The Books You’ll Never Finish


The illusion of choice is particularly applicable to books because you can buy them for small change when you’re tempted by momentary fancies. They’re still the best value impulse purchase of all. Trouble is, you sometimes put your book on a shelf where it sits for years, unopened.

For me it’s even worse, because writers get given books all the time; it’s our currency. Let’s just say that not everything we’re given is a masterpiece. I keep a ‘Books To Be Read Soon’ shelf, but that’s different to the ‘Books I Really Should Read’ shelf. The latter is mostly occupied by books I’ve started and not finished.

What is it that makes us stall when we start to read? At what point do we decide to abandon or delay our reading, telling ourselves we’ll come back to it?

The last two books I dumped were ‘Laura’ by Vera Caspery – a classic noir mystery, I know, but the opening chapter was arch and tiresome, and I suddenly realised we’d be stuck with Waldo Lydecker for the whole book, and ‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’, an exercise in meta-fiction that confused before even introducing its characters.

Of course we don’t have to fully understand what’s gong on when we start a novel, but we need a reason to keep reading. Among those I’ve stumbled to a halt on and saved for that special day when I find out I have a week to live are the following;

Tristram Shandy (started it a dozen times, was enjoying it but not quite enough)

Middlemarch (read cover – sounded rural)

Vanity Fair (ditto)

Don Quixote (daunting – ‘the Everest of novels’)

The Shadow Of The Wind (started it 3 times, people say it’s great, full of clichés)

A Tale of Two Cities (what’s the problem here? I’ve read every other Dickens, including ‘Mugby Junction’. This one I will come back to.)

Anything by Anthony Trollope (had to do ‘The Warden’ at school – put me off for life)

Finnegans Wake (why – really – would you?)

Infinite Jest (I like David Foster Wallace but his mindset is too detail-oriented for me)

Good Omens (whimsical fantasy makes me ill, jokes left me cold)

On the other hand there are books I find a breeze to read and reread which I know friends have trouble with:

Gormenghast (the first two books, the third is an exercise in the removal of pleasure)

The Atrocity Exhibition (a demanding text that incorporates ideas and essays into an only-partially seen storyline)

The Flower Beneath The Foot (experimental, ground-breaking, short)

Bleak House (every sentence can be read aloud and examined)

Mrs Dalloway (Londoner, ergo enjoyed)

Pepys’s diaries (a clear idea of the man living in monumental times comes shining through)

Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (seemingly reckless, but elegantly constructed)

I’m always ready to be convinced about so-called unreadable or unread books – so fire away!

15 comments on “The Books You’ll Never Finish”

  1. Susanna Carroll says:

    Never finished:

    The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (It goes on and on…)
    Moby Dick (Never managed beyond the first couple of chapters)
    Cannot get on with Thomas Hardy at all….

    Ones I’ve read, other people have trouble with:

    Morte d’Arthur, Thomas Malory (The original epic fantasy, sort of…)
    I managed Don Quixote, after a false start…
    I agree with Chris on Gormenghast, the third one’s a bit of mess, but the first two are enthralling.

  2. Bernard Abramson says:

    Almost all of the above and
    Thomas Wolfe
    Thomas Mann

  3. Ken Mann says:

    Lord of the Rings took me a few goes – I always stalled in the same place, but a third attempt made it through. I book I respect rather than enjoy.
    My own favourite difficult book is William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, which is one of my favourites but one I would never recommend to another.

  4. admin says:

    House on the Borderland is for me an amazing read!
    My reaction to Moby Dick was, ‘Oh for God’s sake give me the harpoon and I’ll do it.’ The prose is really turgid.

