Do You Put Books Down or Do You Always Finish What You Start?

Putting a book down should be utilized as a tactic rather than a habit, leading you for the moment to brighter pastures of books that click with you.

I recently read a book that – in my humble opinion, and for lack of a better term – really sucked. It’s a famous book. It was recommended to me by the holy trinity of literary authorities: my brother, my friends, and The New York Times.

And yet, about 200 pages into One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I thought, “Enough is enough!” and returned it, unfinished, to the book shelf for another time.

This is what I call a “zombie book”—dead now, will resuscitate at a future date.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book. Obviously I’m in the minority here, and feel like one-part jerk and one-part stupid. Just to be clear: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel is widely considered the most influential Latin American novel ever. But let me unpack why, for me, this doesn’t matters.

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The first thing you should know about One Hundred Years of Solitude is that everyone is named Arcadio. Literally, the first thing you see when you open the book is a family tree that achieves the incredible task of offering no clarity whatsoever.

Look, I get that historically speaking, first and last names were passed on from generation to generation—heck, even today on my Irish side of the family, you’d be hard pressed to find any males who are not named Michael or Joseph. But given that time in Marquez’s world is kind of wonky – and there are a lot of surrealist, fantastical elements in the works at any given moment – at about page 50, if you’ve glossed over a single sentence, you might be bungling your Arcadios for the next 75 pages. It happened to me.

There are great things about the book (or, the 200 pages of this book, which, as you now know, is as far as I made it). There are moments of utter magic and literary greatness that even I – clearly missing major themes and potentially life-changing nuances – was able to catch. Some descriptions made me feel present in the desert edges of the fictional city of Macondo.

So, Marquez’s writing? Check. Yes. He’s great. I bow down on the literary altar and accept my sacrilege at even typing this piece.

But that doesn’t mean I found it enjoyable or knew what was happening. An unfortunate side effect of reading a book you can’t totally wrap your brain around is that you become a Pavlovian experiment unto yourself. You become attached to the maladies of a once normative pastime suddenly associated with something difficult and drudging. What was once just a challenging task, at worst, can become a distaste for the act of reading all together.

The more I felt lost, the more I became disinterested, and the more my rituals of reading began to break down. The more I paused between readings, the less I remembered the characterization, the plot, and which Arcadio was which (I should mention there are a lot of characters named Aureliano, too).

One day, you’re trying really hard to read about the history of a fantastical land and contemplating larger messages of cross-generational socio-economic impacts. The next, you’re binging on Top Chef re-runs.

The only way out of such a situation is to put the book down entirely and pick up something new.

It is a burden lifted, a weight un-tethered. It doesn’t mean you have to give up forever, of course. Putting a book down should be utilized as a tactic rather than a habit, leading you for the moment to brighter pastures of books that click with you.

You’ll have to be prepared, however, for a heavier kind of rectangle lying in wait on your shelf.

Do you put books down or do you always finish what you start? Why or why not?

About Kira Walton

Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

  • Susie

    I’ve put books down that didn’t click with me at the time. I’ve picked them up at a later date and most times read them and enjoy them. In a few cases, though, I just cannot get into them and never wind up reading them. They then go away to the donation pile for someone else to hopefully enjoy.

    • Isn’t that interesting when that happens? I’ve done that too, with books that I thought I’d never like. I read them at another time in my life and I love them!

  • Ilona Fenton

    I’ll put it down and try again later but, I am the kind of reader that tends to have more than one book on the go anyway so I don’t end up with that kind of thing happening to often.

  • Carla C.


    I also had to shelve One Hundred Years of Solitude. I almost hate to even write the next one, I fear I might get shot, but, here it goes. I couldn’t finish ATONEMENT. I tried and tried and tried. I just couldn’t get through it.

    I am currently trying to get through King’s Doctor Sleep. But I’m finding it hard to swallow. I actually stopped reading King because it was all ‘aliens coming out of different orifices of your body’ stuff.

    When I tell people I couldn’t read ATONEMENT I get this look like someone’s just noticed a piece of lettuce stuck in my teeth.

    • I understand that wariness, Carla! Isn’t it funny how vulnerable it feels to admit we didn’t like a book that most people agree is a ‘masterpiece’? That’s why I love Rachel’s essay so much. She gives us permission to not like a book and not feel guilty about it.

    • Betty Ann Beam

      I hope you stick with Dr. Sleep. I don’t think it’s a blockbuster, but it’s still a good read with good character development.

  • Pamela Hall Steinke

    Rachel, I love your posts!!!

    I used to always finish what I started. There was one book, “House of Sand and Fog”, I just knew was going to get better because EVERYONE loved it and Oprah suggested…who am I to question the O??? Yeah…it never got better and I realized that I would never (NEVER!!!) be able to get that time back. After that, I decided with all the books I want to read, I won’t waste my time trudging through something I don’t enjoy.

