Pushing Through

By

Several years ago I joined a couple of friends to form a reading group in which our chief aim was to read books that we should have but have not. Paradise Lost was the first we read and there’s been a long list of others since. It’s been a good thing for me because the group has forced me to read quite a few books that I certainly would not have otherwise, and in the process I’ve discovered some of my all-time favorites.

Then last week at breakfast, Jonathan Rogers (who has for years cruelly and evilly spurned invitations to our reading fellowship) said something that made me shake my head in exasperation. He said something to this effect (and I welcome him to correct me in the comments): “I’m done reading books I don’t enjoy. If I don’t like it, I don’t finish it!”

Now, in defense of such an indignant and Rogersian argument the following point was made:

Let’s say one reads two books a month, religiously, for the rest of one’s life. If such were the case (and I think that’s a pretty liberal estimate) that means that in my lifetime, I will probably only get to read about 1000 more books. Given that frighteningly finite number, doesn’t it make sense that I’d want to guarantee each of those reads was enjoyable as possible?

But I don’t think the answer is as simple as it seems. I’ve had to “push through” quite a few books that, in the end, were far better than I anticipated they would be. Paradise Lost, The Inferno, Les Miserables, Crime and Punishment, and Frankenstein are all books that were not only difficult but, at times, downright unfriendly. And yet, having now finished them, they’re in my list of favorites. More importantly, they’re the sorts of books that go on paying dividends for years in philosophical, literary, and lingual currency. I’m glad I pushed through. Very glad. Books like those have changed the ways I write, read, and think.

On the other hand, I’m almost finished “pushing through” Robert Jordan’s titanic 14-volume fantasy series, The Wheel of Time (most of those 14 books are 600-1000 pages). I’m still enjoying it—sort of. I’ve got about 1400 pages left to read of the story and I’ve got the sneaking suspicion that it’s not worth the effort. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and call it right now. That story isn’t worth the time I’ve spent on it. But I’ll finish it, because I’ve come this far and I really do want to know what happens.

So what is it exactly that makes a book worth “pushing through”? And how do you judge whether it’s worth the investment?

Part of my answer is that I rely on a community of people with like tastes. In general, if the folks I know, and whose opinions I trust, assure me that a book is worth my time, I’ll push through it, even if only to be able to dislike the book honestly (such as with The Hunger Games—a book I have read and can now dislike in good conscience).

I extend the same idea to books that have stood the test of time. If a book was written 50+ years ago and people are still talking about it, well, then there’s a mighty good chance that I have something to learn from it—even if it turns out that I dislike it. Books like Kafka’s The Trial or Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer fit this bill. I loathed reading them, and yet I can’t deny that I’m better off for having done so.

I’d be interested in hearing how others make the decision of whether or not to push through and finish a difficult book.

I suppose my fear comes down to this: If I read only that which I find easy and enjoyable, I run the risk of spending too large a portion of my final 1000 books on those like Robert Jordan’s which will never be of any real benefit greater than that of a cheap thrill. In the end I’d rather read 1000 books that challenge me and force me to grow and think in new and exciting ways, rather than 1000 books that were merely easy and enjoyable.

Books I’ve “pushed through” that were very much worth the trouble:
Paradise Lost (Milton)(Wow.)
Les Miserables (Hugo)(I rarely recommend abridged books, but this one is an exception.)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Hugo)(So much bigger and deeper than I expected.)
Frankenstein (Shelley)(Wanders, but good grief, what a visionary story.)
Gilead (Robinson)(For some reason, I couldn’t finish it the first time I tried. On a second try I couldn’t put it down.)
Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)(Some of the political philosophy was tough, but Tolstoy is a genius of human insight. Shockingly relevant to 21st America.)
A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens)(One of my top 5 books. Ever.)
Moby Dick (Melville)(How I learned to love whaling.)
Catch-22 (Heller)(Bogs in the middle. Finishes big. One of the funniest books I’ve ever read.)
The Book of Sorrows (Wangerin)(Heartbreaking and bleak)
Mind of the Maker (Sayers)(Dense in the beginning, but altered the way I think about writing.)
Harry Potter (Rowling)(Almost gave it up after disliking the first two books. Then it became great.)

Books I wish I’d given up on:
The Shack (Young)(I will never get these brain cells back.)
The Hunger Games (Collins)(Despite what you’ve heard, this is a book about a girl sleeping in trees.)
The Tommyknockers (King)(There’s an evil Coke machine that kills people. Seriously.)
The DaVinci Code (Brown)(Face, meet palm.)

Books I’m still trying to push through:
For Whom the Bell Tolls (Hemingway)(Great sentences. Paced like cold molasses.)
A Soldier of the Great War (Helprin)(Sidetracked, but I’m anxious to go back.)
For the Time Being (Dillard)(This is weird. Wait. What?)

Books I failed to push through:
The Reivers (Faulkner)(This won a Pulitzer? Really?)
Twilight (Meyer)(I gave up after 27 pages . . . but I wish I’d given up sooner.)

Books I’ve pushed through and disliked but am glad to have read:
The Trial (Kafka)(Kafka didn’t want it published. I see why.)
The Moviegoer (Percy)(A book about apathy. Well done—I didn’t care.)
The Stranger (Camus)(Good book, but I can’t seem to take Existentialism seriously.)

Note: The the preceding list (while by no means complete) is interesting to me because it reveals that in my case, “pushing through,” tends to be a good investment—which is a relief!

Profile photo of Pete Peterson

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


70 Comments

  1. Laura Peterson

    Ooooo, I like this post, Pete. This is one of my favorite bookish debates to have with people. I recall hearing Jonathan Rogers say something similar re: un-enjoyable books at a past Hutchmoot, and at the time it was a rather foreign sentiment to me, but I’ve thought about it often.
    I can count on one hand the number of books in recent memory that I’ve started and then put down with the intention of never finishing. Both times it was due to a complete lack of interest, though, not an active dislike of the content. I think for me, a huge factor in “pushing through” something I dislike is that, as you said, I want to be able to “honestly dislike it.” (See: Twilight.) People who know that I read a lot often ask me what I think of a particular book, and I want to be able to give them my opinion of the whole thing, not just the first chapters. How a story ends is also very important to me, so I think that’s another factor. I can think of a few examples of books where the ending chapters totally changed my opinion of them. (See: Ender’s Game.)

