On Breaking Up with a Book

Hey, it’s not the book, maybe it’s you. Maybe it just isn’t the right time for you to read this book. Maybe you’re just not in the mood for this book.

Or maybe, it’s the book. The words, the style, the plot points, the characters. The chords are jarring. For whatever reason, you and this book just aren’t going to make it.

There are some perhaps admirable people who don’t give up on the book, no matter what. Any story is worth reading, they say, and plow ahead even though they have to schedule it on their calendar or deny themselves cake until they’ve read it.

And I would totally do that too, if I could just teach myself how not to want the cake.

It is perhaps because of this, among other reasons that are less important than cake, that I live in the other camp. The “It’s been fun, but…” camp, or the “HA, no. Bye!” camp. Very rarely do I work too hard at loving a book. If I do slog through one, it’s a) an assignment, or b) because I realize at some point that I have slogged through 60% of that book. And really, now that I’m almost two thirds of the way through, it seems almost silly to give up. Sometimes, I’m mildly, pleasantly surprised. Sometimes, I realize that getting through that last stretch jump-started my brain in some way, and hey, that’s always worth something. But sometimes, I spend the next 40% wondering why I didn’t walk away while I still had the chance.

Which brings me back to my question — when is it the ideal time to let go?

Some of us have a formula, a set rule of sorts. For me, it used to be the 100-page mark. Because by my calculations, by the time we had gotten to the hundredth page, this book and I usually would have done dinner, movie, long walks, late nights, and intimate…discussions. We would be just about figuring out if our answers on The Big Questions really jived, or if one of us was too attached to a parent. In other words, I’d know enough of the characters to know they were full of intriguing possibilities, the plot had taken a twist or two that I knew would lead down some adventure-filled roads, and the style made me happy. (The best ones made me tingle). Or, I’d know by then that the characters had shown me everything they were going to show me, I wasn’t feeling the spark with the plot, or the style was…clashing, at best. So when I didn’t at least like, if not love, a book by page 100, I knew it was time to sit down and say, “We need to talk…”.

The problem with going all the way to page 100, though, is that sometimes I was in too deep to get out. I started to see all of those weird, unattractive style or plot quirks and flaws I didn’t see in pages 1 — 75 or so. But now I would sometimes think, “Well, maybe it’ll get better by 200. It could change, you know. Books change.” And sometimes it did. Or sometimes, I would be staring at page 135, my eyes glazing over and my mind wandering to the shopping list one of my book-friends handed me, or whether or not I had any cake left in the refrigerator. And even if I did make it to 200, well. I was at or near the 60% mark. And we all know what happens then.

So when I switched over to my beloved kindle, it became the 15% mark. In my mind, this would be around the end of date #1, maybe #2 — where I’ve gotten a decent enough picture of what the characters are like, where the style or plot wants to take me next. Impatient and quick to judge? Maybe. But sometimes, when you meet a book, you just know. You know as soon as the story starts to say something. You feel it — that electric pulse that tells you your life is never going to be the same. Or there’s that feeling of unease, even full-blown disgust. It can happen within that first sentence. Heck, in some cases it can happen before you’re done reading the summary. Some of my most beloved books had me in love before we were even 5% in. And we all have those books we put back on the shelf with a loud, “NOPE.” Still, I started to wonder if I really could judge a book for all it is worth in just 15 quick percentage points. That’s barely the first fifty pages or so. The characters might not have even started doing anything yet. Was it really fair to walk out the door if you have only a cursory glance of what’s to come? Sometimes the answer is still a definitive, resounding YES. But sometimes…

These days, on my kindle, at least, I try to give it between the 15 and the 25% mark. The point some writers might call the Door of No Return, or, affectionately, The Door, because characters have to jump in headfirst into The Problem at this point. I like to think of this as a door for readers too. Just like for the characters, it’s the perfect place for the reader to ask, “Am I all in, or nah?” If I’m not, I put the book down, or put my kindle away, and head for that scrumptious slice of cheesecake hiding in my fridge to mourn the end of a possibility. And if I am, I mark my page, or put my kindle down, and head to the fridge for that scrumptious slice of cheesecake. Because who said you couldn’t have your cake and eat it while you’re reading, too.

How do you decide to part ways with a book?

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