    Now, having said all that, I will admit that sometimes it’s just that I am not in the mood, at that time, to read that book. I may go back and try again as many as three times. Usually this is done with a favorite author.

    And speaking of authors…I’m with you on Marquez. He just isn’t my cuppa tea. However the Spanish author I can’t get enough of is Carlos Ruiz Zafon…I would read his completed crossword puzzles…LOVE HIM!

    • oregongal

      I had the same problem with 100 years-but being a compulsive did finish it
      but Love in the Time of Cholera was a whole different experience!
      -not at all as inaccessible as 100 years, and very enjoyable read-you can see why he is considered such a great writer with this book

      • Rachel Goldberg

        I have heard from a lot of people that “Love in the Time of Cholera” is vastly different and much more enjoyable. Thinking about giving him another chance with that one!

        • Betty Ann Beam

          It will be worth your effort, but you may have to read it twice.

    • Rachel Goldberg

      Thanks for the kind words! I hear you on the Great Oprah—shocking when her suggestions just aren’t clicking. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one in my Marques boat, though. And ooh, I need to check out Zafon now!

      • Betty Ann Beam

        In general, I have been pleased with Oprah’s picks. Her research staff does an excellent job. There is however, no piece of literature that is going to speak clearly to every individual. We are fortunate that our reading choices are vast and diverse and that libraries provide us with free books, audio books and e-books to satisfy many reading styles.

    • Betty Ann Beam

      I agree. Sometimes you have to be emotionally and psychologically ready to appreciate a certain work of fiction.

  • Phyllis

    I’ve decided that my time is more valuable than wasting it reading a book I don’t care for. I am generous and try to read a book at least half way but sometimes even that isn’t possible. Too many books out there that I really want to read to spend my time on a lemon. Although I LOVE lemonade!

    • Rachel Goldberg

      I love the idea of being “generous” to a book—such a good way to put it.

      • Betty Ann Beam

        The reader and the book have to develop a “relationship”, if they don’t click, it’s time to give it a rest and either try again later, or move on.

  • Charlotte Gilbert

    I’ve tried reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. Never managed to finish. I always have a guilty feeling lurking in the back of my head for not “feeling” that book. But I also feel that way about most Kerouac novels too. I could never bring myself to finish On the Road or Desolation Angel. And of course would never admit this to my more literary minded friends who worship at the alter of his glorified shagging across the country.

    • Charlotte, you crack me up! Funny how there are books we don’t feel guilty for putting down (beach reads, right?!). It’s the canonical lit-ra-cha that gets us, the ones everybody “worships.” But as I get older, I’m more confident in my own taste and I know that not every book is for everyone!

    • Rachel Goldberg

      I know a lot of anti-Kerouacers who feel the same way!

    • Betty Ann Beam

      There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to literature. Readers are as unique and diverse as the books they read. Just because an author is acclaimed by the masses, doesn’t mean you have to suffer through a work that’s not speaking to you.

  • Bet’s Best Bets

    I’ve had several books that I had to put down. One that sticks with me was Janet Evanovich’s Plum series. I picked up and put down the first book (One for the Money) so many times that it probably felt more like a yoyo than a book. Each time I picked it up I’d have to start reading from the beginning again because I’d forgotten where I stopped. But the last time I picked it up I fell in love with the characters and have been reading them faithfully. Even paid to see the movie…but that is a discussion for another time.

    • Jennifer Tenerowicz

      She is an author that I just can’t seem to enjoy.

  • Carol Kubala

    Simply put – Put em’ down and pick up another.

    • You said it, Carol. Everybody seems to be agreed that 100 pages is a good amount to give a book. I used to think 50 but sometimes a book pulls me in later and I don’t want to miss those!

      • MimiB

        I’ve stuck with questionable books beyond 100 pages on occasion and been glad for it… sometimes you just need to give an author time to set the stage, so to say… but in those books there’s usually something compelling enough on the pages to keep reading even if I’m feeling a bit lost.

        Still… I think authors and their editors need to give some extra effort to structure… surely they want readers to become interested enough in the early pages of a book to keep going?

      • Betty Ann Beam

        I agree. I find that the 100 page rule generally applies. You can always break the rule if you find a redeeming thread that you want to follow.

  • Linda TS

    I never finished The Help! I refuse to plod on with a book I am not absolutely enjoying.

  • Suzy

    I used to feel bad if I didn’t finish a book. Now I give it 100 pages (sometimes less – Revenge Wears Prada). If it didn’t get me by 100 pages, it’s not going to get me.

