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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!
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.