into one of those books that weighs me down. I’ve started putting those kind of books “on hold,” which means I keep them on my shelf, with my bookmarks in them, to be picked up again later when I’m more interested in them. If, by the time I weed out my books again, I haven’t picked the book in question up again, I can usually let it go without feeling like I have to finish it!

  2. October 17, 2010 10:40 am

    I’ve developed a very complicated rule of book abandonment. I call it the John Irving 100 page rule. His books seem to take a long time to get cooking, which is why the rule’s named after him. If after 100 pages I am not enjoying reading a book, or finding a reason to continue, I stop.

    I’m with you on the life is too short. But, sometimes, a book will be so awful I have to finish as if to “beat” the book, not allowing it to get the better of me.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 18, 2010 3:20 pm

      Hmm, I’ve never felt like I had to “beat” a book…usually I end up feeling like the book “beat” me! I can see where it would be appealing, though…”HA, book, take THAT! You have been vanquished!”

      Good rule! I suppose 100 pages is a fairer number than 50. You’re right, I probably would have abandoned what little John Irving I’ve read had I not continued plowing until I was hooked.

  3. October 17, 2010 11:03 am

    I’m a completionist, though I will sometimes, if the book doesn’t catch me after a few pages, change it for a different one, it depends on the reason I decided to read the book in the first place. But if I’m any more than several pages through I aim to finish it. And it does mean that sometimes my reading of a book takes ages because I’ll think “I’ve time to read now!…Hang on, bad book on the go, maybe not” I’m like this at the moment with LOTR which I’m really not enjoying for the writing style. In this case I want to finish it so that I can say I’ve read it but if it were another book I might’ve given it up earlier.

    I’m like you, I don’t like the idea of posting a DNF review and there is also the thing that I often find my negative reviews are better written.

    I think I’m going to have to let go of more bad books soon though because I just don’t have the time I did to read in and I want to use it well.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 18, 2010 3:23 pm

      LOTR is a massive tome to have hanging over your head! My advice: skim the bits that don’t appeal to you. And read something more fun at the same time!

      Wanting to use my limited reading time well is what prompted me to be stricter with myself about letting books I’m not enjoying go. It’s definitely helped me get to more books I really enjoy, but it took a while to get over the guilt of abandoning a book.

  4. October 17, 2010 12:03 pm

    I’ve employed tons of coping strategies when reading books I don’t enjoy, but my usal method is just to abandon the book. There are too many good books out there to waste time on a book I don’t like.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 18, 2010 3:24 pm

      Agreed! It took me a while to be ok with that, but now that I am it’s very freeing to close a book I’m struggling through, let it go, and pick up something that sucks me in from the beginning.

  5. October 17, 2010 12:10 pm

    If you don’t hook me within the first twenty pages, you’re gone. I’m looking for good books to read, not average ones :) So definitely an abandonist, and very proud of it! I want to enjoy what I do for pleasure otherwise I don’t see the point.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 18, 2010 3:26 pm

      20 pages…whoa! I envy your confidence and conviction! I’d always feel like I was missing something good that happened later, or maybe like I didn’t really give the book a chance. I’m impressed!

  6. October 17, 2010 12:49 pm

    “Abandonist”–what a great word!

    I have to say, I also finish bad books because I’m an editor and a writer–they help hone my critical eye and remind me what not to do.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 18, 2010 3:28 pm

      Modeled after your term “completionist!”

      I can definitely see where finishing a bad book would help an editor/writer. As neither, that’s a benefit I’d completely overlooked. Thanks for pointing it out!

  7. October 17, 2010 3:52 pm

    I can’t use that third coping mechanism. If a book is really awful, I’m either going to stop reading it or plow through it as fast as possible!!

    • Erin permalink*
      October 18, 2010 3:28 pm

      Ha! Sometimes I really want to, but if it’s a book I have to remember, I can’t. Though, I really wish I could!

  8. October 17, 2010 5:50 pm

    I also wrote about abandoning a book for my Sunday Salon post. It has taken me years to get over not finishing a book. I will abandon a book I don’t like after 20/30 pages or so, but sometimes I have difficulty with a book I do like. Then I will put it down and come back to it later. I love the Johnson quote from The Happiness Project. Thank you for that link.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 18, 2010 3:34 pm

      I love that Johnson quote, too! It reminds me that my brainpower is best spent on something that engages me. As for those pesky books I want to like…I added my thoughts on that to your Sunday Salon post.

  9. October 17, 2010 7:10 pm

    I do all of these! If it’s a book I’m reading for review, I skim, plough through, or allow myself flirtations with other books as necessary. But if it’s a book I’m reading purely for pleasure? I’m happy to put it down if it isn’t my thing. There are far too many wonderful books out there that I could be reading instead!

    • Erin permalink*
      October 18, 2010 4:19 pm

      Exactly! I’m getting ok with that philosophy. It took a while!

  10. October 17, 2010 7:56 pm

    I do tend to be a “completionist” at heart. (love that word!) But I have found that if a book is dragging me down, I do tend to read slower and slower. But I have realized that the way to read books you don’t like but feel you “need” to read is to break them up into smaller chunks. (That is the ONLY way I got through the recent readalong of The Brother Karamazov.) But I think I’m getting better at abandoning books that really don’t do ANYTHING for me.

    Fun post … I enjoyed reading it.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 18, 2010 4:23 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I definitely would have done the same thing with The Brothers Karamazov. (I’m so impressed with everyone who got through it!)

  11. October 17, 2010 8:28 pm

    I’m a total abandonist. Except when I’m reading a book as part of a readalong. In which case I just resort to lots of sarcasm in my post about the book. I’ve found that helps. :-D

    • Erin permalink*
      October 18, 2010 4:24 pm

      Ha, I have noticed the sarcasm, and I love it! I wonder, though, is it harder to be fully sarcastic if the author could potentially stumble upon your review? It definitely is for me!

  12. October 18, 2010 9:05 pm

    Very easy answer from this reader: Abandon. Abandon. Abandon.

    Well, with this cravat: Unlesssssss….one has been told this is a good book. A VERY good book. And this from a reliable source.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 18, 2010 11:13 pm

      Hmm, that’s the first I’ve heard of someone taking other people’s reviews into account! Interesting! You have me wondering, now, if I ever push on through a book I’m not enjoying because of a really good review.

  13. October 23, 2010 1:28 pm

    I use Coping Strategy 3 the most. Sometimes, depending on the book, I will abandon outright and then attempt a reread a year or two later. I do this with books that I feel I must read for one reason or the other.

    • Erin permalink*
      October 24, 2010 12:02 am

      I do that sometimes too. It’s funny how sometimes a book won’t work for me, and then later, it will!

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