  2. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Amen on Soldier of the Great War, Mike. Helprin’s books are usually gargantuan, but that and Winter’s Tale are two of my favorites (especially Winter’s Tale, even if the film trailer makes it look saccharine). I agree that this is tricky–there have been several books that I abandoned even though I knew they would be good for me—Paradise Lost is one of those—but abandoning a book now usually means I’ll finish it later, when I have the brain space.

    This idea doesn’t just apply to books either. Many people abandon a song or an album if they don’t like it the first time. But many of my favorite albums (like Rich Mullins’s A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, for crying out loud!) have only really grabbed me after about the fifth listen. Now more than ever, I think it’s important to push back at the culture of the quick thrill and give things time to steep.

  3. Alyssa Ramsey

    I love this. And I’m relieved to know that I’m not the only one who has felt that many of these books were difficult. I had the same first attempt experience with Gilead. I suppose I should give it another try. Also, I just read A Tale of Two Cities this year, and I could not believe how much I loved it. Good grief. Amazing.

    Thanks for this list. It gives me the encouragement I need to wade into some of these books.

  4. Esther O'Reilly

    Hats off to you. I wish I could “push through” books like I used to. Here are some I pushed through long ago when I was ten, eleven, twelve… would I have the discipline to do the same today, even if I had the time? Sadly, I fear not.

    Great Expectations and David Copperfield (Dickens) — Both longer than and not as great as A Tale of Two Cities, which, as you’ve said, is clearly his best. However, I found both of them quite insightful and fascinating, if still somewhat bleak, when I let Dickens take me where he wanted to go. Of the two I probably prefer David Copperfield, if only because Mr. Micawber and Uriah Heep are two of the most memorable characters in literature.

    Ben-Hur: This starts verrrry slow and sags in the middle every time that Egyptian chick starts telling bedtime stories, but, if you can get through that? Oh my word.

    The Count of Monte Cristo: It was so thick I just didn’t know if I could make it, but I became so fascinated it went by way faster than I expected. It’s like a thriller.

    Ivanhoe: Reading this as 10 or 11-year-old, I remember my eyes glazing over whenever this got really long-winded, but then Scott would hit me with a fantastic action set piece that left me hungry for more.

    The Divine Comedy (all three): I studied the complete Comedy as a young highschool student, and there were definitely times I was tempted to skim in all three, particularly the Paradiso. But with excellent guidance I was able to get the most out of it, and I learned a fascinating amount of Medieval history and theological thought. And it gave me a very deep perspective on God, Heaven and Hell that fits perfectly with so many other things I’ve read, from Lewis to Eliot to Charles Williams. I can’t count the number of times I’ve cited something I got from the Inferno alone. Paradise Lost is good too, but in my opinion Dante is the better poet and storyteller.

    Love your list of books you wish you’d given up on! However, I’m surprised to see you put _Gilead_ in the “push-through” list. That book is like breathing out and breathing in! How could you possibly have found it a struggle to read?

  5. Esther O'Reilly

    Another one I’d recommend pushing through is _All Quiet on the Western Front_. Had to read it for college, still not a favorite, but I found it moving despite being so depressing.

  6. Jennifer Trafton

    And then there are those who are simply ADD, start a hundred books at once, get distracted by life, and forget to finish anything they’ve begun. Not that this describes anyone I know.

  7. aimee

    The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoyevsky) is on my “books I’d like to still push through”, because I love the writing, the characters and then I just hit a wall.

    I’ve tried Gilead twice, once because the book looked interesting and the second time because many of you like it so much, and I still find myself wondering what I’m missing.

    One thing I’ve enjoyed doing is going back to the books I had to read in school (most of which I didn’t enjoy when wrapped in the package of “assignment”).

    One of those is Shakespeare. He was all the rage in theatre school of course, but I gave away my giant tome as soon as I exited college. Five years later, after hitting my head with regret, a college friend moved here and and reminded me that she was the one that had received the gift of my thrown away treasure. She gave it back.

  8. Jim Andrews

    Great post Pete. And listen to Mike and Andrew. Restart Soldier of the Great War. I read this based on finding it in the liner notes of Sara Groves outstanding album “Tell Me What You Know” for the outstanding track “Abstraction”. I’m forever in her debt for that.
    As for Aimee, Brothers was one of the most profound, amazing books I’ve read and i’m only sad i’m not able to read it in it’s original Russian tongue. It’s one i would “waste” my time (and book count) on multiple times.

    I’d also like to build on what Andrew said about steeping. I finally pushed through Buechner’s short “Speak What We Feel: Not What We Ought to Say”. This was tough for me. That was unusual because at this point I’ve read almost all of Buechner’s works with Godric or Brenden or Son of Laughter or Magnificent Defeat or Bebb or A Long Day’s Dying being my favorite. However, that particular book is somewhat academic and particularly difficult to get through the Gerard Manly Hopkins section (sorry, just not able to follow his poetry).

    Long after reading that book, I find it has grown on me in my memory and when discussing with other people about art and telling your story, I find myself quoting that book (probably badly) and attempting to tell about King Lear. It also inspired me to read Chesterton’s “The man who would be Thursday” which is now among my favorite books which i’ve been able to share with a number of other people.
    Steeping is such a great word Andrew. I’m better off for having pushed through that one Buechner book allowing it to steep in my mind.

  9. Ken

    Amiee, I’m with you on both Brothers K and Gilead. I’ve started Brothers K 3 or 4 times. the most recent (5 years ago) I made it to page 90. Still have the bookmark in it.

    Books I’ve pushed through: Anna Karenina & Catcher in the Rye (both meh), Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (started enjoying it about 3/4 of the way through), Don Quixote, Les Mis (unabridged – parts were painful, but the story is so rich. Favorite book).

