We’ve all been in that awkward, shaming position before. A fellow reader or impressed non-reader asks, “Have you ever read [insert classic tome of brilliance here]?” and you have no choice but to answer, “Well… I started it, but never finished it, because…[insert feeble cover-up for “I got bored” here].”
Once upon a time you might’ve gotten away with reading a quarter of War and Peace, skimming a few summaries, and letting that be enough to claim that you’ve actually read it. But with the rise of the e-book, Internet, and crowdsourcing, those glory days are gone. Now, the word is out; we’ve all been told on. Even the most book-loving book lovers don’t finish some books.
A whole host of data by Goodreads, Kobo, Amazon, and probably a whole bunch of other reading data polls and surveys are calling us out and finding out which books we’re not reading. Or, rather, which books we’re starting and never finishing. Some of the finds will surprise you; others will elicit a familiar cringe of recognition. Don’t worry, I never finished Finnegan’s Wake either…
If you don’t like a book, you don’t like it. There are too many books worth reading to waste your time on a book you’re not enjoying. But maybe some these books are getting abandoned because your wrist just can’t take lifting all 1,000 pages of it for another minute, or maybe the first 100 pages are suuuper-slow. But there are a few of these frequently abandoned books that are seriously worth doing wrist exercises or pushing through another long description on whale fat for a seriously huge payoff in the end. You don’t have to finish every book you start, but these ones are worth an effort at it.
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
In fact, it’s apparently one of “the most unread books of all time,” which, I guess, is kind of understandable. It’s not exactly easy reading. But it does blow a giant gaping hole of wonder in your brain space that makes it totally worth rereading every paragraph three or four times just to get it.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
This is a surprising one, considering the wild fandom surrounding it. But it’s probably all the songs… It’s the songs, isn’t it? I really liked the songs, but maybe that’s because I kept trying to put them to the beat of my favorite rap songs… Hey, if that’s what it takes to make it through this series, it’s well worth it. Tolkien’s world is so rich that you’ll feel like you’re a full-fledged member of Middle Earth by the time you make it to the end.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Catch-22 is one of those books you’ve got to do some work for — the events are out of sequence, some of the punchlines to jokes come chapters later, the details to events get filled in piece by piece spread out throughout the novel all out of order and told from different perspectives. Add to that the less than happy content, and it’s not exactly the easiest book to get through. But once you do… oh, it’s so worth it.
Ulysses by James Joyce
There is a whole festival in Dublin every year dedicated just to this book! If you can’t find it in you to read the whole thing through, just go to one of the readathons at next year’s Bloomsday Festival and after 28-plus hours and a stash of Red Bull, you can finally say you’ve finished it.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
OK, this was one of the first books I just couldn’t finish. It was all the damned sidebars about whaling techniques that drove me crazy. But when I finally picked it back up, I came to it prepared for those crazily detailed asides that read the like the world’s longest footnotes, and this time it was less obnoxious. In fact, and maybe this was just because I’d taken a random interesting in seafaring life at the time, it was kind of cool. Kind of really cool. Moby Dick does things that are totally unique in all of literature, and even if you don’t love the story, once you finish it, you won’t be able to help giving it a nod of respect.
Wicked by Gregory Maguire
Why worry about finishing the novel when you can just watch the Broadway musical and sing-along, right? Wrong. Why? Because sex (there’s a lot more sex in the novels). Oh, and character development. The musical is great, even for those who don’t particularly like musicals. But the novel offers up a richer, darker, more complexly human Elphaba and Glinda. There are a great deal of differences between the musical and the novels, including the ending. You know you want to find out what they are...
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
So, you didn’t finish this bizarre door stopper of a novel that you need at least two bookmarks, a notebook, and an endless supply of willpower just to get through? Can’t blame ya there. Since we’re all being honest here, I haven’t actually finished the thing either (I came so close, though!). So how do I know it’s worth finishing? I don’t. But I’m damn determined to find out, because I love Parks & Rec, and apparently Parks & Rec co-creator Michael Schur loves Infinite Jest. Also, I just want to know if I want to keep moving that hefty beast from apartment to apartment or just finally abandon it on a library doorstep. Infinite book group anybody?
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
This is a funny one. It was all hullabaloo and Pulitzer Prizes when it first came out, and according to the data, most people who are putting it down are reading it almost all the way to the end before giving up. And it’s true, the book takes a sudden philosophical turn in the last 200 or so pages that are sort of a stylistic hiccup. But the ideas presented in those pages are pretty amazing, and it might not be a traditional narrative tool, but non-traditional is cool. If you have to, just to get the ideas, pretend it’s a separate analytical work or something.
Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
After the film went all big shot, Northup’s narrative got a second life 160 years after it first came out. The film is amazing and all, but you can’t get the full picture in two hours and a bucket of popcorn. The full picture is harrowing, unrelentingly violent and depraved. That, I imagine, is why a lot of reader just can’t finish it. But, it’s also really really real. This happened… for centuries. It might not be a comfortable or enjoyable read. But that’s not always what books are for, right?
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
So… basically we all just served up an incredible amount of BS in our high school English class essays about this book, yeah? Yeah... probably. The Great Gatsby is easily another victim of the high school syllabus, fostering hatred for classics since 1776 or whenever school started sucking the life out of good books. Anyway, having overcome my own high school visceral reactions, I reread this book as an adult and it’s freaking beautiful, down to the very last sentence.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Shocking! If you aren’t finishing this book because you hated the movie, by the gods please give it another chance. It’s so cool! Mitchell’s by-now-infamous formula of telling his stories from different perspectives of intersecting lives is at its best here. I’m guessing folk aren’t finishing because they tire of one setting or one narrator. Well, good news, it’s gonna switch again soon. Push through! I promise, it’s worth it.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
This book is brilliant, and the ending is cah-razy. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you’ve already read it and thought, “Did that seriously just happen?”. Well, it did. It’s not some gimmicky surprise ending or anything, but it’ll definitely leave you stunned. The whole book is beautiful and it’d be a shame to miss out on any one part of it, including the ending.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crime and Punishment is one of those books that you experience. It takes you from your relatively normal life into the dark quarters of existential crisis and coming to the end is like coming up for air. I wouldn’t say there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but there is an end to the tunnel at least.
Eats, Shoots, & Leaves by Lynne Truss
Maybe it's your own frightful grammar or bad memories of 8th grade English class that keep you from finishing this funny little book. But, don't worry, while Truss's humor can sometimes come off as a bit scathing (personally, my favorite kind), it's all made better by the fact that even Truss herself made a few grammar errors in the book. Honestly, probably not everyone should finish this book. It’s bound to frustrate or even downright offend many. You might have to already have the gene for having an incurable love for grammar and punctuation to really enjoy this book, but it’s a must for the grammar enthusiasts, and then last chapter takes on the effects of the Internet age on grammar.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Yeah. I’m betting this one even went under-read in its own era. It’s so big and scary that the very title has come to represent impossibility. But, if you can keep tabs on all the names and nicknames and family associations (I suggest note cards), it’s worth it. Don’t let the scary size of the thing discourage you, it’s not actually a difficult book, just a long one, and once you get going, it’s smooth sailing. And then, of course, there’s that satisfying turn of the last page. It’s worth it just to feel so damned accomplished.
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