  • Gail Dickey

    There are too many good books out there to waste time on something not enjoyable. I’m willing to give 100 pages for a book to pick up but if it doesn’t by then, it’s to the shelf or Goodwill.

  • sg911911

    Great post! I never used to put a book down: if I started it, I finished it (except for a very few that were really bad). But lately, in the last few years I’ve finally decided that life is too short to stick with a book that is not enjoyable. I wish I had put down One Hundred Years myself as I got no pleasure from that book at all.

    • Rachel Goldberg

      I like the “life is too short to read a book you’re not enjoying” philosophy—and glad I’m not the only one who felt that way about “100 Years”!

      • Betty Ann Beam


  • I put books down after “giving them a chance” – meaning usually 100 pages or more. Sometimes a book is AMAZING after reading 75-90 pages but you might not get into it before then. But after 100 pages if I’m struggling, I give myself permission to give up. Mainly because there are so many other books I SHOULD read that will be worth my time.

  • Carol Bova

    Ordinarily, I always try to finish a book that I’ve started, even if I’m struggling with it. I feel like a failure if I don’t finish a book I’ve started. I’m beginning to wonder, though, since my to-be-read list is so extensive and life is short, I should just “give it a chance” rather than struggle on something in which I’m not completely interested.

    • Lady_D

      Carol; definitely life is too short to struggle through reading something you are not thoroughly enjoying or which does not at least hold interest for you in some way.

  • Jennifer Tenerowicz

    I try to never put a book down unless it is impossible to read. I feel like I’m being defeated if I have to stop reading a book. This might be why I tend to stick with the same genres of book.

    • Betty Ann Beam

      Usually, there is a reward if you have the fortitude to stick with a novel that has won some sort of critical acclaim. Doing some research an avoid many disappointments. Using your local library insures no financial loss.

      • Jennifer Tenerowicz

        I tend to read a lot of free books so if I don’t like them I’m not out any money. It doesn’t hurt as bad.

      • AubLibDir

        Like the library suggestion!

  • Carol Oddy

    I always finish a book unless it is so boring I can not even get into reading it! I love to read, most are mystery, horror or adventure books. Do not own a e-reader and am always carrying a book with me every-where I go.

  • MimiB

    I try to carefully select books to read as I have so many in my TBR pile [whether mental or physical stacks]. I don’t like to be so disappointed in a book that I don’t care to finish. To select, I read reviews, follow references from various sources, talk to friends who read, sample books on my Kindle before purchasing, etc. or read new books from favorite authors. Researching prevents wasted time.

    However, there are rare occasions when a book just bothers me too much and I stop reading. I don’t mind being “disturbed” or out of my comfort zone, as one can still learn from being challenged, but if a book is having a largely negative effect on my psyche, it’s just not worth continuing.

  • Yellowrose57

    I always attempt to read the book I chose to read. If I can’t get into it, then I put it down–I will attempt it later (like months later) if I still can’t get into it, I pass it on to someone else or donate it.

  • Curtis Sanae Martin

    I often put books down, when they leave me cold or when I get distracted by something else more compelling. I do recall forcing myself to finish 100 Years of Solitude. Now I have complete amnesia about that time of my life. I vaguely recall that it had something to do with a guy in the Columbian jungle. Yeah, shoot me, flame me, whip me with a wet noodle, I don’t plan to read it again.
    Other “amazing” books that I couldn’t finish: Love in the Time of Cholera (so many movie references!), Doctor Zhivago, The English Patient, and Anna Karenina. I did get really, really close to the end of AK, but gave up before the last scene. I know what happens because of the movie. I did read all of War and Peace and loved it (BTW).
    There are some books that I forced myself to finish and regret it to this day. Blindness by José Saramago still gives me nightmares. Talk about impossible to read! I did finish it because someone challenged me to read Nobel Prize winners. I started and ended that challenge with Blindness.

  • Julie

    The only time I have put a book down, is to sleep. (lol) All joking aside, I have always finished reading a book to the end. If I didn’t fully understand it the first time, I read it a second time. If I don’t REALLY enjoy a book, I at least give it the benefit of doubt by finishing it. If I feel reading something is a waste of time, (which is extremely rare) I do not begin it.

  • techeditor

    Thanks for your honesty.
    This happens to me every now and then. I put the book aside with the good intention of getting back to it, but I never do. If I didn’t like it the first time, what makes me think I’ll like it the second time?

  • Jenn

    I always make a point of finishing a book that I have started, however, there is one book by a popular author that I cannot, for the life of me, finish. Every couple of months or so I keep trying to read it but get mad or fed up and book it back on the shelf. I find it very frustrating not being able to finish it but when a book drags you down, is it worth it?

