Question of the Day

No spoilers below, but if you want to read this novel without knowing a single thing about it, stop right here.

Actually, two questions.

Do you feel you have to finish a book once you start it, or are you okay with sometimes quitting on a book?

If the latter, what are your criteria? How much of a chance do you give it?

I’m at this very crossroads with Richard Powers’s The Overstory, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and “sylvan tour de force” (Booklist).  

Here are some of the factors I’m weighing.

  • The Overstory is 512 pages long. To take in the plot and all the characters’ relationships, I would have to (at some point) reread the book. That prospect is discouraging when you’ve been stalled for at least a week.
  • I’m not reading anything else right now, because I think I should be reading The Overstory.
  • I put the book aside for days at a time, and when I pick it up I’ve forgotten who Ray is.
  • The Overstory is about environmental degradation, and that can be very depressing. And I already know about environmental degradation.
  • Much of the novel is beautifully written.
  • The Overstory overlaps with and relies on Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard and other similar works. I already know and appreciate these ideas.
  • The narrative is clever in the most positive sense. You don’t know how it ties together at first. Weaving it all together creates a tour de force, as Booklist says.
  • Once you see how it’s all tying together, however, some of the pleasure wanes.
  • I’m 271 pages in and maybe shouldn’t give up now? Or is persevering an example of the sunk cost fallacy?

I’m sorry if some of you loved The Overstory and are disappointed in me. I’m certainly not saying it’s a bad book. Ann Patchett, whom I love, loved The Overstory. Maybe it’s just not the book for me at this point in time.

Answer my initial questions, please. And give examples. Feel free to advise me.

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22 Responses to Question of the Day

  1. Kathy says:

    Sarah B–Now you can read whatever you want!

  2. Sarah Becker says:

    Yes, I did finish reading Last night at the Telegraph Club, by Malinda Lo. Now I’m dying to hear other book group members saying, “I loved it!”

  3. Kathy says:

    Bill–Yeah, it often doesn’t bother me. This one gave me pause. But (after all this blog reader therapy) I’m ready to move on.

  4. Kathy says:

    Sarah–I actually often put books aside. This one hung me up because I liked it quite a bit at the beginning. But it’s clear to me now–I’m not finishing it.

  5. Kathy says:

    LaVerne–The Overstory is all about the trees, so this is a good choice for you. Liking trees, you might also be interested in the Suzanne Simard book he’s referencing. Nonfiction, and she’s the model for one of his characters.

  6. Kathy says:

    Fran–As you know, I don’t find this book vapid. I do feel, however, that I’ve “gotten” it. I don’t want to read about any more old-growth trees getting cut down, but I realize that’s kind of cowardly of me.

  7. Kathy says:

    Roger–The destruction of trees makes this book very sad–one reason I kept stopping. I have never been unable to read a beautiful book, that is because of its beauty, but it’s lovely and interesting you’ve had that experience. I’ll look up those beautiful books. Thanks.

  8. Kathy says:

    Mary–I also was not a big fan of All the Light We Cannot See. Thanks for the encouragement, and good to see you here again!

  9. Kathy says:

    Sarah–Right! I like trees very much! I’m glad Richard Powers likes trees, too, and that so many people like his book. He doesn’t need me!

  10. Kathy says:

    Robin–Writing the post decided me. Once I listed the things I (largely) didn’t like, I realized it was over. I picked it up once today and put it down almost immediately.

  11. Kathy says:

    Jewel–I appreciated the cleverness at first, but, as I said, when you figure out what’s going on, the charm diminishes.

  12. Kathy says:

    Paula–Please give it a try! There was a lot I liked about this book. Listen to Fran, rather than me!

  13. Paula Zinsmeister says:

    I bought this book last fall after it was strongly recommended to me. I haven’t even started it. When you said you were going to read it, I was hoping that you would say you loved it and couldn’t put it down. That would be my inspiration to start. After reading this blog I am not sure what my plan is. But normally if I find I have to force myself to read a book for pleasure, something is wrong. I don’t finish it and tell myself that life is too short.

  14. Jewel Moulthrop says:

    There was a time when I would never give up on a book I had started. With age and wisdom, less time and patience, I will take Marie Kondo’s advice: If it doesn’t give me joy . . . ,” I return it to the library. It seems to work for clothes I will never wear again, household items, and books.
    For the record, I didn’t like “The Overstory”–a bit too clever (in the negative sense). I liked the science, but the book and the characters failed to engage me. (I read the whole thing because it was a book group assignment. A good novel for me is a story well told in less than 250 pages. Ian McEwan can do that; so can Julie Otsuka. Yes, I have read and enjoyed longer books–Jonathan Franzen continues to amaze and delight, but as a minimalist, I’m impressed by what McEwan and Otsuka have accomplished.