  10. Kristen P.

    I had good intentions to have a Summer of French Literature, conquering both The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Mis. I finished The Count in August and put Les Mis on the shelf for next summer. But, I highly recommend the unabridged version of The Count. The subplots are rich and add to Hugo’s master ability to weave so many seemingly divergent points together. The book made me think differently about my ideas of justice and vengeance, two themes that more modern literature is often lacking or treating only in the most superficial way.

    One thing that has helped me push through books like this, particularly massive ones, is to rid myself of the pride that says I don’t need any help. It took me nearly 4 months to work all the way through The Count and I found myself forgetting minor characters, particularly when they changed names. So I printed off a thorough list of characters, their aliases, and any important connections they had to other characters so that if I put the book down for a few weeks, I wouldn’t come back defeated.

    I haven’t yet managed to conquer Brothers K, but that is on my list. I would not have survived Crime and Punishment without a character list, either.

  11. Kristen P.

    Also, @Jennifer – I also read multiple books at once. Particularly when I’m working my way through one of these “push through” books, I have to have something lighter and easier to get through alongside the thousands of pages that I can’t seem to put a dent in. I like to think that it reminds me that I am actually capable of finishing books, and if I can conquer the smaller ones, there’s no reason I can’t also tackle Hugo or Dostoyevsky or Dickens.

  12. Sally

    I love this post. A number of years ago I started on a similar mission without the benefit of a reading group. My goal was to read not necessarily specific books, but specific authors. So I’ve read books by Dickens, Hugo, Trollope, Steinbeck, Kipling, Stevenson, Chesterton, Shelley, and more.

    Books I had to push through (for varying reasons) but was glad I did:
    • Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis. Later I saw that Rebecca Reynolds had done this with her students and I wished I could have been in her class.
    • The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck. No, I didn’t read this in high school. When I was reading it I reached a point where I was so unhappy with the way her characters were behaving that I just wanted to close the book, but some friends who had read the book in high school encouraged me to finish.
    • Narcissus and Goldmund, by Hermann Hesse. I am so so so glad that I pushed through and now I just want someone with whom I could discuss the book. Any takers?

    I gave up on The Shack. No regrets there.

    I didn’t give up on Twilight, though every fiber in my being told me to. I read it because I was coaching high school girls at the time and that was all they talked about.

    I hope this doesn’t get me thrown out of the Rabbit Room, but I have yet to complete a book by Tolkien. I just get mad at him that Tom Bombadil doesn’t make it further in Lord of the Rings. And I probably made the mistake of seeing the movies without reading the books.

    For the record, though, A Tale of Two Cities, is my absolute favorite Dickens. I want Andrew Lloyd Weber to make it into a musical, with haunting lyrics and melodies. The opening section, “Recalled to Life”, is just begging for a song.

  13. Brenda Branson

    Compared to all of you well-read folks, I feel like an elementary school kid hanging out with and being mentored by Oxford grads. I’ve read so many great books because of your recommendations. You’ve created a raging thirst in me for more!

  14. Laura Peterson

    Jumping back in here…the librarian in me wants to just helpfully point out that THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV and THE BROTHERS K are two different books. I’ve overheard conversations in which confused people try to discuss them and realize they’re not talking about the same thing…so, be careful when acquiring them. 🙂 One is under “Duncan” and is about baseball, I think, and the other is under “Dostoyevsky” and takes place in Russia.

    And @Sally – there is/was a Tale of Two Cities musical! But I’m pretty sure Andrew Lloyd Webber had nothing to do with it and it was only on Broadway for about three months, in 2008. Bummer.

  15. Matt J.

    Great post. For years I felt like such an idiot around some of my friends because I had never seriously read through any heavy theology. Something easy by Lewis was as far as I had ever gotten. So one day I buckled down and read through all of N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God – about 45-minutes every single morning for the better part of 2 months. Very rewarding. It really opened the door to a lot of other stuff too. After that, nothing seemed scary any more.

    At the same time, it doesn’t always work and I appreciate that your list included the misfires too. I slogged through a Kirkegaard anthology last year that, in hindsight was a huge waste of time. I needed a guide. (Still do.)

  16. Esther O'Reilly

    Sally, yes, definitely a mistake! You can’t undo what’s been done, but it is never too late to make it right! Pick up LOTR again and finish it. Give yourself a dare and about a month to do it, and then GO FOR IT. You will not regret it. Pinky promise.

  17. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    I’m not the enemy, Pete.

    I can only give a quick response right now (I’m teaching Paradise Lost in less than an hour…too bad AP won’t be there), but I do want to offer a few caveats:

    1) The real spirit of my position is to release responsible, free adults from feelings of obligation and/or guilt with regard to what they have or haven’t read. To read without pleasure is not to have really read. Corollary a) If you haven’t read the Iliad, you needn’t feel too bad about it. Corollary b): If you fear the Iliad, try reading it; it might give you pleasure, and then you will be able to receive it on its own terms. Corollary c): If you plowed through the Iliad without enjoying it, you needn’t feel too good about yourself. Corollary d) Rather than reading the Iliad just so you can say that you’ve read it, you might consider just lying and saying that you have read it. You will have achieved your goal (i.e., saying that you have read the Iliad) without going to all the trouble.

    2) We must not forget that it is often pleasurable to struggle through a work of literature. Struggle and enjoyment aren’t mutually exclusive. I’m not advocating a race to the bottom here. I don’t think I would have to struggle to read the Twilight books. But from what I hear of them, they wouldn’t give me much enjoyment. So I would rather read Paradise Lost, which is hard but enjoyable.

    3) My remarks to Pete were really about contemporary books. I stand by my claim that you shouldn’t finish contemporary books–on which the jury is still out–if you aren’t enjoying them. (The exception, of course, is Gilead. Not liking Gilead is not so much a matter of taste as a character flaw; sorry, Aimee and Ken, but it had to be said. Maybe some prayer and fasting should be in your future?) There’s a reason people are still reading Shakespeare 400 years later. He’s worth pushing through.

    4) I’m teasing Aimee and Ken.

    5) None of this applies to young readers. They need to push through to build up their reading muscles.

