Top 10 Best Books Serial Book-Abandoners May Have Missed

Greg Zimmerman

Staff Writer

Greg Zimmerman blogs about contemporary literary fiction at The New Dork Review of Books and holds down a full-time gig as a trade magazine editor. Follow him on Twitter: @NewDorkReview.

“If a book doesn’t grab me in the first 50 (100? 150?) pages, I quit. I don’t have the time to not be entertained IMMEDIATELY!”

It’s amazing how often you hear some variation of that from a certain type of reader — let’s call them the serial “did not finisher” (DNFer). (Also, it makes me giggle — you want the book to “grab” you? Isn’t that restraining-order-worthy? Sorry. Back to the post…) Far be it from me to tell you how to read — if Serial DNFing works for you, more power to you. Yes, I know there are a lot of books out there, and your time is precious. I know. But if you are a Serial DNFer, you may have missed out on some great books that are a bit, um, deliberate at the start. Patience, young grasshopper. It’ll pay off.

Of course, this is a list that could extend into the hundreds. But here are my top 10:

10. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson — Unless you’re intimately interested in Swedish financial dealings, the first 100 pages of this novel are a slog. But then, the mystery — and my god, what a mystery. It takes an author of some range to include journalistic ethics, incest, detailed descriptions of MacBooks, torture, and one badass mysterious mystery-solving female all in the same novel.

9. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith — A ton of people have told me they just couldn’t find their way into this dysfunctional family saga. I don’t necessarily agree, but if you’re one who’s gotten stuck, my advice is to stick with it, for however long it takes for it to “grab” you. This is a wonderful story; one of my favorite novels.

8. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon — Where is he going with this? What’s with all the comics stuff? Does this have a point? (Fascinating places like Antarctica, adding context, and YES!) Stick with this story of Joe and Sammy, and you’ll be immensely rewarded.

7. The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas — When you think Dumas, you think sword fighting and lady wooing and revenge. Sweet, delicious revenge. And this book has it all, but it sure takes awhile to get there. For most readers, because most readers already know the story, it seems damn near interminable.

6. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell — For a novel that may very well blow your mind, this starts out on the slow. We’re in the 19th century aboard a ship, and we have no idea how this Adam Ewing fellow and his weirdo doctor buddy will connect with the next 500 pages. But connect, it does — across time and space.

5. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck — This starts slowly, gains speed, and ends rapidly. In the beginning, we get a lot of telling (as opposed to showing) about the families, without too much story. But when Charles and Adam have their first fight, and then Cathy/Kate enters the fray, this classic is hard to put down.

4. An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser — This naturalist novel about poor, tragic Clyde and his increasingly poor decisions takes a little while to get going, as Clyde moves from Kansas City to Chicago and then to Lycurgus, New York — where he meets his Roberta, his lady, and Sandra, his other lady. This is one of my all-time favorite “classics” — and very much worth the slow start.

3. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy — It takes about 400 pages to get to the first war scene, and about another 500 to get to the “good part” of Napoleon invading Russia (and Tolstoy’s tide of vitriol towards the “little general” — which is high comedy for readers). But if you’re picking up Tolstoy’s masterpiece, you kind of know what you’re in for — and so you plug on. Plus, Natasha is hot.

2. A Prayer For Owen Meany, by John Irving — It’s this simple: You have to finish this novel to recognize how brilliantly all the pieces over the course of 600+ pages come together as a whole. Plus, the last 50 or so pages of this book are as riveting as any fiction you may ever read. But it starts slowly — literally with the characters’ births. And takes awhile to gain momentum. But. So. Very. Worth. It.

1. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace — You may have heard me say this before, but if you’re diving into this novel, you just have to accept you probably won’t understand how most of the individual scenes in the first 200 pages connect to each other and what’s to come. But that’s okay. DFW’s language is more than enough to propel you along until things start making more sense.

What would you add to this list? What book did you stick out against your better judgement, and ended up loving?