  5. Martin Tolley says:

    Love Thomas Hardy, especially the lesser known ones. AND favourite female name – Eustacia. In Return of the Native TH (who also shuffled those gravestones around the tree in St Paddy’s Old Church) went ballistic with names – like Clym Yeobright and Damon Wildeve… what’s not to love?
    As for those impossible to get going with for me:
    Anything by Jane Austen. Everything by the Brontes. A lot of Agatha Christie (I just don’t care about the people enough to get involved) especially anything with Ms Marple in it.
    Moby Dick’s OK, but like the Titanic, if you know the outcome of the plot, there’s not much to hold on to your interest.
    Lord of the Rings was just too big to hold in bed.
    A lot of DH Lawrence… the paper in my editions of his always seem to be foxed and smell just a bit off.
    When you’re done with Ivanhoe, then the rest of Walter Scott is meh.
    Ditto “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and Solzhenitsyn.
    Love Grahame Green, loathe Somerset Maugham.
    John Irving… read one, read them all?
    Patrick O’Brien and those tedious sea stories…

  6. Billy says:

    ‘Gormenghast’ I struggled through to the bitter end and hated it – dreary, dreary, dreary. Similarly I kept on with ‘Dune’ to the final page and wondered what everybody raved about. I always finish a book once I start, simply because sometimes they come together at the end and the overall experience outweighs the difficult moments i.e. ‘The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’ which I really enjoyed ultimately – reminded me of an episode of Sapphire and Steel. But there are inevitably some where I realise I have used up hours reading which I will never get back; ‘Milkman’ is a case in point which is really just an avalanche of words without respite.

  7. Wayne Mook says:

    Several books I had to stop due to moves were Don Quixote, it was packed away and I started something else while moving and never quite got round to it again, another book like that was What Made Stevie Crye? by Michael Bishop, part read but not picked up again after a move.

    I stopped reading Sara Paretsky novels as the plots were taking the same route, a similar thing happens with Edgar Wallace. I keep going back to Wallace as I find I can relax with one of his books and pick it up & put it down at will. I mean to go back to Paretsky at a later date.

    Moby Dick started but just never really got into it.

    You’ll be pleased to know there is a TV series of Good Omens due this year. I enjoyed it, myself.

    Fear and loathing I really enjoyed but I feel it is one of those books you have to be in the mood for.

    Lord of the Rings I enjoyed but how long does it take them to say goodbye? The last film has the same problem, just go already, or how to drag an ending out.

    The Hunchback of Notre Dame I enjoyed, even though he kept stopping to do a tourist information piece on the cathedral, early info dump problems.

    I have been reading Paul Clifford by Lord Lytton, it’s not bad but I’m dipping, so slow reading it around other books. Since it’s on my kindle it makes it easier to just read a bit more now and again.

    The Oxford English Dictionary (20 volumes) couldn’t finish it, the plot was rubbish…sorry I’ll get my coat. (I did almost buy a copy of it but didn’t have the space at the time.)


  8. Ian Luck says:

    Generally, I won’t buy a book unless I know that I will read it. Occasionally, I’ll be given books as gifts because the purchaser thought that they looked interesting, and as a rule, they generally aren’t. Saying that, a good friend of mine has an uncanny knack of picking a book simply by it’s cover, and it will be a blinding read. Every time. It’s very odd, and to compound matters – he very rarely reads books. There are very few books that I’ve read, and given up on, but the list includes:

    Moby Dick. I can only ever get about 30 pages in, before I feel the will to live slipping away.
    Pride And Prejudice. Dull. My god, it’s dull. And using ten words to say what could be said in five.
    Finnegans Wake. Nope. Me neither.
    Utopia. I’m sure that it’s good, as Sir Thomas More was a certified genius – but I gave up. Sorry, Tom.
    Eon. A book by American Science Fiction author Greg Bear. When you start reading the same paragraph over, and over, and over again when you’re not tired, then you know that the job’s a bad ‘un.
    One of those … Of Grey books, just to see what the fuss was. So badly written, it made me want to drown things. It might be fun to give people who enjoyed the …Of Grey books, a copy of De Sade’s ‘Justine’, to see how they got on with it.
    Anything by Edith Wharton. Mannered, slow, and tremendously boring, to the point of catatonia.