  18. Jim Andrews

    As for C.S. Lewis, I’ve only tripped up on his “The Abolition of Man”. Made it through, not sure i should have, can’t remember a thing about it now. Really tough reading.

  19. Dan Kulp

    The top of my “glad I pushed through list” is CS Lewis’s Space Trilogy. Specifically “That Hideous Strength”. The last few pages moved it from a 4/10 to 8/10. It drove me to nearly toss it in the garbage, it felt so uninteristing and flat; and then I hit the ending. I’ve taken a CSL break since.

    Echoing others…books on my “still to push through” (more likely “I’ll get back to that”) – Soldier of the Great War, & Brendan

  20. Carl A.

    I tried to post earlier but it said I was posting too fast :/

    Ok, pushing through…

    Love this topic!

    Anyone else like to genre- or author-hop? For example, I made it to around 25 on a list of the 100 “greatest true adventure / exploration” books, got on a John McPhee kick, had a total sidetrack reading Robert Ludlum, and settled down to now reading mostly either books recommended on the Rabbit Room or books by authors of books recommended on the Rabbit Room. Whew. Anyone else a random hopper-reader like me?

  21. Ken

    Ha! Thanks, Jonathan, for the needling I needed to get back to it. It’s been on my nightstand for months. I was about a quarter of the way through when a friend asked to borrow it for a book club. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it as much as I expected to not be able to put it down, and I could put it down every night. Anyway, she brought it back after 3 days, and there it sets. Mostly I feel like I don’t “get” it, which frustrates me.

    And thank you, Laura, for clarifying the two books. I was speaking of The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, which I abbreviated because I don’t know how to pronounce Karamazov, which says three things about me: 1. Kind of weird that I felt compelled to abbreviate it in text; 2. my insecurities about classic books are jumping out at me from all angles; 3. Maybe I should read The Brothers K? I like baseball.

    (How is Karamazov pronounced, anyway?)

  22. Esther O'Reilly

    Eh Jonathan, been consulting Rabbit from Winnie-the-Pooh for your talking-points format? 😀

  23. Esther O'Reilly

    Carl, I do/did thatr sometimes. I read several of my dad’s favorite sci-fi recommendations in a short span of time. Other times I’ve done historical novels, or an Agatha Christie binge. I did several novels by John Buchan all in a row once. It’s fun!!

  24. Sally

    Jonathon — Funny you should mention the Iliad. I started that earlier this year and, about two weeks in, I decided not to push through at that time I seriously considered your “Corollary d) Rather than reading the Iliad just so you can say that you’ve read it, you might consider just lying and saying that you have read it,” because I had told people I was reading it and didn’t want to admit defeat. I’m still not sure I’m ready to admit defeat with it. It’s just on a back burner and I need to think about how to tackle it better.

    The back burner seems to be where most classics go if something keeps me from completing them. So, Esther, that’s where LOTR is right now. I’m nearly done with Fellowship of the Ring, but haven’t picked it up in about three weeks. I read Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica in the interim and just started Kipling’s Kim. I’ll get back to it some day.

  25. EmmaJ

    It took me an awful long time to realize this, too. But finally I did feel freedom to actually say, “This is not such a good book, after all” and lay it aside. (Likewise with poorly exegeted sermons, but that’s another matter.)

    My most recent experience of this was with _The Poisonwood Bible_.

  26. Eowyn

    Books I have read this year:

    A Tale of Two Cities. I still maintain it’s a spy novel. Code names, double identities, secret societies galore! Also, probably my new favorite

    A Passage to India. Not really my cup of tea, but had some interesting bits.

    Brideshead Revisited. Terrific. Who needs a miniseries?

    Lord of the Flies, short and rather unsweet, but great.

    Ender’s Game. Jury’s still out.

    Les Mis – unabridged. But I would recommend abridged, for once.

    Crime and Punishment. Had to push for this one, since I was listening to it on audiobook.

    Harry Potter series. Darn you, Andrew Peterson, you have a convert. I came into it with my skepticism working full time, but Deathly Hallows erased whatever doubts I’d had before. Like Pete, it took me till the 3rd to start getting into it.

    The Children of Men – by P.D. James. So excellent – so much better than the movie.

    Almost finished with LOTR again.

    Nearly finished with Middlemarch.

    About to start my first Aubrey/Maturin book…

    I’ve had rather a good year.

  27. anna

    I read a lot, and don’t watch much tv, but I find it far easier to say why I do or don’t like a tv show or a movie. I think I’m at the point where I don’t feel like I need to read the classics just because they’re classics (and as an Aussie, some of the American classics just don’t speak to me anyway), but I have read a bunch (notably Catch 22, which I enjoyed for the frenetic absurdity, but I’m still conflicted as to whether I can honestly say I *liked* it, and War and Peace (utterly forgettable, evidently) and Lord of the Rings – I pushed through the trilogy and don’t even feel virtuous because of it.). I’m also a re-reader (probably read the Narnia books approaching 100 times each (less for The Last Battle – it’s an hour read for me, and I still struggle with it, although I’m slowly gaining a different perspective on it) and I have a few go-to re-reads that I’ll pick if I need to clean my brain (Megan Whalen Turner’s The King of Attolia – not a push through book at all for me, but when my dad read the first book in the series, it was Totally Not His Thing. Different strokes and all that.).

    I was a Harry Potter convert at 28, just because I wanted to see the final movie in the cinema – I first tried reading the series when I was 19, so I think strangely, I had to grow up to enjoy a series for children. There’s a lot of really quite deep stuff that I never would have picked up at 19.

    Cloud Atlas was my most recent abandonment – not forever, but it was overdue, and I wasn’t in the right frame of mind at the time.

  28. anna

    Also, Pete – looking at your enjoyed list (of which I have read several), I can totally see why The Hunger Games didn’t make it. I *did* enjoy it, but I’m into YA fiction. I think I’m one of the few people who don’t think the story degenerated over the three books, and I think that might just be interpretation again.

  29. Mark Geil

    This makes me think of English class in high school. I have always been a slow reader, so those assigned readings felt like four years of pushing through. I met books and authors I still hold dear, but reading on someone else’s schedule made the experience feel more like a chore than an exploration.

