Should We Only Read ‘Amazing’ Books?

That might sound like an obvious, or even slightly silly, question but it is one that I have been asking myself over the last few weeks. There have been various things recently that have made me ponder this and so I thought I would use the blog as a sound board for them, but also to see if any of you have pondered the same things too.

After I finished ‘Diving Belles’ by Lucy Wood I had that sense of loss that you only get in one in every twenty or thirty books (or more actually) if you are lucky. That does sound odd, linking loss and luck, but it’s true, books that simply blow you out of the water with their atmosphere, writing and most of all story (for me at least) don’t land in your lap every day. Yet after reading ‘Diving Belles’, once the slight bereft feeling had passed, I did find myself thinking ‘shouldn’t I only read books that completely bowl me over all the time’?

I think that every year I get older, and some of the reasoning behind this post may in part be down to my upcoming big birthday, my reading years get better. I still have no idea who I am as a reader, I think this may always be the case as my taste is so eclectic and so many new exciting books come out all the time, and I am fine with that. Yet when I went back through the books I had read in 2011 (looking for Orange Prize longlist contenders) I did find myself thinking a few times ‘why did I continue with that book when it was a bit average and now I have forgotten it’, I won’t say which ones that applied to, there weren’t masses of them but enough to make me think about it. Why didn’t I just give up on them? I wonder if this was a subconscious feeling that helped with my reading by whim (and like it’s possibly the end of the world) for this year?

I was talking with Gavin, and you can hear it on this week’s episode of The Readers, about giving up on books and how I used to find it really difficult to do. I have gotten much better at it but only to a certain point. If I am going to give up on a book I tend to do it within 50 – 80 pages. Yet for some reason if I have gotten about half way through a book and I am finding it rather average; it’s enjoyable enough but nothing new and nothing too special to be honest, why don’t I stop and just give it up? There is of course the ‘oh you wait till that final paragraph that will blow your mind’ theory we readers have in built into our heads, but the older (and more cynical, which rises daily) I get the more I think ‘if the book can’t get me there then it’s just not a good book’. It’s a point.

I am trying to veer away from the ‘what makes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ book’ debate as it is so subjective but subjectivity is a good point to address briefly. I know some people find it very odd that I can go from reading a prize winning book to M.C Beaton and, while appreciating them in differing ways, the fact I appreciate them and loving reading both none the less (sometimes an Agatha Raisin can be much, much more pleasurable than reading some of the prize winning pomp out there and that’s fine too), it is almost deemed a little improper. Interestingly after reading ‘Diving Belles’ I plumped for a good trusted crime novel because I knew I would really enjoy it and that any possibly new-to-me author, random literary read or experimental novel might not get me while the dust of ‘Diving Belles’ settled, and the book that follwed would therefore suffer for it.

That leads me to the fact that as I keep reading the more I am experimenting with my reading and trying new things. I want to keep pushing myself as a reader and in trying out lots of random books, whilst sticking with what I know I love; I think I am more likely to work out what works for me in a ‘perfect’ read. As I carry on experimenting more, shouldn’t quitting more be allowed too without so much guilt?

Then come three more questions. If I stopped reading books I wasn’t enjoying initially, or were just average, how could I have anything to compare my most wonderful reads to? If I only read the most amazing books all the time will I appreciate them as much? Can we ever realistically only read amazing books?

I think I am ending this with more questions than I started out with and also no real idea of my own conclusion. Maybe if a book is muddling along and is nothing special or new why don’t I just let them go, why read on? Or maybe I should keep on if it’s not offending me too much and just let it be an average but forgettable read? See… I am none the wiser, nice to get the thoughts out though. What say you? Should we only read the most amazing books all the time? Do we need to read books we don’t love as much to compare them too? Should you give up on a book that’s inoffensive but average and nothing new?

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42 Comments

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42 responses to “Should We Only Read ‘Amazing’ Books?

