Thursday, February 14, 2008

On Abandoning a Book Unfinished.

My Monday night writers group has coined a word to describe the act of abandoning a book unfinished: proctorizing. Obviously, this is something I do frequently—far more than anyone else in the group—although I’ve noticed they do it more and more these days. They’ll come in and say, “I started So-and-so’s latest, but I proctorized it after about a hundred pages,” and then go on to analyze why.

There was a time when I religiously finished every book I started, even if I wasn’t enjoying it. When I was a child, I knew I liked some books better than others, but I never analyzed why. I had this naive belief that if a book was published, then it was somehow anointed as worthy of being read.

As I grew, I came to understand the differences between popular fiction and the classics, but I still finished every book I began. At some point, one of my teachers handed out a list entitled One Hundred Novels Every Educated Person Should Have Read. I don’t know who compiled that list, but I was determined to be labeled an Educated Person. As I grimly plowed through one after the other of the books on that list, year after year, I experienced some wonderful books I probably never would have read otherwise. I also encountered some real stinkers. But when I found my attention wandering, I naturally attributed it to a failing on my part. After all, who was I to say Fitzgerald sucks?

It wasn’t until I was in college and began reading more modern popular fiction that I finally realized that yes, really awful books get published—and hit the bestseller lists—all the time. Just because some idiot editor let this tripe into print didn’t mean I had to waste my precious reading time finishing it.

Sometimes I put a book aside and go back to it later, thinking a change of mood might improve my reception of the story. At other times I can appreciate a book’s merit, but realize that for one reason or another it’s not for me. But frequently I abandon books in something close to a rage because the author has really, really annoyed me. For the sake of market research, I will at times try to continue those books for a while, hoping to understand what it is about a particular bestseller that explains its appeal. I’ve come to realize that clunky writing, silly factual errors, gaping plot holes, thin characters, predictable or implausible situations don’t seem to bother most people.

We all read for our own reasons, and find pleasure in our own combination of factors. But with so many books out there to read, and the time for reading them shrinking every day, I find myself less and less willing to tolerate a book that fails to sweep me away in that magical way I first came to love as a child. Which is why I proctorize so many books.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

I could have written the above as it describes me to a T. I've probably read thousands of books over the years (I just had my 60th birthday). I, too, felt you HAD to finish the book once begun. Getting older made me revisit that decision. There are so many great books out there and I have a finite amount of time, so why waste my time on poorly written dreck? By the way, I discovered your books (Mermaid) last week and have already gotten the other two and am starting the last one today with St Cyr in it. Will check out your other lines on my next library trip. Loved reading your blog re your writing. Keep up the good work. Love the Regency period in general and your work is a good read. RitaB

cs harris said...

Rita, it's so nice to hear that you enjoyed Mermaids--and that you didn't "proctorize" it! John Connolly imagines lying on his death bed some day fretting about all the books he'd wanted to read and never got around to.

Steve Malley said...

I'm about the same: I'll stick with *anything* for 50 pages. After that, it's on its own!

Sad thing is, I still feel a little bad about dropping even the worst book. Discipline is required; there are too many good books waiting too spend time with the 'other kind'...

Charles Gramlich said...

I still can't quite Proctorize a book I've gotten more than 15 or 20pages into, but I will Gramlichize it, meaning I'll stop reading closely and will just speed read.

Sphinx Ink said...

I rarely Proctorize a book fully. It has to be REALLY bad for me to decide on the first attempt that it's a wall-banger and should go in the "donations" bag.

Rather, if the book's not getting my interest, or something about it annoys me, I'll put it down and think, "Well, I'll get back to that another time." Hence, I have a lot of partly-read books around the house that I plan to read eventually. With that age thing going on (hey, feelin' it more with every birthday), I'm realizing I should pick up those books one-by-one and make a decision. Read a few more pages (or more likely, re-read the first 50 pages) and either toss it or finish it.

Make time for the good books, don't waste time on the bad.

Josephine Damian said...

I've got a whole series going in my blog on this very same subject: I call it "Why I Stopped Reading (This) Book" and try to analyze exactly what the writer did wrong to make me stop reading. The goal is to not make those same mistakes in my own writing.

I think it's definitely a sign of getting older - who wants to spend whatever time we have left reading bad books?

Great post, Candy.

Shauna Roberts said...

I wish I were able to Proctorize more. A novel has to be really bad to make me stop reading it and put it in the Goodwill box. My usual reason to keep plugging is to find how the plot resolves.

Nonfiction I find much easier to put down, at least temporarily. I'll start something, then something else (usually a new novel) entices me away. I have probably two dozen nonfiction books lying around waiting for me to come back to them.

Shauna Roberts said...

I wish I were able to Proctorize more. A novel has to be really bad to make me stop reading it and put it in the Goodwill box. My usual reason to keep plugging is to find how the plot resolves.

Nonfiction I find much easier to put down, at least temporarily. I'll start something, then something else (usually a new novel) entices me away. I have probably two dozen nonfiction books lying around waiting for me to come back to them.

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