Monday, August 21, 2006

The 50-page rule

How long do you continue to read an unenjoyable book before giving up?

Nancy Pearl - reader's advisor extraordinaire, author of Book Lust, and model for the librarian action figure - came up with the Rule of 50: "If you still don't like a book after slogging through the first 50 pages, set it aside. If you're more than 50 years old, subtract your age from 100 and only grant it that many pages."

More and more, I'm discovering that life's too short to read novels that I'm not enjoying, or simply am not in the mood to read, even if I feel I should read them. Until recently, I kept bookmarks to mark my place in novels I never got around to finishing. For example, my copy of Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter still boasts one of these, ten years after my valiant attempt at reading it (please don't send me hate mail because of this). I got about halfway through. I don't know if I do this to assuage any possible feeling of guilt on my part, or if it's my lame attempt to avoid the obvious truth - that there are so many other books out there that, most likely, I'll never get around to picking these novels up again.

I don't have a hard and fast rule for these things. Review books, I'll slog through regardless of enjoyment (but fortunately, I do enjoy most). And I'm occasionally rewarded for my efforts - sometimes novels surprise me and turn out to be better than originally anticipated.

My latest two rejectees are Catherine Cookson's The Silent Lady and Hilda Lewis's I, Jacqueline. The former was Cookson's final novel, which she dictated to her husband from her sickbed - she was very ill at the time. I found the plot convoluted and the characters unappealing, and I really wonder if it would have been published if Cookson wasn't the author. I made it through about 30 pages. I, Jacqueline, a biographical novel of Jacqueline, Countess of Hainault, started off well, but the heroine was of the TSTL type - so naive and wishy-washy that I spent most of the novel (the half I read, anyway) cringing from her poor decisions.

It's possible I just wasn't in the right mood to read any of these novels. But I'll probably never know.

13 comments:

  1. I often find I dislike the first few chapters of a novel and then it seems to improve. Perhaps this is where the author finds their stride in the story, or perhaps it's where I start to feel I know the characters well enough to engage with them or to understand what's going on, or perhaps it's because I generally read for story rather than for style and the story isn't usually apparent to me within 50 pages. Whatever the reason, once I've decided to give a book a try, I nearly always finish it, if only to see if it improves. About the only things that make me give up are disgusting horror scenes and pretentious prose. Usually I'm relaxed about style if the story is good, but those are two styles that I really can't stand.

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  2. I used to finish almost everything I read until I hit 35 or so, after which I decided that life was too short to slog through something that's boring me. I don't have a page limit--usually I'll just stop when I've found something better to read.

    Aside from poor writing, what makes me give up most often is characters I simply don't care about.

    BTW, I've thumbed through King Hereafter several times at bookstores, but have yet to pull the trigger and get a copy of that or any other Dunnett.

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  3. Carla - I often feel that way, too, about the start of a novel. It frequently takes me that long to adapt to the author's style (and get to know the characters), and decide whether I'm able to get into the novel or not.

    Susan - I wonder if 35's the magic age, because that's about when I really started giving up on novels that didn't interest me. And sometimes it's not a deliberate choice - more like I put a novel down, fully intending to pick it up again later, but never do. I still feel kind of guilty about King Hereafter, not only because so many people I know have recommended it, but because family members hunted for a copy all through Scotland for me, back in the days when it was out of print and hard to find. I didn't pay back their efforts very well, unfortunately.

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  4. Interesting re the book about J of H - never would have thought of her as the TSTL type. A shame, cause she's a fascinating character.

    I too give up on books within a couple of chapters if the author doesn't pull me into their world. Ok, except books I'm reading for review, those I DO finish, no matter what.

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  5. I think so much more could have been done with the J of H book. The way the novel goes, she has a lot of people giving her advice about who to trust, who to marry, etc., and she always takes the bad advice and ignores the good. Makes it really hard to root for her!

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  6. Frank1:09 PM

    It is unfortunate when a novel catches you at first then becomes bogged down with useless fillers to expand it's size. I end up having to finish the book after investing 100 - 200 pages, hoping to find that the end will be as good as the beginning.
    I then ask myself where was the editor.

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  7. I don't force myself to read books that I am not super fond of. Like you say in your post, life is too short to waste time on bad books. I try, there are bookmarks in some books, but I don't feel guilty if I don't finish something. There are too many other, better books that are crying for my attention.

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  8. If I ever come across an overlong novel I don't feel like reading the rest of, I usually skim the remaining chapters, or skip right to the ending.

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  9. About the 'magic age' - I'm 34, and I've noticed that in the last year or so, I've started to give up on novels that don't grab me after the first few pages or chapters. Like Susan, I don't have a page limit - I'll usually stick with it until I get hold of something more interesting to read.

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  10. Except during my studies, I've never finished a book I didn't want to read. Some got a second try years after, and sometimes I read them then. But books that failed to interest me twice, have lost their chance. Sorry, Mr. Dickens. :)

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  11. Alianore, you and I are about the same age - interesting that the three of us (you, me, Susan) had the same experience! Anyone else?

    I had to read Dickens for school a couple times. Don't ask me how much I remember of his novels, though (aside from famous first lines). This often happens when I had to read books for class rather than on my own.

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  12. I didn't start not finishing books until just the past year or two, and I'm, ahem, several older than you all.

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  13. I usually give it up to 100. If it's for professional review I'll force myself to slog to the end. Occasionally novels take a couple of chapters to settle down or for me to get into the writer's style, so that 100 page rule (maximum) gives time for that to happen and everything to develop. I do think though that my reading tastes and tolerances have changed. Things that I thought wonderful at 20 have lost some of their gloss. I do find it harder than I used to, to pick up fiction that glues itself to my hand.
    I don't think the fiction has become worse, but I do think I have become more picky. My latest put down was for a historical reading group and it was The Agony and the Ecstacy by Irving Stone. Great writing, just too much angsting over every chunk of marble and my concentration levels wouldn't take it.

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