    There is much to be said for timing. Sometimes you encounter a book at the wrong season, and it might be best to put it down. However, I agree that there are times when you should reach for a book (or movie or album) because you think you should, based on its cultural or historical importance.

    Esther, I just read Great Expectations. I read it based on this logic: A Tale of Two Cities is my favorite novel. Therefore, I like Dickens. (I’ve even been to his house!) If that’s true, then I’ve read precious little Dickens. People talk about Great Expectations a lot. It’s by Dickens. Therefore, I *should* read it. So I did.

    I enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as I like Tale of Two Cities. But am I better for having read it than if I had spent those hours reading some shallow contemporary fiction or a banal TV show? Yes. So I wonder, is reading some of these books like eating your vegetables? Sometimes you only do it because you know it’s good for you, especially when you’re a kid. And sometimes that’s all you get: some vitamins and nutrition. But other times, you discover something delicious.

  30. Rachel Konstant

    Hello!

    When I was in High School (Homeschool version:)) I had to read THE SCOTTISH CHIEFS by Jane Porter. It was a thick book, and really quite a waste of my time; too much fainting and things like that. I did learn a bit about chivalry, though, so maybe it wasn’t a complete waste…. Any of you ever read it? On the opposite end of the scale, though, I also had to read IVANHOE with my Pa for school, and it was one of my favorite books. Love it so much. Right now, I’ve picked up and put down several times THE HIDDEN HAND by E.D.E.N. Southworth; Lamplighter publish it, and most of their books are really great (they take old abandoned books with faith-filled themes and republish them), but this one is such a hard one to read. It has action scene after action scene, and I get really weary of it very fast.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents; love the article, Pete, and Alyssa, A TALE OF TWO CITIES is so amazing. I’m glad you found joy in it as well.

  31. Jim Andrews

    @Eowyn, Aubrey/Maturin series is nothing short of fantastic. I read all 20 in one go and then sought out the unfinished 21st draft which probably should have gone unread. What a superb and well thought out epic series of historical fiction. Huzzah!

  32. Hannah

    Just thought I’d throw out the thought that Great Expectations is not, in my opinion, the book by which to judge Dickens, even if it’s the main one people read in school. A Tale of Two Cities is excellent, but other good ones (better than G. E. in my opinion) are Little Dorrit, Nicholas Nickleby, Our Mutual Friend, and David Copperfield. And if most of those are books to push through until they finally grip you about 1/2 way in (and they’re all long), my sister says that Little Dorrit grabs you on the first page.

    It would take a long time to come up with a list of books I pushed through for good or ill, so I’ll have to get back to you on that. Great post, though!

  33. David Miller

    Sorry I couldn’t push through reading through all the comments…smile. But I love the post. I am copying your list Pete and making it future reading. I would add if it hasn’t made the list but I can’t believe I put off Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow till this Summer. Oh my a story that must be read by more if it hasn’t already.

  34. Loren Warnemuende

    So many books, so little time!

    I’ve always loved reading, but I can truly say that because of the Rabbit Room I have read more books that I wouldn’t have considered. The amazing thing is how many nonfiction books I’ve made it through and actually enjoyed (Mind of the Maker comes to mind).

    Of course, then there are the other books that fell by the wayside. I tried Gilead and got distracted and I haven’t gone back…. Too many other books!

    As I read through these comments, I was reminded of two books I plodded through in a high school English class. Both were a struggle. The first, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, is one I still don’t think was worth the torture. The other was Heart of Darkness, which I will never regret reading despite the lack of pleasure it brought.

    And the summer after I finished high school I plowed through Great Expectations because I had never been required to read it. Loved it, but I agree, A Tale of Two Cities is definitely better.

  35. Leah Phillippi

    You already know how I feel about The Shack, but I was almost cheering to see where you put that, and the DaVinci Code. I did push through the DaVinci Code, but couldn’t do The Shack.

    Jonathan Rogers–you crack me up…I needed it today.

  36. Jen

    At the risk of getting banned from The Rabbit Room…. I’ve been pushing through The Yearling all year. It’s not that I don’t like it or I’m bored (okay maybe a tiny bit?) or anything…. I just keep getting sidetracked.

    Come to think of it, I’ve been exceptionally bad at following through with fiction books this year. I don’t know why.

    I have a long list of great classics I want to say I’ve read, but…

  37. Matthew Benefiel

    Oh man Pete! I started the Weel of Time series back in 2000 and I got to book 6 and stopped. I still remember my older brother walking in, picking it up and saying: “this looks like a romance novel.” He put it down, I snactched it up ready to defend it, looked at the cover and sure enough, it looked like a romance novel. Worse, it was quickly becoming one (love triangle and all). Plus since I tend to remember silly details, I kept finding plot holes and all the things I wanted resolved never got resolved, or when they did they opened up 10 new plot lines. I gave up. I would recommend reading the first book, it pretty much stands on its own and has some really great ideas.

    I’ll have to disagree with Hunger Games, I enjoyed all three, though there were some times where the first person forced the author to take some lesser trails. That said, I can see how it could annoy people too.

    Books I pushed through:
    The Three Muskateers – I had heard great things of this book, and the first half was a downer to me, a bunch of men running around with married women, though the political battle was pretty interesting. After a 3 or 4 month break I finally picked it back up (at around 68% on my Kindle), and what do you know, the book finally began to get interesting and exciting. I’m still not sure it was worth it, but the last 25% is pretty awesome.

    Watership Down: Now this wasn’t really that hard of a push, because the book it really awesome, but if you don’t set a good amount of time to pick up the language and start thinking like a bunny it can be hard to get into the story. I started reading it in half hour segments which is not the way to read it. Sit down a few hours and you won’t be able to put it down.

    Red Badge of Courage: This was back in high school, maybe it would be different now, but I felt disappointed to be drug in the mud for the whole book only to see a small reward at the end.

    Dracula: Acutally, this was I couldn’t put down, I just wanted to put it here because its awesome! It does take a little to adjust to the journal style, but once in you won’t stop reading. The movies just can’t do this book justice.

