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Begin as you mean to go on, or why I’m willing to quit - Barnstorming on an Invisible Segway [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Marissa Lingen

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Begin as you mean to go on, or why I’m willing to quit [Sep. 12th, 2016|10:11 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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Sometimes I run into people online wondering whether they gave a book enough of a chance.

These people are often writers, and I think there’s a component of “I want people to give me a chance, or, if possible, an infinite number of chances” in this reaction. But there’s some sense that if you don’t like a book (or even just don’t love it) and quit reading it after a few chapters, you might have been unjust, you might be missing out. It might get better.

I don’t have this. If I bounce off a book on page one, that’s where I bounce. If I read half of it and decide I don’t care about the characters, if I notice that I’m consistently coming up with other things to do rather than reading this book, I’m out. And I’m totally, completely fine with this. Because the beginning of a story has a specific function, and it’s not to tell you what came first. You can write the beginning of a story that’s not the beginning of the events quite easily–it’s done all the time. And why is it done all the time? Because the beginning of the story is there to draw you in and tell you what kind of thing you’re dealing with.

So–take, for example, the movie I bounced off recently from the library. It was filmed in the 1940s, and it started with a racist joke and continued with at least four minutes of sexual harassment. I know, times were different then, different things were accepted by polite society, blah blah blah…but the point is, they were harassing the living shit out of this woman, by the standards of this viewer. And I say “at least four minutes” because I turned it off, I was done.

Did I miss out? Maybe. Sometimes if you dig through a dumpster you find someone’s wedding ring. But it’s still okay to say, “I don’t feel like digging through that dumpster is going to be worth my time even if there is a wedding ring in it.” An article I read (in the Journal of I Read It Somewhere Studies) had the staff of their magazine watch the first ten minutes of movies, write down how much they thought they’d like them, and finish the movies. And if I recall correctly, they were only wrong in a single-digit number of cases.

Here is why: the beginning sets expectations. That’s what it’s for. It says, here is the kind of story you’re reading. Even if it’s a deeply subversive story, it sets out what kind of thing is here to be subverted. When a movie starts with a racist joke that is, as far as I can tell, completely incidental to its premise, that’s telling you something. It’s telling you that this is the sort of thing the people who made this movie find funny. It’s totally okay to say, you have given me this data, and I have learned from it; I am stopping here. This is why the early episodes of House featured some really graphic medical scenes: they were letting you know, if you are going to be grossed out by the medical stuff, this is not your show. Thank those people for their clarity of vision and move on.

What about quitting in the middle, though? Well, look. Sunk cost fallacies are hard. Humans are, generally, neurologically, terrible at getting ourselves out of sunk cost fallacies. Even if you’re aware of this, it doesn’t always help. Last week I caught myself thinking, of the book I was reading, that I heard rumors that the series was almost done, so I would probably only have two or three more books to read before it was over. Not regretfully. Just in the way that you would think, “I have to wash sheets and towels and delicates, so that’s three more loads of laundry before I’m done.” No one assigned me these books. I have read some in this series before. I can go pick it up again if I really want. But if it is not being worthwhile to read now, it doesn’t matter that I’ve already read one or two or six or however many.

Reading isn’t just a process of discovering what happened, because I could just ask someone who read this book. It’s the experience of reading. If that experience isn’t going well for you, go ahead and read something else. Why not? If no one is paying you money and you’re not in love with the author–I mean, literally, actually in love with the author, not “in love with” as a colloquial way of saying you enjoy their work very much–the fact that you are not happy with this reading experience, right now, in a larger way than just one paragraph or scene making you go meh: I hereby give you permission to get out. You don’t have to finish desserts that taste bad, and you don’t have to keep reading books just because you’ve already read a hundred or two hundred pages of that book, or 1600 pages of that series. You are free. Run like the wind. Run to a different book. There are several out there.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