  1. You’re describing a problem I have had for years: I cannot abandon a book once I’ve started reading it. It’s almost as though I fear offending the author, or perhaps I really hope it will pick up halfway through. It’s something that I find profoundly annoying, especially as I get older. I do feel I am running out of time to read all the amazing books out there, so why am I wasting my time on such drivel? My solution for now: I will leaf through a book thoroughly at the start of our acquaintanceship and not even start to read it (properly) if I think it might not be worth finishing.
    To your real question though: I often switch from great books to light fiction. You need both heaviness and lightness in your life, don’t you? And, as you say, how do you know something is really good, unless you have something to compare it with?

    • You see I like the idea of leafing through a book first Marina, however you can’t really get a proper flavour of the book until you sit and spend some time with it. My recommendation having gone away and thought about it would be library books. For some reason because they are borrowed I feel less like I have to read them and that helps, you can also be more adventurous and it keeps libraries going.

      You definitely need the heavy and the light, but both can be amazing in their own ways I guess.

  2. Eva

    I posted about this last year! It was also in relation to abandoning books; when it’s really bad, obviously I set it down, but then there’s that murky ‘three star’ area. My new question when I’m finding a book just so-so is ‘Can I think of an actual book I’d rather be reading right now?,’ and if I can then I abandon. If not, or if I’m still curious about what the author’s doing even if they’re not doing it in the best possible way, I keep reading. (Also, YES, I think the more you experiment with your reading the more books you’ll inevitably abandon. If you stick to your comfort reads all the time, there’s less need to. I meant to write that as a reply to a comment I got a couple of weeks ago & forgot. Oh well!)

    As to the other part…I read several books at once. When all of them are incredible, I still find them amazing. ;) Personally, I fall in love with a book by itself, not so much by comparison, so if I could push a button to guarantee I’d never read a one or two star book again, I’d so do it. That being said, there’s a wide margin between a five-star and one/two-star read; I think the four and three stars are still valuable, and I wouldn’t want to give them up.

    • I like the ‘is there a book I would rather read now’ rule Eva, mind you even with the best books my eyes vere over to the TBR now and again, if only for a thrill of what might be to come. Thats a bit different though I guess.

      I completely agree with you on the three/five star reads, and I don’t think the most amazing books are always the five stars, if that makes sense. Some books I have only given three (in my head) grow on you.

  3. gaskella

    Like you Simon, if I’m going to abandon a book, I do it within a chapter or two, but once well in, it would be rare for me not to finish it.
    I try to choose my reading carefully, so I probably average around 7.5/10 for most books I read, but just because a book doesn’t blow me away and I give it a 6, doesn’t mean that there weren’t elements in it to enjoy and/or learn from, so I do keep reading those average books. Whatever you read, you shouldn’t feel guilty, just keep reading something!

    • You made a great point there Annabel. For example I wouldn’t say that ‘The Poison Tree’ by Erin Kelly would probably have been a 3.5/4 book, but the experience made me question myself as a reader and how I read and that was really interesting. If I had given up midway I wouldnt have had the twist at the end or asked myself lots of questions about my reading habits.

  4. A few years back, after my own BIG birthday (I’m talkin’ the big 5-0), I implemented a 60 page rule for myself. If I’m not enjoying reading a book, and I’ve decided I feel like I’m working on a homework assignment instead of pleasure reading, I give it up and walk away. Maybe this callous attitude comes with age and the realization that there truly are ..so many books, so little time!

  5. Actually, my problem is the opposite. I keep reading even when I can’t stand the book, just so I can finish. I have a few books lying around that are still half-read to which I intend on returning. However, the only book I wish I had thrown across the room and permanently given up on was JS Foer’s Everything is Illuminated. I couldn’t stand that book from start to finish. Hours of my life I will never get back.

    • I was contemplating reading Everything is Illuminated actually (refuse to see the film, looks so saccharine I might be see) as I have read him and liked him before, maybe I shouldn’t. Or grab it from the library maybe?

  6. A few years ago I was trudging through a Canadian mystery novel I had picked up merely to have something to read, rather than because I was that interested, and I had a epiphany: I saw no reason to ever read books like that again. It occurred to me that I would enjoy myself a lot more if I only bothered to read books I would enjoy. When I’m reading books that are a chore, I tend to read fairly slowly, and find other things to do instead of read. But when I’m reading a book that’s really interesting or fun, I read more frequently and faster, and enjoy it a lot more.