    Women in White: I read this out loud, and it was actually harder than LOTR (out loud which took over a year I believe). The book manages to capture the supsense of Dracula while not being as scary, but I loved this book. The Moonstone can go with this one as well, but of the two I liked the Woman in White better.

    Ender’s Game Series: Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow I can breeze through easy, but the series as a whole can bog down over time, but I still enjoy finishing them. The mormon theology starts to show through a little on the Ender’s series, but Card really does justice to his other religious characters (I thought he was Catholic on my first read through).

    Ursula Le Guins Tahenu: This is the fourth book of the Earthsea series and it starts slow, stays slow, then finishes with a bang! Used to be the hardest to read (and they are pretty short books), but over time it became a favorite (almost like A Horse and His Boy). Now the fifth book of the Earthsea series I only read once and while it clarafied a few outlying questions, it was kind of a bore.

    Terry Goodkind Sword of Truth: Now this wasn’t that hard to finish, but the book grated on me over time. There are some good aspects, but the whole “if the bad guys wins he wins for all time” thing just didn’t work for me. Kept thinking of LOTR where Gandalf tells I think Frodo that evil will never go on forever. Plus there was a lot of sex stuff that I didn’t care for.

    Shutter Island: This wasn’t so much a grind, just all the language and sex was enough to want me to drop it, but I kept going. This one was hard for me, because the overall book is amazing and the author really gets you arguing with yourself at the end, but I just don’t know if I can recommend it or read it again for all the crud in it.

    Maximum Ride: I only finished it because it was short, but lack of character traits and simple story just isn’t enough to make me read more.

    Wingfeather Saga: No, just kidding, nothing hard here, just awesome.

    That’s about all I can think of, I’ve been horrible at reading until the last four years. Books I need to read are:
    The Yearling (I started and really enjoyed it, but couldn’t devote enough time to crunch through it), Moby Dick, some Russian author book just to say I have, C. S. Lewis space trilogy (I’m starting it now), and a bunch of others I’m sure.

    Books I know I won’t finish:
    Dune – I’ve started and it just seems so dry
    Calvin’s Institues – I’ve read the abridged, I just know I can’t make it through the full thing, really like the letter to the King of France in the beginning though, we tend to forget the dire state of protestants in France during that time.
    The Killer Angels – I started it, it was line for line with the movie so I decided to watch the movie instead, which is a first for me.

  38. Drew

    “Winter’s Tale” was the only Helprin I didn’t have to push through. It was also the first Helprin I read. All the others I started and slowed . . . and then had to restart and push through to get to the end. And all of them have left me glad that I did. “Memoir From Antproof Case” surprised me by how much more enjoyable it was on a second read. (Still want to read “Soldier of the Great War” a second time.

    Last year I enthusiastically started “In Sunlight and in Shadow,” Helprin’s most recent novel, and . . . just . . . couldn’t . . . and so I restarted it several months ago. I got a bit farther this time, but . . . just . . . aarrgh . . .

    And I finally admitted that I didn’t like it. I think every bad writing habit of his is on full display. I don’t care anymore about his characters (who are too pure and perfect and aloof anyway). I can’t endure one more dinner party, one more walk on the beach, one more scene of Harry and Catherine making eyes at each other. And with 500 pages left, I just put it down. I’ve never done that with a book before. It feels like failure.

    That was a couple months ago. And I admit from time to time I pick it back up, read a few pages, and put it back down again. But there’s no enthusiasm there. There’s a great, yawning chasm of disinterest between us.

    It’s an odd experience. It’s not something I’ve done before, particularly with an author I have previously enjoyed. (“Winter’s Tale” is my favorite novel, bar none.) I can’t quite decide if this choice is liberating.

  39. Kelly

    Jen, I had to push through The Yearling. It picked up for me in about the last third. But the ending is really worth it.

    Anybody have opinions on whether I should try the unabridged Les Mis if I’ve already done the abridged? There is the obvious answer of “then you can brag to your friends,” but that’s not compelling enough for me (for once. I think I’m growing.).

  40. Jen

    Oh man…. I failed to mention Lewis’ Space Trilogy as a push through that was worth it. It took me three tries to finally finish Out of the Silent Planet but Perelandra made it worthwhile.

    And a “failed to push through” story…. The Hours. My creative writing teacher told me I HAD to read it, because we had studied one of the author’s stories and I enjoyed it. After a chapter of this lady twirling all over New York on her way to buy flowers, I got annoyed and gave up and read Twilight (a worse, but more entertaining choice. I had the flu, ok? :))

    So all this talk about Helprin…. I just bought The Pacific because it was a dollar at a book sale and I people around here seem to love him. Has anyone read that? (Short stories are a good entry point for me with literary authors) Should I start with Winter’s Tale instead?

  41. Drew

    Jen, I think “Winter’s Tale” (written in 1983?) is the perfect entry point. (I say that probably because it was the first book of his I read.) I think early Helprin is better than his more recent fiction. However, “The Pacific” has stories that stretch back to the 80s. I admit to not having read all of them, but of those I did read, I recall enjoying “Perfection” and “Jacob Bayer and the Telephone” the most. Both of those are on the lighter, comedic side.

    When he gets serious and the purple prose starts flowing, I check out.

    “Winter’s Tale” has great moments of comedy mixed with magical realism, and features pretty much everything about Helprin’s writing that I like. (As opposed to “In Sunlight and in Shadow” which features everything about his writing that I don’t like.) Grab a copy of Winter’s Tale, and read the short chapters called “Nothing is Random,” or “The Four Gates to the City.” If either of those spark something in you, then just flip to the beginning and go for it.

  42. Drew

    I suppose it’s bad form to say in the presence of our good host, Pete, that I really had to push through the first half of “The Fiddler’s Gun.” The first half took me months. The second half just a handful of days. I guess I enjoy the piratey, seafaring stuff over the suffering of orphans.

  43. Loren Warnemuende

    Jen, I’ll admit in your safe company that I haven’t read The Yearling yet either. Just can’t get up enough enthusiasm to plow in when all those other books are beckoning.