  • The Book Wheel

    I have no problem putting down a book I’m not interested in. There are too many to read to waste my time!

  • Jean

    I almost always finish a book that I have begun to read. In my more than 70 years of reading, there have been only a couple that I did not finish. I have been tempted a few more times but keep thinking that it will get better. Usually I am glad that I finished it.

  • V Taylor

    I may set a book aside to be read later if it intrigues me but I just can’t get into at that time. I will also stop reading a book if it is poorly written, edited, etc. I’ve often found that my state of mind has a lot to do with my ability to read certain types of books. For example, a book that is dark and gloomy but well written may not be an appropriate read during the frigid winter. Some books I return to in a few months (or years) and find that I actually enjoy reading the second time around. Unfortunately there are those books that I have never returned to or regretted being unable to finish the reading. Not every book clicks with every reader. Thankfully we have hundreds of thousands of books to choose from.

  • peacesun

    I finish the books although, sometimes with book groups may put it aside for a bit until the book under discussion is finished. If a book is tedious, I may skim it to get the gist.

  • Adam Cole

    I often find myself putting books down even after reading up to 75% of them for various reasons. Usually it’s just either that I’ve lost interest in the story, started another bookbook or am just to busy and by the time I decide to finally try to finish it I realize I’ve COMPLETELY forgot what it was about! Finally I really think I have an OCD when it comes to books (besides my normal-to-me addiction to smelling EVERY BOOK 3 OR 4 TIMES before a start reading it) meaning that I used to have no problem reading 3-5 books at a time, usually of varying genres (I.e. a memoir, a historical fiction, a ‘spiritual/self help’ book, etc) now I usually stick to just one but find myself picking up the one I plan on reading after that one and checking out a few pages, then a chapter and, ahhhhh! Why can’t I read like a normal human being!!??

  • Tracy

    I never finished Love in the Time of Cholera, another Marquez book. Muscled through about 60% and then just moved on. Picked it up again years later, but still couldn’t do it. It’s rare that I don’t finish a book, but not every book is written for every reader.

  • AubLibDir

    I used to make myself finish whatever I started to read. That is, until I read Jonathan Franzen’s book, “The Corrections.” After that, I said that I would never do that to myself again. The ones I don’t finish are few and far between and are usually book group selections. It just may take me eons………..

  • Crystal Wall

    I try to finish it. I really do but sometimes that just isnt possible. I will put it down and come back to it but if that does not work then I just have to recycle it.

  • susan

    I have given up on two books in the last year. I get most of my books from a book club and usually read what it is about and if it sounds interesting I get it. I also look at reviews by other readers. But a couple times when there were no reviews I was really disappointed and tried to stick with it but just couldn’t “get into the story”. I always try to give it at least 4 or 5 chapters before giving up. I hate to spend the money on a book and not read it.

  • Margie

    I try to finish books because some times the ending makes the reading all worth while. But there are times when I am just done!

  • Lady_D

    If an author loses my interest by getting too long in description and too short in action, I have no problem putting a book down. And if I do lay the book down because I lost interest, I don’t normally ever go back to it. Example: The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein. The middle part of the book got too long and boring for me. I laid that book aside when I was about 15 years old; have not picked it up again; more than 40 years have passed since then. Before that, I don’t remember ever not finishing a book. I like to finish what I start, but sometimes the finishing is just too much effort.

  • I usually will read a book to the bitter end, even if its not a favourite. That being said, I have had a book about Catherine the Great on my bedside table for 5 years. Interesting and well-written, but just not written with enough panache to get me through. There are plenty enough other books out there to enjoy, without turning the process into a chore, as you say.

  • Guin Reese

    I do finish them eventually even if it’s a struggle sometimes I have to move on to a more enjoyable read and then come back to the struggle.

  • Rita Langford

    I agree. Life is to short to struggle with a bad book. There are to many good ones out there to waste time forcing your self to read something. I believe that is the problem in school. Forcing kids to read a book that they have no interest in turns some kids off from reading altogether.

  • Edr

    I am usually reading more than one book at a time so something ends up on a shelf. I do read books I really like straight through. Some books fall by the wayside never finished.

  • Felicia Unger

    I always feel so guilty putting a book down, and when I start another one in its place, I feel like I am cheating on the last one lol Normally, I power through. But with books like Brothers Karamazov and Atlas Shrugged, I thought, “You know what? I know you guys are supposed to be like these amazing books and all, but no. You take a nap until I am ready to pick you up again.” There are so many amazing books in my TBR pile, I can’t feel guilty dragging through something I am “supposed” to read if I am to be considered, “well read.”

  • Yezzir!

    Life is short, and I only get one. I’m not wasting my time. There are too many books to read.

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