    It’s hard to predict, of course, what books I will love, so I abandon books easily, sometimes after only reading a few pages. If it doesn’t grab me right away, it’s probably not going to do so later. I may miss some good things, but there is no shortage of books to try. I still occasionally find myself reading things I’m not in love with, and occasionally will abandon a book when I’m well into it. I’m currently trying to decide whether to continue with a book I’m about 600 pages into (it’s a 900 page book) and haven’t touched in weeks. Nevertheless, I have found that my goal of only reading things I’m really enjoying has led to me reading more, and getting more pleasure from it. Really, life is too short to waste reading for anyone but yourself.

  7. My other half thinks that life is too short to read a book you are not enjoying, whereas my philosophy is that perseverance often brings rewards. There have been several occasions where books have surprised me by the end, when I wasn’t enjoying them at the beginning. That is not to say that I’ve never given up on a book – I have. I agree with Eva about reading books in isolation to each other. I approach each book as an individual piece of writing rather than comparing it to other books I’ve read. I will compare books by the same writer and mentally rank them by enjoyment factor. The issue with reading is that it is so subjective. Writing that you think is amazing might not appeal to someone else, even to someone you thought had similar tastes to you. That is the joy of fiction really isn’t it? Diversity in writing and diversity in readers tastes; it makes room for everyone and fuels great discussions.

    • Oh I definitely come to every book in isolation and take it on its own merit, in fact thats why I tend to switch genres between books or why I won’t binge on one author in particular. I need the variety and that can mean in terms of heavy and light, literary or crime but each can be amazing in their own way. Like how I am happy to read Alan Hollinghurst and then read M.C. Beaton.

  8. Here’s my reading rule. If I’m not getting something out of the book at 100 pages I put it down. 25% for kindle reads. If I am near the end of the book and am having a hard time getting through it at that point, I speed read to the end.

  9. I had problems abandoning a started book in the past, but no more. Now, I quit any book I don’t like and I can do this at any stage of the book – 10 pages into it (where the style of writing doesn’t work for me) or a few chapters before the ending (usually the story fizzles or the characters become flat/stagnant etc). Stop. Done. Finish. Read something better. I love books, I love reading, and there’s certainly enough books to last me 10 lifetimes that I’d probably enjoy reading: Why should I read something I don’t enjoy then?

    But, also, we change and grow, we develop new interests, our tastes vary according to our moods and, dare I say, whims, so naturally our reading habits reflect these changes. And that’s perfectly alright. If I should suddenly feel like finishing a book I’m not really enjoying then so be it, I’ll do it. Or if I feel to read a book I’d normally never read, I’ll do that too. I suppose I’m a slave to the reader within me and I’m comfortable with that.

    Which leads me to another question you asked, should we read only amazing books? … But what is ‘amazing’? What you think is ‘amazing’? Then by all means, yes, read amazing books. In fact, I’d say read only amazing book in this case. But if by ‘amazing’ you mean books that have been labelled as such by a canon or institute or a group of opinionated experts etc, then no, I wouldn’t only read ‘amazing’ books because then I’m only reading someone else’s list. And I’d be slowly killing the reader within me.

    And variety is the spice of life, so a wide taste in literature is only going to add flavor to the reader.

    • “I love books, I love reading, and there’s certainly enough books to last me 10 lifetimes” that statement both makes me excited whilst happy and also really freaks me out.

      By ‘amazing’ I mean books I think are amazing myself not the books people say everyone should think is amazing. Hence my aversion to Dickens at the moment. Oops.

  10. So much to think on in this! My first thought on seeing your title was to ask well, who decides what is amazing? But upon reading I see that is your issue – personal choices and when to give up and all that. Personally I’m terrible at giving up books though sometimes it works out and I end up loving. I like too what you say about how if we didn’t read mediocre books, how would we know how truly wonderful the best ones are? I think too it takes time to figure out what you may or may not like so you have to read some average ones to find out? I’m not sure but definitely don’t have any good answers! Only more questions :)

    • There are those books that work out in the long run but do you not think that they have a hint of brilliance even in the darkest moments and are readable even if they aren’t amazing? Theres something, a character or a theme or a way within the words that keeps you going subconciously?