    Since a few of Dumas’ books have been mentioned, I’ll bring up The Man In the Iron Mask. The only reason I’m glad I read it was that it gave me a perfect example of a description of French thinking. One of my college classes looked at different cultures and their approaches to communication. The French, apparently, tend to start with one point, then tangent to a new, then tangent to a new, etc. This is exactly how The Man in the Iron Mask plays out. I think the title character is in the first quarter of the book (if that) and the last we see of him is a wave goodbye to his tower. He never reappears….

  44. Rachel Konstant

    Jen, don’t feel bad for it taking so long to read THE YEARLING. I picked it up in a bookstore and realized how hard it will be when I finally read it because of the dialect.

    Also, I just thought, do we sometimes mistake pushing through with slowly savouring a book–it’s taking me a while to read good ol’ Wendell Berry’s A PLACE ON EARTH, but I’m loving every moment of it. (Huge Wendell Berry fan. Am in the midst of JAYBER CROW, and he’s already one of my favorite literary characters :).)

  45. Sally

    Matthew B — so nice to see another Wilkie Collins fan. I agree with you -“The Woman in White” is his best work.

    Kelly — I read the unabridges Les Mis so many years ago that I can’t remember whether it would make a huge difference, but I will say that anyone who read an abridged version of Hunchback would have missed some of Hugo’s greatest artistry.

    Rachel — I appreciate your distinction between pushing through and savoring. Right now I’m savoring The Supper of the Lamb (no pun intended, but it still makes me laugh, mostly because I don’t even like lamb). I’m weeks behind in my reading for a discussion group, but I just can’t seem to get myself to go quickly through the book. Too much good stuff.

  46. Lorilie

    Eowyn, I so envy you reading the Aubrey/Maturin books for the first time! I’ve been thinking it’s about time to start my 5th reading of the series…or maybe my 3rd reading of Jayber Crow…or maybe pluck up courage to start the Brothers Karamazov…

  47. Eowyn

    @Jim Andrews @Lorilie I’ve always been a huge fan of the Master and Commander movie, so after watching it again I figured I’d finally get around to reading them.

    @Hannah Dickens’s Out Mutual Friend is excellent, though I’d have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t had most of it spoiled by the wonderful 1999 miniseries. Timothy Spall’s Mr. Venus is genius. And the music…
    Bleak House is another great miniseries, though I have yet to back it up by reading the book. “Shake me up, Judy!”
    A Tale of Two Cities, though, is, of course, the best. I’ve read it twice this year, and even had a great deal of fun adapting it into a modernized screenplay with Chinese communists and any number of other fun things…

    To the many who have mentioned them – Gilead and Winter’s Tale are also on my shelf, as of yet unstarted.

  48. S.D. Smith

    This is such an awesome post.

    I “pushed through” the entire Hunger Games Trilogy and part one was like freaking Hamlet compared to the last two. What a waste.

    I’m glad to have pushed through Master and Commander, Harry Potter (for the most part), Paradise Lost, The Count of Monte Cristo, Winter’s Tale, and others recently, but I haven’t pushed through on The Wheel of Time (prob won’t, stopped at book 6, I think).

    I agree with what both you and JR said. I don’t know what else to say, I’m not reading all those comments…not pushing through, but I loved, loved this post.

  49. Kimberlee Conway Ireton

    @Jonathan Rogers: your rationale for reading (or abandoning reading) reminds of me of Alan Jacobs in The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, only you’re funnier 🙂

    @everyone else: thanks for all these book recommendations. I feel like an unread rube: I haven’t read most of these books. I haven’t even heard of some of them! But it was super fun to read through all these (highly opinionated) book lists.

  50. Destiny H.

    Fantastic article, great insights. I think you’ve hit on exactly why I feel so uneasy when all I ever read is what I consider “easy” (ie – my favorite stuff). However, I have been guilty of reading out of obligation at times, so I understand the opposed reasoning as well.

    Also, these lists are just so fantastic. I feel so humbled and thrilled whenever I’m confronted with how much good stuff I haven’t read. Definitely taking notes here. I know with such a plethora it’s not needed, but seeing all this makes me want to join in on the fun a little bit.

    Dune was somewhat difficult for me to finish, but I did end up feeling, if not endearment, at least a fair amount of respect by the conclusion. Have yet to pick up any of the sequels though.

    The last couple chapters of War and Peace took me a month. I loved it and had no trouble with the rest, but once the narrative concluded, I wanted to finish, but I didn’t really “want” to finish.

    The Hunchback of Notre Dame took me ages, and I’m not sure I was really old enough to appreciate it, so it was a bit of a waste. I like it more in retrospect, but I’ll have to give it another go when I have a bit more time and enthusiasm on hand.

    I’ve started the Iliad several times with shining intentions, but have yet follow any of them to a proper conclusion. I’ve learned to stop berating myself about it though, so no worries. I keep on hearing that it gets epic after awhile, so I still plan to finish … someday.

  51. Amy

    Jonathan Rogers has a similar philosophy to Nancy Pearl. (Nancy Pearl is author of BookLust and model for the librarian action figure – seriously.) Her rule is to read 100 pages before deciding you don’t like a book. However the older you get the less pages you have to read before giving up on a book – if you are 4o, subtract 40 from 100 and you only have to read 60 pages before deciding to give up on a book. I, like Jennifer, have ADD and start way more books than I finish. One of my frequent comments in a discussion is “I started that book….” I did finish Hunger Games Trilogy and enjoyed it – finding many meaty themes for discussion as well as a great story.

  52. Jim Andrews

    Wow, i keep coming back to this posting for the comments and it doesn’t disappoint.

    @Jen and others regarding “The Yearling” – Try the audio version of this book. I picked it up after hearing Andrew describe it as the inspiration for “The Ballad of Jody Baxter” off his latest album Light for the Lost Boy. I thought it was spectacular. The description of the fauna of Florida’s non-beach area made me feel like i was right there in the middle of it. This book was incredible and well worth a couple of reads.