[User Picture]From: whswhs
2016-09-13 03:49 am (UTC)
I learned about sunk costs in my first year of college, and I have lived by the idea for so long that I've internalized it fairly well. It was one of the most valuable things I ever learned, right up with Bernard Shaw's "You had better take care to get what you like, or you shall have to like what you get."
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From: athenais
2016-09-13 04:58 am (UTC)
I am taking your advice. I have been trying since May to find the good parts of Too Like The Lightning, and I am sorry I didn't love it the way my friends did, but...I'm out.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-09-13 11:21 am (UTC)
As one of your friends, I mean nothing bad by this, but it seems like there are kind of a lot of books that all your friends like and you do not like, and this makes me want to friend-matchmake you a reading taste buddy, even though I'm not sure how I'd go about that.
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From: swan_tower
2016-09-13 07:11 am (UTC)
The only instance I can think of where I stuck out a thing I felt like bouncing off and it turned out to be the right idea was Jacqueline Carey's Banewreaker. I hung in there because the cover copy promised me subversion of the Tolkien epic thing; the first mumblety pages (eighty, I think?) didn't really deliver on that, but everything after that did. I still fault Carey a bit for not getting her subversion more obviously in there up front, because yeah: the overall return-on-investment of continuing to root through a dumpster isn't good enough to bother most of the time. I generally need somebody whose taste aligns with my own to pinky-swear that it'll be worth it before I try. (And even then, my inclination is to skip over the bad part, if the story is episodic. I'll happily jump right over a book in a series or a season of a TV show if it starts off weak but gets stronger later. I have yet to regret that approach.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-09-13 11:23 am (UTC)
There is a series of which a few people have told me earnestly, "The first three books are kind of slow, but he really starts overturning the tropes in book four!" And I cannot imagine what kind of dedication to subversion it would take for me to read three books hoping for it before I got to any.
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From: sheff_dogs
2016-09-13 11:34 am (UTC)
I agree so much with this. One of my grammar school English teachers extracted a promise from me that I would never give up on a book, that I would always finish them. I think it was one of the most potentially destructive things a teacher ever did to me. I liked and respected this woman and strived to do what I had promised for years before realising that it was just wrong. There are times when it may be right for me to set a book aside for a while knowing I will enjoy it again when I come back to it, but there are also times when it is right to say 'this book is not for me and continuing to invest time in it is a waste of my limited resources'
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-09-13 11:43 am (UTC)
I don't even understand why a teacher would ask a child for that promise. What did she think she was saving you from or preparing you for?
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2016-09-13 02:20 pm (UTC)
I pretty much agree, except (for me, not for anyone else) there is the mood factor. Too many times I'd begun something highly recommended, shook my head after a few pages, wondering if it's just my mood. So I give it a second try some other time . . . and I take off like a rocket. It's happened enough that if I'm feeling meh, I set the thing aside for a second chance. However, in case like the 1940s movie you began to watch, certain things will throw me right out and keep me there. I hit that with Game of Thrones, for instance, and have no desire to go back, though everybody else in the multiverse is panting for the next book, next episode.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-09-13 04:32 pm (UTC)
I am not a GoT reader either, for what that's worth. A friend sent me the first two volumes with the You Absolutely Must exhortation, and it turns out I must not. I feel that two volumes of that size are an entirely fair trial, and if I find them to be Not My Thing after that, no one can say I didn't give it a fair shot.
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2016-09-13 02:42 pm (UTC)
I'm also fine with just skipping ahead to check the ending, if I'm don't think I want to stick out a whole book. I'm probably less likely than you to have someone on hand (real or virtual) who I can just ask how it ends.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-09-13 04:34 pm (UTC)
I got burned by that when I was in the single-digits. I read the last page of Bridge to Terabithia to reassure myself that it was not one of those awful books where the dog dies. Heartened that it was not, I read the rest of the book.

I still love that book, but a) I wept, and b) I never tried reading the very ending to see how it comes out again.

I mean, if it works for you, I'm glad. It just doesn't really work for me. On the other hand, if all I cared about for that particular volume was "does dog die, y/n?", it would have been fine. Heaven knows I have read things where I liked the dog best, or even only.
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[User Picture]From: dormouse_in_tea
2016-09-13 03:38 pm (UTC)
There are several out there.

I will be thinking of my TBR room and laughing at this line for days .
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[User Picture]From: carbonel
2016-09-13 04:06 pm (UTC)
Very often, I keep reading something I don't particularly love because I'm sufficiently invested that I want to know What Comes Next. If I could find a plot summary elsewhere, that would probably satisfy me, though.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-09-13 04:35 pm (UTC)
The What Comes Next drive varies from person to person and from book to book within a person, of course.
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[User Picture]From: klwilliams
2016-09-13 10:48 pm (UTC)
I was a senior in high school before I was able to put down a book, or a series, that I wasn't enjoying. Before that I was very much a rabid finisher. If I started something I had to finish it. I'm glad I got over that.
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[User Picture]From: ashnistrike
2016-09-15 04:00 am (UTC)
Yes, yes, yes. Life is too short and reading time is too limited.

You can also skip over stories in anthologies, if you bounce off the first couple of pages, and go on to the next one. Or just skip directly to the one by your favorite author. It's totally okay.
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