Wednesday, 30 October 2013

On DNF-ing

Books are pretty impressive things. They have the power to considerably influence my emotional state, they have the power to make me forget reality (even if momentarily), and they have the power to dispel loneliness. I never can feel lonely when I have a book in my hands. It is safe to say that I rely on books quite heavily for comfort as well as entertainment which only serves to intensify the feeling of disappointment when a book does not live up to expectations. 

I rarely set aside books without finishing them - I do not DNF lightly. So when I do, I usually have rather strong feelings about it. This year, as far as I can recall, I have only set aside two novels. The first was Nicola Barker's The Burley Cross Postbox Theft. I had such high hopes for this - it is epistolary and about countryside village life, what's not to love? Apparently not much. I found the writing cliched and unfunny so I made the executive decision to return it to the library unread, comforting myself with the idea that there are plenty more fish in the sea.

Several weeks ago now, during one of my lunchtime expeditions to the Waterstones on Gower Street (heaven, I tell you), I treated myself to John Boyne's The Absolutist. Pegged as the new Birdsong, the cover is emblazoned with trench imagery with a very prominent sticker just emphasising again that it is the new Birdsong (damn you, clever marketing strategies). I am a sucker for Birdsong comparisons and trench imagery (I must be the marketer's idea of a dream audience). Obviously the visuals were not the only element that made me march up to the till and part so willingly with my money. Oh no, an intriguing blurb and opening page had something to do with it too. And, of course, Boyne's reputation. Whilst I have not read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas I have heard its praises sung enough to warrant Boyne's place in the 'reputed writer' category in my head. Clearly fate was against me on that dingy (no doubt) day and all these factors converged to point me towards the till with The Absolutist in hand. Ah life, you cruel mistress.

Unusually, I began to read The Absolutist quite soon after purchasing it. I guess I was that excited. And  what was I to discover? Oh look - battlefield secrets! Shell shock! Homoeroticism! Conscientious Objectors! A relationship between two soldiers that was bound to turn into more than what it seemed! I'm sorry, John, but there is recycling tropes and then there is RECYCLING TROPES. The Absolutist was definitely heading towards the latter. I have no doubt that I was probably harsh in my judgements, as I am generally inclined to be when it comes to contemporary war stories. I'm not going to go into it because I've not finished it therefore I couldn't possibly review it. However, I will say that I have a suspicion that I could predict what comes next in the book. I like to think I'd be surprised but, for now at least, I'm not willing to find out.

Perhaps there is a time and a place in your life for reading certain books, no matter how excited you are to read them then and there. And perhaps (I hope) this is the case with these two novels I set aside. Considering how strongly I feel about books, feeling like I have been let down by a less than great book can effect my mood way more than it probably should. It's almost on par to being stood up  by a friend or, heaven forbid, by a date. This is in deep, emotional territory. Rather than writing these two novels off entirely, then, I am going to put them aside until such a time as I may be ready to read them. And if that time comes and I still can't get through them then I think it's fair to move on to the next one.

What are your thoughts on not finishing books? Are there too many books out there to struggle along with the disappointing ones? Have you read either of these - if so, am I being too judgemental? I'd love to hear your thoughts.



  1. I tend to veer towards 'giving books a second chance' too. If I culled them unread before our move, it doesn't mean I won't hit the library for them later. If I 'didn't get the book' the first time, I still might get the urge to try again a few years down the line. And yes, if I DNF a book they might get a second chance. Sometimes I've just been distracted by other books, or lost my motivation with a 'heavier' novel, or maybe I've just set it aside too long and lost the thread. Unless I really didn't like the book for a strong reason - like I HATED the writing style, or couldn't get my head around a load of weird slang *cough*Clockwork Orange*cough* - then I always tell myself I can try it again sometime. Makes me feel less guilty about the DNF thing, and if I forget about the book in the meantime and never read it again... well, I'm never going to go short, am I?! :)

  2. Heh. I loved The Absolutist. I actually think part of the problem in a situation like this is someone comparing the book to another, much-loved book in the blurb. I've never read the book it's compared to, but I bet the comparison stunk. Then you already had that other book in your head when you tried to read this one. Happens to me A LOT, and I hate it.

    I have only ever DNF'd two books, but I'd have no problem doing it again. I absolutely hated In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I thought they both were TERRIBLE, and didn't finish reading them. Blerg.

    1. *splutters* But... but... In Cold Blood... but... *runs off to cry* Maaaan, I expected to be so bored by that book, but I FRICKIN' LOVED IT. Couldn't put it down, it was my favourite book of last year. I've heard that a lot of people couldn't get on with Wolf Hall though. Even within my own household we've had one 'loved it' and one DNF. It's really put me off giving it a go!

    2. (By the way, this is one of the Other Ellies, not Lit Nerd Ellie. We're building an army and it gets very confusing when we comment on each other's blogs.) :P

  3. I'm very forgiving (when it comes to books, anyway; not so much in life) and therefore it is very difficult for me to not finish books. I can't even name any from this year that I've not finished; rather, like Ellie, I just put them aside for "later" (Wolf Hall, A Tale of Two Cities, Prague Cemetery). The only book I'm tempted to not finish at this point is The Turn of the Screw because James writes in such style that I read two rows and by the end of that my mind has wondered off far away, to greener pastures. It is obviously very individual conflict between me and Mr James because generally I have no problems with texts that require more focus.

    When other people DNF books I find it very admirable, seriously, ain't no-one got time for books they don't enjoy.


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