What Do You Do When You’re Stuck on a Book?

By which I do not mean stuck writing a book. I mean stuck reading a book, which happens with much more frequency to me and probably to you, as well. So, what do I do when I’m “stuck” in the middle of reading a book?

My husband has picked back up reading. We started our marriage with no TV and a growing library. More than twenty years later, devices galore have slowly leaked into our home until every space has umpteen ways of contacting the ether for information and entertainment. It was such a slow progression to movies and then streaming and then having computers in our pockets that we barely had the sense to mourn the passing of our dear dream of sitting in the bay window on a nightly basis in matching wingback chairs with matching swivel lights glowing down over our latest reads. We still have a gigantic library for two normies, but the vast majority of the books have been my acquisitions. By the Pandemic, nearly all desire my husband had to maintain his reading habits had fled. Until now.

Now, Kevin keeps out-reading me. And I—and my impressive habit of 75, 100, or more books per year—know why. We’ve talked about it. He’s sniffed at me and I’ve sniffed right back. He thinks I’m being silly and I think he’s being pedestrian. Not really. I admire him but also don’t know how to stop being so competitive and somewhat snooty. The thing is, Kevin reads what he is enjoying reading. I commit to my TBR titles and dig my heels right in. If I’m hating it, so be it. I’ll finish some day and then go on to the next title.

Although the reality is that I often don’t read one book at a time because I am struggling with a title. I let myself read something else on the side and then another and then another until the backlist of half-read books gets embarrassing. Yet, I carry the weight of the guilt of them around my neck. Why would I do such a thing when my husband and a million other sane people would just return the book they are hating to the library (or the shelf or donate it) and pick out a new book that strikes their fancy and if someone mentions it in the future, say with conviction, “I didn’t like it?” End of story. Here are the reasons I try to finish the books I start reading:

  1. Books only make it on my TBR through careful vetting, a type of pre-curation. Therefore, if the book has made it through the gauntlet to land on my TBR, the problem must be me.
  2. If I don’t finish a book, I don’t feel right reviewing it for the public. I have to give it a fair shake if I’m going to rip it a new one, right?
  3. Most books have something redemptive about them. What if it’s at the end? Or the way it all comes together? Since I choose only highly-lauded or -recommended books, each one must be important to or enjoyed by many, many other people. I can respect that. I’m a little curious as to why.
  4. I spent precious resources (such as money and time) on the book and the reading process this far, so let’s just see this thing through.
  5. Many good things in life don’t come wrapped in sleek entertainment, like bitter pills in applesauce. Good—or great things—often have to be worked for. Some of my favorite books, or ones that changed by life, have been difficult reads. I don’t read just to be entertained, but to be edified.

Of course, there are equally good reasons for casting aside books that don’t strike your fancy in any given period, too:

  1. Life is short. You might as well enjoy as many moments as possible.
  2. Sometimes you choose a dud. Sometimes the world has embraced a dud and sold it to you. Mistakes happen. Accept it as a mistake and move on.
  3. There is a possibility of reviewing a half-read book as long as you are clear about that and especially if you can find other reviews that are similar from people who have read the whole thing. I reviewed Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch from halfway through because I did want to have my say but I felt like continuing would have been a waste of my time and drain on my mood. I explained myself in the review.
  4. One does not have to review every book one reads, it turns out, even if one has a book and writing blog. If it’s a real clunker from the get-go, one can just pretend the whole thing never happened.

I tell you what. I feel a really strong pull to die on this hill. There is something in me that just can’t and won’t condone a life of wanton and fickle reading, chasing mere fun times and titillation. Meanwhile, I’m sort of sitting in the corner and sulking, watching my husband and friends laugh and smile their way to and from the library and bookstore, week after week, trip after trip.

Perhaps we should explore a dual TBR?

This could be bad, but at least it’s a plan. What do I mean by “dual TBR?” Or do you already understand: the thing’s in the name. What I propose is that I have two TBRs that run them simultaneously. On one TBR is easy-reads, and on one is not-easy-reads (like nonfiction, largely). The catch here is to keep both going at the same time. While we should expect the difficult reads to move more slowly, how do we ensure that both get read regularly? It seems an ideal percentage for easy to hard, on any given day, would favor easy, right? Numerically speaking in minutes? Perhaps dual TBRs have simple rules of engagement, like where the two types of reads would be read.

If I’m being transparent, I will tell you I already have a few TBRs. I have a work (writing) TBR and a devotions/self-health TBR. I tackle a couple chapters of my work TBR on most work days and a chapter of devotions/self-health on most mornings. By having these (loose) rules, those two reads click along at a fairly steady pace and then turn over to the next read. (I also have a journal TBR and an arts and crafts TBR. I think you get the point.) I’m thinking that one of the big things I need to come to terms with with having a dual TBR, though, is accepting that the difficult reads will move more slowly. Some day in the future I may also come to terms with letting books go when I’m absolutely avoiding reading them and moping around like a little, lost reader.

So where and how might easy and difficult reads be read? I don’t know, but we can guess how this might work. Easy reads go with a person. (I always carry a book in my bag.) They also get read before bedtime. They definitely go on vacas. So when would difficult books get read? One place to make some progress on a difficult read is, ahem, the bathroom. If you are trapped in there with nothing to do but read whatever, then you’re likely to read it. Or at least I am. Does that mean trapping ourselves is the best way to chip away at difficult reads? Maybe, but not too much or we’ll just resent them, I think, even though I’m not talking about reading horrible books that we hate, just ones that are choppier or longer-winded or denser or filled with unadorned facts. If you only had two TBRs running, you could feasibly commit to reading a chapter each day of the more difficult one before sitting down with the other read. Or commit to that same thing before bed. Or if there is some other time you consistently read, you could shove a chapter of that book in there. But let’s not overdo it. If you’re travelling or working out or something, you should probably stick with books that really grab your attention and keep moving.

The moral of the story is that I need to simplify my TBR but allow for some types of books to move quickly and other types more slowly. And then I need to cast aside those that are holding me up. I can stick them on the ol’ list of books I’ve begun but haven’t finished (I actually have this list), but perhaps it’s better if I just assume that means they are dead to me. If they rise from the grave, then hallelujah and so be it. By then I’ll be a more satisfied person who can handle the shame and ignominy of quitting the same book twice.


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