  11. Reblogged this on loveofwords52 and commented:
    I used to plough on till the end of every book I chose to read, now I think life is too short and might even give myself up to 100 pages before I give up. I still accidentally find some great books as you suggest and often it’s just luck.

    • I think you have to experiment, only the more you experiment the more ok you need to be with giving up on books you arent loving. Thats what I think I have been missing on and off.

  12. This is a question I think most readers contemplate and I certainly have as well. In the past I was obsessed with finishing books and meeting my goals of reading a certain number of books per year. This ended up taking all the enjoyment out of reading and this year I’m trying to change my ways and only read books I love. Due to this, I’ve only completed 8 books this year, but I’ve put down 11.

    I do think we should only spend time reading the books we truly love, regardless of what they are (prize winners vs. favorite authors or series) and not let anyone (even ourselves) make us feel bad about our reading choices. It’s easy to fall into the trap of the sunk-cost fallacy and feel that we’ve already read X number of pages so we’ll be throwing all that time away by quitting now, when in fact you’ll be throwing more time away by continuing.

    Also I don’t think it’s important to have things to compare your books to. I know when I’m enjoying the reading experience and when I’m not. That’s all I compare things to: my level of enjoyment. I don’t need to abhor the reading experience to know when I’m really enjoying reading a book. As for what books are amazing, well, I just go by what books I like reading and, again, my own enjoyment of the book, not whether it is a literary classic, has won awards, or has beautiful prose. Sometimes even really well-written books just don’t do it for me, because of plot, characters, or some other reason(s). So yes, I am all for giving up on a book if you don’t like it. The sooner you put down the book you’re not enjoying, the sooner you’ll find the one you can’t put down!

    • Enjoying or not enjoying is the simplest, and probably best way to look at it actually. I think not racing through books, feeling you have to read whatever is in front of you because of this or that, is the best way to work with reading and the books you have.

  13. Amazing books are the ones kept on the ‘best’ bookshelf, dusted and tidy, and frequently re-read. But below them there’s a lot of other grades. There’s a lot of difference between an OK book and one you’re not enjoying at all. I’m all for giving up on something dull and boring, or too gushy, or too bloody and gory – it took me four or more stop start attempts to get through Life of Pi and at the end I wished I’d not bothered! But the OK books are those that you’d maybe read once, on a rainy holiday or while you’re ill, maybe ‘borrow from the library but not bother to buy’ books. I’ve got through hundreds of these over the years. Only you can decide which category to put your current read in. Not even the most praised, talked about book ever will appeal to everyone!

    • …and I’ve just realise what a low attention span I must have by not even getting to the end of a short story. It was by Tanith Lee from Songs of the Dying Earth, a fantasy collection to honour Jack Vance. The odd thing is it was one of a handful that I ‘cherry-picked’ to read, hardly of any length but I gave up after a couple of pages!

    • I only keep the books I have read an really loved. I used to keep everything I read but the shelves I had couldn’t take it and I had no room for more!

  14. I think there’s not reading books you aren’t enjoying and not reading books that are average but a good way to pass the time. I read a lot of books that don’t blow me away but they are still worth reading. I read all the time though, it’s a habit, so I’d rather be with an OK book than none at all. I do give up if I’m really not enjoying them in the first 100 pages but I only gave up on 1 last year. I think all the average books make the special ones extra special.

    • I know what you mean to a point Ellie but I don’t really want to be reading a book just to while away the hours, I want to be spell bound, like I was with The Snow Child or Diving Belles, just completely lost and where time isn’t just whiled away, its gone in seconds because your so enthralled. Even some average books have that affect… just.

  15. An interesting topic Simon, and one I think about a fair bit too.
    In theory, I think it’s a good thing to read books you don’t like or rate – as you say, to learn more about books/ your tastes/to compare etc. But, in practice, I’m happy that I’m quite able to abandon books I’m not getting on with and search out another of the million books out there that I’ll like. I haven’t enough time in my life for rank-bad books…other than sporting autobiographies, that is.

    • I think you can read books you don’t like or don’t rate… if you can give up on them. If you can’t its just bonkers. I forgot to mention that some books are so bad you want to read them till the end, like the literary equivalent of a car crash you can’t stop staring at.

