Thursday, January 13, 2011

Trial Reading

Dear Diary,

How much of a book should I read before I give up?

I used to believe that any book I started must be finished. It's what readers do, you know. But one day, as I was dragging through a book I found unpleasant, I realized, I don't have to do this. This is my time that I'm spending, and I'm not enjoying this. So I set the book down and did not finish it.

I discovered later that I had set down the book about ten pages from the end, but I've never had the urge to go back and read those ten pages. The time I spent on that book still felt wasted -- not because it was a bad book, but because it was a book that I did not enjoy.

Some books are obviously bad in the first few pages. They are easy to abandon, and if I can just remember to read a bit, and not just the carefully crafted blurb, I can avoid buying them. If I do buy them, I can avoid spending time with them. Simple. But many more books aren't really bad -- they just don't work for me. Or maybe they are written well, but the plots wander about like drunken ants, aimless on a good day. Other stories seem to wander, at first, but are merely setting an elaborate stage for a plot that will unfold bit by bit like a blooming rose. They need time to ripen.

The only way to know the difference between a story that will work, eventually, and one that is a waste of time, is to give the book a trial. Some people read for forty pages, and some for twenty. A few go as far as a hundred before giving up. My magic number is seventy-six. Hook me by then, or it's goodbye, not just goodnight.

E-books, I've discovered, challenge this model. They don't have pages. How will I know, with an e-book, that I've suffered enough? The Kindle, at least, has a bar at the bottom that tells me what percentage of the book has been completed. An average novel is about three hundred and fifty pages long, so seventy-six pages is about twenty-two per cent. That sounds right. After all, if you follow a certain model of writing, the first major twist should happen right at twenty-five percent so the story should be falling together by then.

So be warned: if the story isn't moving at page seventy-six, or at the twenty-two percentile mark, I, for one, will not long be a reader.