“A writer only begins a book,” Samuel Johnson once said. “A reader finishes it.” Unless, of course, they give up halfway through.
New research has found the top five books that readers shelve before the final page, which include J K Rowling’s latest work and erotic sensation Fifty Shades of Grey. Reasons for ditching a book included everything from the narrative being “slow and boring” to a “ridiculous plot”, a dislike of the main character, and even objections that the work was “immoral”.
Schopenhauer was of the opinion that life was “too short for bad books”, so the reading website Goodreads has compiled a modern list of the five most abandoned by its 19 million-strong online reading community.
The most abandoned book was The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling, with comments suggesting those returning the book to the shelves were largely Harry Potter fans. “Where’s the magic?” one said. Suzanne Skyvara of Goodreads believes it was a case of “mismanaged expectations”.
It was followed by the first of E L James’s best-selling Fifty Shades trilogy, with one user simply saying: “I am embarrassed for us all” after giving it up early.
Eat Pray Love was third on the list, with the heroine of the book proving polarising. Ms Skyvara said: “You either really liked the heroine or you wanted to throw the book, and her, across the room.” The list was rounded out by Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Wicked by Gregory Maguire.
Ms Skyvara said: “This turned out to be a real watercooler topic. People split into defined groups; it is amazing how many people will push on to the end of a book they don’t enjoy. I’m in the ‘life’s too short’ category.”
Close to 40 per cent said they finish books no matter what. For those that did plough on, most gave the reason “as a rule I like to finish things” and “I have to know what happens”.
Just over 15 per cent abandon a book before the 50th page, while 28 per cent give up before they reach 100. Goodreads, which was launched in 2007, tracked the data for the past six years on the books its users had marked “abandoned”, “did not finish”, or “unfinished”.
Of the top five abandoned classics, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 topped the list, followed by The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The fifth was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
While readers have professed to feel guilty about abandoning books prematurely, they can take comfort from Dr Johnson. On hearing about advice that a book should always be completed once begun, he said: “This is surely a strange advice; you may as well resolve that whatever men you happen to get acquainted with, you are to keep them for life. A book may be good for nothing, or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?”
Putdownable prose: The top 5 most abandoned classics
Heller’s satirical work, about the madness of the Second World War, introduced its title into the English language. The 1961 book follows the story of Joseph Yossarian, who flies bomber missions, and is convinced the military is trying to get him killed. It has sold more than 10m copies.
The Lord of the Rings
The fantasy novel published in 1954 follows the epic journey of hobbits, dwarves, elves and other assorted creatures to destroy the Ring of Power. It built a legion of fans and was turned into three blockbuster films, which helped its sales to more than 150 million.
The modernist work follows 18 episodes and was written over seven years. The tale of Leopold Bloom’s passage through Dublin caused controversy at the time of publication in the early 1920s but it has been hailed as one of the best English language novels of the 20th century.
Dubbed one of the “Great American Novels,” the book follows Captain Ahab’s ill-fated pursuit of The Whale over 635 pages, told by sailor Ishmael. The 1851 work was met with indifference initially, but has gone on to achieve hallowed status in the American literary canon.
Rand’s tale of a dystopian America dogged by taxes and government regulations takes 1,168 pages to play out. It follows John Galt, whose theory is that if people stop seeking profit, the society will collapse. It is embraced by right wing America and has sold well since the financial ciris.
.... and the most abandoned books overall (and why)
Casual Vacancy (JK Rowling) “A far cry from the Harry Potter series”
Fifty Shades of Grey (EL James) “I’m a bit of a lit snob”
Eat Pray Love (Elizabeth Gilbert) “Heroine seems whiny and self-obsessed”
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson) “Slow beginning and hard to wait for something to make me care”
Source: GoodReads survey