    I enjoyed ‘Don Quixote’, reading it when I had chickenpox when I was16, and as a consequence, very ill indeed and it took me away from the pain and the temptation to scratch – reading it in little bits over a fortnight. ‘Notre Dame De Paris’, is a book I’ve read a couple of times, likewise, ‘The Count Of Monte Cristo’. I re-read ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ over the last weekend, and it is still astonishingly good fun, and full of ideas – Swift’s creation of the flying city of Laputa is mind boggling for a 17th/18th century writer to come up with, and that can be balanced against the idea of Gulliver putting out a fire in the Lilliputian palace by urinating on it, or his experience in Brobdingnag, of being a toy for a giant girl, and being carried about, whilst naked, between her breasts. Having read the expurgated version as a child, reading the full version when I was about 14, was a bit of a shock. Candide, by Voltaire, like Gulliver’s Travels, is another book I love, and another that is poking the anthill of social, religious, and political mores with a stick. Thomas Hardy can be relied on for a dose of gloom, but I do like ‘The Mayor Of Casterbridge’, and ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, though the latter is somewhat biased by the handsome movie version with Julie Christie and Terrence Stamp.

  9. Roger says:
    Someone whose job mainly consists of reading unreadable books.

  10. Wild Edric says:

    Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama I gave up after fifty pages (anybody else have that rule?). Maybe it was my state of mind at the time but the start was so confusing. I got the impression it was badly translated by someone usually used to translating technical documents. No nuance.

    Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver I’ve tried three times and not got past the first twenty pages. Is it worth another try?

    My Dad lent me the first Vera novel – Crow Trap. I managed about half of that before I just got fed up. Northumberland is such a beautiful, wild county yet I felt the novel could have been set anywhere. I like the landscape to be an integral character especially if it’s somewhere I’m familiar with or would like to visit, hence why the Bryant & May books are so great.

    The book I wished I’d given up was the Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair. A thoroughly unlikeable central character and a flat, predictable ending you could see coming a mile off.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Right, another anti Gormenghast reader. Every once in a while I go back and read a few pages.
    Thomas Hardy angers me, particularly in “Tess…”, although that is what he intended , for you to feel the injustice of it all. Anyone planning on doing genealogy should be prepared for at least one similar incident.
    I read Pride and Prejudice over again every once in a while, but I’m a woman of a certain age.
    I love War and Peace.
    Never got into the Dune books although I did rather like that first one.
    Good Omens is a favourite book, I’m afraid, but I enjoy some forms of fantasy.

  12. Richard Nordquist says:

    Please don’t judge Middlemarch by its cover (or by its triple-decker length or its off-putting subtitle: “A Study of Provincial Life”). Among many other things, it’s a wise and witty novel about the nature of goodness–about trying to do good in a world hellbent on doing the opposite. Put another way, it’s a detective novel without detectives.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Richard, that makes me want to read Middlemarch. I don’t seem to have a copy but it won’t be difficult to find.

  14. Penelope says:

    Admittedly, saying Moby Dick is boring is like shooting fish in a barrel. For me, this is something of a repeat offender. I was the only one in my class who read it 25 years ago, and I was so proud of that that it’s been on my shelf as a trophy ever since. However, recently I thought I’d try it again to relive my triumph, only to find it unreadable in every way. Poor Melville! I’m still going to keep it on my shelf though.

    War and Peace. I loved Tolstoy’s short stories, but I just couldn’t get past the boring drawing-room chitchat on the chaise longues, etc. Maybe it kicked in later, but for now this will stay on the shelf. I used to read everything all the way, but life’s too short. My personal limit now is 40 pages (unless it’s an Asterix).

    Ulysses I will never manage. Oddly though, my mother, who loved “light” reading like P.G. Wodehouse (rockin’) started reading Joyce when she was diagnosed with dementia. Perhaps it makes sense in some strange way that she loved Ulysses! She read it three times.

    My best story is about Les Miserables. No interest at all. Never even saw the musical. It was on my shelf of nice, juicy fat Penguins. Then I decided to weed out the books I didn’t want (20 years later), so I began reading it. I loved it so much that I spun it out over a year. I became so attached to the characters and Hugo’s knowledgeable little asides about Paris, disappearing neighbourhoods and things like sewers and convents… hey, that sounds like another favourite author, eh Mr Fowler?

    Oh and the last book I simply couldn’t bear to keep reading was the fourth Harry Potter. Sorry chaps, but Quidditch is b-o-r-i-n-g!

  15. DCote says:

    Ken Mann: Would be very curious to know where in the Lord of the Rings you got stuck.

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