  16. I don’t think you should ever be ashamed of giving up on any books, at all. People are subjective and what works for you won’t work for others. You can apply that to pretty much any argument within books, because it’s true. Even your asking “should I just read amazing books”… well, how would you begin to decide what to read?

    I would say that Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby are both utterly amazing, you may try them and want to quit within 50 pages. Therefore the practice still hasn’t worked. How would you even begin to judge what has the possibility of brilliance before you open the pages? You’d probably end up reading even more average books just to find the hook that makes a book brilliant.

    As you also say, if you just read Brilliant books and skipped the mediocre and average, you would have nothing to compare to. You can’t have light without shade, etc, etc. I have the same philosophy as you and will give a book 60-80 pages, but sometimes I’ll carry on regardless. An average book can sometimes shine for other reasons.

    Also, you mention about not knowing what kind of a reader you are. Surely that’s the best thing in the world?! It means you are utterly eclectic – you can try things out for size. You get to dip your toe in all of the pools and dive in to any of them to enjoy a swim.

    Not knowing what to read is, frankly, a wonderful problem to have – because you have all the choice in the world!

    • I find it interesting which books people find amazing and which ones they don’t. I have to say, and not to be contrary, that ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’ I thought were ‘okay’, the didn’t blow me away but I was glad I read them even though I did do it because I felt that I had to.

      Oh I like the fact I have no idea what sort of reader I am, in fact I think I said I was good with it. It was something I used to have a real issue with. I do like having certain books, series or authors that I can turn to that I know are trusted reads.

  17. Marte

    I abandon books easily. But I still end up reading a lot of books that are forgettable or average, and I wish the percentage of amazing books was larger on my list of books read each year.

    It’s easy to abandon a book I really don’t like. Much more difficult with a book that has obvious qualities, but don’t blow me away. But I think it’s impossible to only read amazing books, since I won’t know which ones are amazing until I’ve read them.

    • Forgettable books are a swine aren’t they Marte, while you are reading them you might think they are ok or even quite good, then suddenly they have been lost in a forgotten haze, its sad and rather annoying.

  18. As Frankie says, “Relax”!

    I have no compunction about giving up on a book after 10 pages or indeed after 200 if I am not enjoying it and I feel absolutely no guilt at all. I too choose my books fairly carefully, but because I don’t buy any of them (apart from a momentary aberration recently) there is no monetary regret when I stop after chapter 1 and return it to the library. I do read some novels absolutely chosen randomly from the shelf. Quite often those go back “by return”, but sometimes it works out very well (Z Z Packer, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” is one example).

    • Hahaha, I am not tense about it DP, lol.

      I love the library for random reads, that tends to be the main reason I use it (and I have gone into using it excessively in 2012).

  19. I too find it really hard to ditch a book. I only read one at a time, actually so many readers can read 2 or 3 or even more at once and I really dont know how they do it. Back to my point which is, I’m not afraid of offending the author in any real way, but I do get it into my head that the time I have already invested in it has been completly wasted if I ditch it half way through. I havent felt like dropping a book for some time though, as like you I seem to have a fairly eclectic taste and rarely find anything I don’t Like.

    One problem I have got, is that I have recently read two amazing novels and and scared to pick anthing else up in case my enjoyment of that is affected by the amazing read that went before. What do you read while the dust settles. Somebody suggested a little comedy. PG Wodehouse anyone?

    • I read a couple at a time but they all have to be different Paul. Interestingly this can help or hinder when you are having a book thats is ‘okay’ rather than ‘amazing’. You either find that leaving it a bit in favour of something else means that you have some space and come back to it afresh, or you leave it and decide not to go back.

      Regarding two amazing novels in a row, depends what the novels are, were they the same genre, author, completely random?

  20. Did you know that Diving Belles was amazing before you read it? If someone had told you that it was amazing before you started, would your expectations of what you were about to experience made it so much more difficult for you to appreciate its amazing qualities? I suspect you need to experience the mediocre in order to appreciate the amazing, and a diet of amazing would eventually have you craving something even better.

    • That is a BRILLIANT point Karyn. I had a sneaking suspicion that it might be a book I would love from the premise, I also heard some wonderful stuff too from the right people. I agree about the mediocre being needed though.

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