  15. robin koslen says:

    I read the Overstory but unlike you, didn’t worry about keeping all the characters straight.Sometimes I was confused but I got over it. It was not one of my favorite books but I think I remember liking it pretty well.
    I usually give upon a book I am going to give upon far earlier than 217 pages. Books and movies need to pull me in pretty quickly or I am done with them.
    No advice for you.

  16. Sarah May says:

    Kathy, How I wish I had more time to respond to your questions, but I am mired in busywork. The short answer is no, you do not have to finish it! I have thrown a book across a room just as easily after 1 page, 20 pages, or after 271 pages. When there are so many wonderful books waiting, why suffer? I do get the problem; it is supposed to be so important, so great, such good writing; you really should read it! Yeah I get it. Ann Patchett likes the book. I think I heard Barbara Kingsolver refer to the author as “Ricky.” Yes, we like trees. We have even read some wonderful books about trees. But you do not have to finish this one if it feels like work. And don’t even think about reading the sequel.

  17. Mary A. Smith says:

    Hello Kathy,
    Let it go. Life is too short. There are other books waiting.
    I used to finish books. Now I don’t.
    And yes, I also buy books and don’t read them…..
    laughing again
    e.g. of a book I just couldn’t finish “Shuggie Bain”
    also having trouble finishing “All the Light We Cannot See” although I think I will
    eventually just because someone I like gave it to me…

  18. Roger Talbott says:

    So glad you asked this question. I have a library full of books that I have started but not finished. As I reflect on them, I realize that I stopped for a variety of reasons.
    * I started the book because I believed I SHOULD read it. Then decided that life is too short. A number of famous Russian novels are on this shelf.
    * The book ran out of gas. I find this is often true of comic novels. FORREST GUMP springs to mind. After awhile, I stop laughing and I don’t see a larger point being made, the way Jerzy Kosinsky succeeded in doing in BEING THERE.
    * The book began to feel like homework. This is true of any number of non-fiction books. I am grabbed by the new ideas at the beginning, but usually a good skimming is all the rest of the book needs.
    * I. Just. Can’t. Take. Anymore: That’s why I quit reading A LITTLE LIFE after the protagonist’s husband dies. Good book. Engaging characters. Too damn sad.
    * Finally, a really odd one. I stopped reading one book because it is so beautiful that I could not bear to have it come to an end. I am now re-reading it a decade later with the intention of reading it all the way through: THE GIFT OF RAIN by Tan Twan Eng. We are also reading his other book, GARDEN OF THE EVENING MIST, which I read first and loved so much that it broke my heart when it ended. Thus, setting me up for not finishing THE GIFT OF RAIN. I see he may have a new book coming out this year, so maybe I can bear to finish THE GIFT OF RAIN with the hope that the third will be just as good.

  19. Fran Lissemore says:

    Oh man, this book. I started it knowing nothing about it except that it was about trees, not even sure if it was a novel or a short story collection. By the time I finished the second section I still wasn’t sure. I don’t generally read dystopian novels because, you know, the real world is bad enough, thanks. I remember that the writing itself was very good, and after I finished it my first thought was “I have to read this again”. Apparently you got to “read again” without having to finish it.
    So I’d say yes, Kathy, finish it. But don’t just stick it out because of “sunk costs”; if you really don’t like it stop torturing yourself. Mostly I finish reading what I start, but if I do drop a novel it’s because I just don’t like it or it’s totally vapid (there’s a word that you can etymology-investigate; reminds me of your entry about “insipid”).
    Thanks for writing about this book, and let me know if you finish it. We can talk about re-reading it. (Insert hysterical laughing emoji.)

  20. LaVerne Dietz says:

    At your “recommendation” I just now ordered The Overstory from the library and it said, “check shelf”. You had me at trees.

  21. Sarah Becker says:

    I started The code breaker, by Walter Isaacson, about Jennifer Doudna, Nobel Prize winner in gene editing. I’m on page 225. Have been there for months. Book mark is still in place. I enjoyed reading it when it was more about her and the science, and less about the business side and the competitiveness among rival scientists. Probably won’t finish it. I usually do finish every book I start.
    I’m also having trouble with a YA book for my inter-generational book group (teens and senior citizens): Last night at the Telegraph Club, by Malinda Lo. Should I be interested in a gay young Chinese-American woman in 1950s San Francisco? I find that I am not. Oh well, we’ll see whether I finish it by the meeting on Thursday.

  22. Bill says:

    I put down a book I didn’t care for last week and have moved on to something I’m enjoying. I had a difficult time setting the book down for some of the same reasons you stated.

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