    And @Matthew Benefiel – soooo glad you brought up Watership Down. THAT was an exceptional book that I could not put down. Once I finished it I didn’t want it to end and ran right out to the library to pick up the animated movie version. DON’T Do that. It does Not do justice to the book. at all. awful.

  53. JamesDWitmer

    I wanted to come up with my own list, but I’m not sure I’ll have the bandwidth to do it.

    So I wanted to at least say, thanks, Pete. Great article, great topic, and I enjoyed the comments also!

  54. Chris Yokel

    The first time I read “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” I couldn’t stand it and gave up. The second time I pushed through and absolutely loved it. Now it’s one of my favorites.

    In college I studied philosophy, and thus had to read a lot of stuff that wasn’t exactly “pleasant reading”. But man, I’m glad I did.

  55. aimee

    Okay, Gilead is in my hands again, for the third time, because I respect Pete and Jonathan and the rest of you, and because Jonathan threw down the gauntlet when he started talking about my character flaws 🙂

    But please, give me a bone, a few thoughts to make me see this book with new eyes. I’m on page 80 and having to force myself to continue on. I’m empathetic to the main character and I like that wily, one-eyed grandfather of his, but the style of writing about his life as a letter, feels passive. I keep wishing I was reading about his life as it happened in the moment, instead of in retrospect.

    Thoughts?

  56. Jen

    I wrote a long comment and my browser ate it. shoot!

    So um… guess this is the shorter version, Aimee, Gilead is one of my favorite books ever, but I can see where it’s tough if you’re expecting a novel. It has this slow, meditative pace, and most of the time it doesn’t seem like anything is happening. But I think the best way to approach it is to let yourself immerse in the characters and the writing, approach it slowly like poetry, and don’t try to figure out the timeline of what’s happening. Some other interesting characters start to show up later on and the threads of story start coming together, but it takes a while to get there.

    I’ve had the sequel Home (I guess it’s a sequel?) sitting on my pile for a while… maybe it’s time to crack that one open soon. 🙂

  57. Chinwe

    I agree with Jen, about Gilead – approach it like a meditation, and just immerse yourself in it. I remember now that whenever I would finish a section and close it, I would feel like I was emerging from a dream. More than anything, I just really liked Pastor Ames, and I liked what he liked 🙂 I liked what he noticed and how he saw the beauty in life, but was not naive or cynical. OK – I’m done. Don’t get me started 😉

  58. Janna

    I shall now make a confession that may cause many (all?) of your heads to drop, and possibly others may be tempted to pretend you never read this . . .

    I’ve had this experience (more than once, I have to admit) where I’ve been chatting with a fellow reader and admitted to enjoying the Twilight story (pause.) Their eyes glaze over, not so subtly, and they quickly either try to find some other YA novel with which they can try to relate to my obviously underdeveloped mind and sense of adventure and good literature, or they politely excuse themselves so they can go and find something (anything) else to do.

    I don’t know why I like it and I swear, I have read some of the books on your lists and really liked them! In fact, Pete is one of my favourite authors (I’m so very sorry to mention that in this context, Pete!)

    I think it may be the story that resonates with something intangible in me that drew me in. And I think that’s my point. I think the reason one person will adore a certain tale, and someone else won’t be able to “push through” is perhaps just that the story doesn’t resonate in that particular time and place along the journey. Which is why, particularly with some of the classics, or books recommended by friends, it is good to put them on a shelf and not directly into the trash can. (Except for maybe 50 Shades but that is for entirely different reasons.)

    Confession over. (Gulp.)

  59. Jen

    Chinwe: Ah, good to know. Thank you. Now I will lower my expectations when I read Home.

    Janna: It’s ok. I still think you’re awesome. 🙂

  60. Jen

    Also, I thought Janna was Janna Barber. Derp.

    Um, I think you’re awesome too Janna Not Barber. I just met you. But. Yeah.

    I’m leaving now.

  61. Jen

    And um… I thought Janna was Janna Barber. Derp.

    I still think you’re awesome Janna Not Barber. But I just met you. Anyway… yeah….

    I’m leaving now.

  62. Ben Haupt

    Hey all, sorry I’m late to the party. First, to Janna – C.S. Lewis somewhere talks about intellectual snobbery. It happens all the time. I’m in a wine society, and we love to crack open a bottle of Lynch Bages (one of Bordeaux’s best) or a Gaja (one of the five best wines I’ve ever had). The wine society has passed a strict no wines with animals on the label rule (probably equivalent to YA fiction). Unfortunately when people get together and love something great, they often feel the need to be a hater too. I’ll admit right along with you that at home I drink 6 buck Zin and sometimes even 3 buck chuck. Is it as good as Lynch? No, but I still enjoy it. I say love you some Twilight, and let the scoffers scoff. The most important rule of wine society is “drink what you like.”

    And now to books…I echo the thoughts on LOTR. I pushed through them in college (wish I would have had a character list or had seen the movies first…now there’s a grenade in a book club playground! I think seeing Stephen Jackson’s adaptations make re-reading Tolkien’s far richer version all the better. And yeah, LOTR without Tom Bombadil is like the Bible without God…actually I’m pretty sure that’s how Tolkien envisions Bombadil). I pushed through Anna Karenina. That’s one long book, and there’s not nearly enough about Levin. I could hang with that dude any day and talk farming or philosophy or politics, but the whole Anna affair (bleh). I loved Jayber Crow. Still my favorite novel of all time. I pushed through For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms (both incredibly slow, though great sentences). I am currently stalled on N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (both over a thousand pages). I also need to get back to Gilead which I put down in the midst of a move and never got back to. And so now I end with my own admission to join Janna…I loved every page of the Shack. Drink and read what ya like!

  63. Janna

    Thank you Ben. I now officially will remove my “Shunned” t-shirt (it needed washing anyway.) I loved The Shack too. Not because I was all over the writing style; I’m not sure I noticed since I was too wrapped up in the story. Probably the same reason I can watch a film on my thirteen-inch laptop. But I digress.

    Incidentally, which of Gaja’s wines is your favourite? I’m on a quest.

    Janna (the one from Canada)

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