Boring books: should you keep going or give up?

Some books are less than gripping – but should you persevere until the end or is life too short to waste on a book that you just don’t love? photo of woman reading a book to illustrate a blog post about boring books

Photograph by Dylan Luder

I have a confession to make. I’ve been reading Don Quixote (by 16th-century Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes) since the summer and I’m, ooh, all of 200 pages in (out of 900…). Since I started it I’ve finished several other books and dozens of magazines and somehow it always seems to end up on the bottom of the pile…

Well, I say somehow. It’s pretty obvious that I’m finding it *whisper it* rather boring. I am not even a quarter of the way through, I have no idea where it is heading and I can’t pretend that I’m desperate to find out. So far, deluded nobleman Don Quixote and his hapless servant Sancho Panza have lurched from one outlandish escapade to the next, determined to carry out noble deeds yet almost always inadvertently achieving the opposite. At this point in the book there’s no obvious progression or development, just one ludicrous scrape after the next. Is this really going to go on for another 700 pages? (Actually, no, I know that Cervantes’ narrative style changes at several points in the book, but STILL.)

OK, I’m sure if I were paying more attention I might grasp its meaning more fully. It is doubtless an allegory about morality, sanity, truth and perception, and probably much more besides. But it is such a struggle to stay focused and attentive, and the sheer thickness of the rest of the book is so demoralising. (I also think I have a somewhat florid translation – a more natural sounding version would probably be more compelling and I’m going to invest in the much lauded Edith Grossman translation.)

And yet. I am determined to stick with it and see it through to the end, however long it takes me. Question is, if I’m not really expecting to enjoy it then why bother? The fact is that Don Quixote is considered a hugely important book – the first modern novel, with a groundbreaking approach to storytelling and narrative structure, and revolutionary social commentary. If you have an interest in literature, and its development, then Don Quixote is clearly a must-read. As literary critic Harold Bloom once wrote: “Like Shakespeare, Cervantes is inescapable for all writers who have come after him. Dickens and Flaubert, Joyce and Proust reflect the narrative procedures of Cervantes, and their glories of characterisation mingle strains of Shakespeare and Cervantes.”

So, I will persevere on the grounds of the novel’s significance. But what if it were a lesser known book? Would I bother if it were a more obscure and less influential title? The fact is that I would – once I start a book I feel it’s only right to finish the thing. I’m not sure why this is – there are so many other fantastic books waiting to be read that it’s hard not to feel that you’re wasting your time by struggling through one that’s less than gripping. I certainly wouldn’t bother to sit through a film that I wasn’t into. But I suppose I feel that the books that stay with you, and create the greatest impression, are not always the most fun to read. They can be hard going and challenging and a bit dull in places, but see them through to the end and you never know what effect they might have, now or later. Don Quixote is not supposed to be an easy read – Cervantes’ work was in deliberate contrast to the two-dimensional chivalric romances that were popular at the time. And the book purposely defies simple analysis – its structural twists and turns, and shifting narrative perspective, reflects its multiple layers of meaning.

And maybe this is a bit of a romantic notion about the noble art of writing, but I like to believe that even books that are silly or badly written contain enough magic to conjure something that’s worth taking away. If someone has taken the trouble to write something, and has written from the heart, then it seems like common decency to read it to the end. Perhaps that’s why I tend to stick to the classics – or at least books that have been well received all round. When I start a new book, I make a commitment to stay with it and throw myself into it as much as possible, so I want to be reasonably sure it’s going to be worth my time.

Do you read boring books until the bitter end? Or are you happy to abandon one that’s not holding your attention?