So the point of this is, your opinion of something might change, or maybe it's just that storytelling is like a magic trick which requires the wholehearted participation of writer and reader to be successful. If you're not interested, you should quit and find something else to do.
I'm the same with television - cannot watch The Wire too many times, cannot watch most other things even once.
Recognizing how far my taste has developed since then, I recently re-read it... and found it to be a shrill anti-science screed wrapped in an action movie script.
Some of them are, some of them aren't. It's easier to see this with movies. Pop-culture references and characters using the latest technology are easy ways to make a movie more ephemeral.
A character popping memes holding an iPhone X will not age well.
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If you look at, say, William Gibson and how he talks about brands, especially in his early cyberpunk stuff, it's super dated but also super influential, and I think still good.
I mean, looking at Gibsons older stuff? Japan is the future. But Gibsons newer stuff? China is the future. It's not so much a prediction but a statement of how society felt; in the '80s, it did feel like Japan had overtaken us, at least until their bubble burst. In the teens? it kind of feels like China is in that same position, and Gibson's work conveys that feeling perfectly.
Gibson can be read as stories about fashion, and fashion is inherently dated. But reading old things about fashion can still be really interesting, even though it might require a little more knowledge of historical context.
Whereas many ancient Greek and Roman plays are still performed today, right alongside Shakespeare. The play is simply a more durable form of literature.
On other comments you describe Quixote as one of the first novels ever written, not just still read, which is definitely very, very far from the case. Don quixote itself cites legions of prior novels!
No snark: did/do you think anyone who has ever read Shakespeare is not aware of that? Even without literature teachers to explain the history and background, the format gives away that secret.
Most anyone aiming at timelessness avoids the novel format, which is far more geared towards time-killing entertainment. That doesn't mean you can't find timeless novels, but they're fairly rare. We remember Jane Austen, but not the endless legion of contemporaries inhabiting the same space she did.
Your examples themselves are instructive. Don Quixote was one of the very first novels ever written. Of course it's amazing. Dickens' novels were originally serialized in magazines, not published in full. It's a testament to his genius that they're as timeless as they are. His seminal work, A Christmas Carol was published in full, but it was a novella, not a novel.
I remember reading Anna Karenina and thinking the pacing could have been a lot tighter. The novel has almost from the beginning been pop fare, more of a business concern than an artistic one.
For what it's worth, Consider Phlebas was my introduction to Banks: I found it ok. Something like an above-average sci-fi action movie. I enjoyed reading it, and it left an impression, but not a spectacular one. However, I stuck with Banks, and by the time I got to Use of Weapons ... that was a book that really did floor me. I think Banks is really something special. Enlightening, maybe. Even if he can be uneven at times, I still haven't read anyone else quite like him.
Perhaps if I read it again, the magic wouldn't work a second time, I don't know, but it sure did work the first time.
The book felt like an aimless wander from one scene to the next, with little overarching drive, and a bland main character without purpose. Basically a string of "and thens". The comparison to a generic sci-fi action movie is a good one-- empty (at least as far as I got into it) of character and philosophy.
IIRC (could be totally wrong) Use of Weapons was the first novel he seriously tried to get published, and Wasp Factory was his first success. I always wondered if Consider Phlebas was stitched together from even earlier material.
it isn't that his characters are interesting. they're multi dimensional but still mostly without an engaging personality (with the exception of the doctor from inversions and cheradenine zakalwe from use of weapons).
it isn't that the universe is very interesting. it's a basic space opera setup with a few quirks like sublimation that are mysterious but ultimately irrelevant. likewise, the plots are fairly boring. group X clandestinely does Y because Z; the end result is typically a tiny nudge in favor of group X's agenda.
but the ideology and technology of the Culture -- there's the entire value of the series. all of their technology is thought-provoking because it asks the question of what society should look like if such a technology could plausibly exist. likewise, the Culture's "system of government" is a great thought experiment on the best possible interpretation of anarchy. banks sets up plotlines to contrast the Culture against a number of other systems of government, and captures the failures of those very effectively across a huge swath of different contexts ranging from gender relations to art to pleasure to resource distribution. the Culture doesn't always get a favorable rating, either -- and so banks exposes the contradictions implied in societies.
fascinatingly, banks captures the essence of the Culture in a way that few other writers can do with any concept of such complexity. i feel confident that nearly all readers of the books could re-create Culture society to a high level of accuracy if they were prompted. yet if you try to distill Culture society into a few paragraphs, it's really hard!
so yeah, i read the books for the Culture. it's a shame banks died, i think he could have written a dozen more books in the series and delivered more great material.
> fascinatingly, banks captures the essence of the Culture in a way that few other writers can do with any concept of such complexity.
Yes, I couldn't have put it better myself :)
The Culture is the main character; the unifying theme. And it is fascinating. More-so than any one person or plot or event. And this surprises me: I generally don't enjoy world-building for the sake of world-building, which many authors have done or attempt to do. But this is something else. It's very special.
In general, I think there are basically three tiers of Banks books:
Shit-tier. Examples: Player of Games, Against a Dark Background. Overly simplistic or simply without point.
Mediocre: Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons, a lot of others. Nothing to really tie them together, but enough interesting moments that you don't absolutely hate them.
God-tier: Excession, Matter, Hydrogen Sonata. Books that have few if any bad qualities, and are massively thought provoking to boot.
I read Consider Phlebas first and enjoyed the hell out of it, but definitely think that Player of Games is, in 90% of situations, is the "correct" introduction novel.
Excession might be a better bet, although a lot of the novel basically consists of reading emails between characters.
I'm pretty sure you'd hate Use of Weapons.
There are certainly many books that I struggled through and wished I didn't, but there are others that I thought I was going to hate long past the 50 page mark that brought me around in the end. But 50 pages is enough to know that a book is _terrible_.
use of weapons was a strong point, however. i love banks work, but if consider phlebas had been the first that i approached, it might have passed my 40 page test but i doubt i would have gone on to read the other culture books.
I'm the same with television - cannot watch The Wire too many times, cannot watch most other things even once.
Wholeheartedly agree. I can't stand movies and most TV shows but there is a relatively small set of shows that I will binge rewatch at an interval of every 2-4 years. A few are the great ones like The Wire or the Star Treks that make me rethink my place in the universe as I get older, but when I say the rest out loud they all sound so... banal. And yet, I love rewatching them every time, especially when it's with friends or family - when they don't know what's going to happen and you get to experience that again vicariously.
Arrested Development, Archer, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Moral Orel, Xavier Renegade Angel... stupid stuff like that. It's especially great today with so many shows surviving for 5-10 seasons. I'll watch one or two seasons that are available and come back years later to something that combines elements of nostalgia with brand new never before seen seasons.
Edit: Also, to add, I have always been a voracious reader, especially of nonfiction. While I absorbed a lot of knowledge, I can't really remember any actual stories that I have read in my lifetime save for one. Some young adult book, House of the Scorpion, published in 2002 that was required reading for one of my kids so I read it to help them with their book report. For some reason, that book just resonated with me and it's still my favorite.
Despite that, I'll edit my original comment with a spoiler warning.
Edit: Too late to edit...
1. Check out the author’s bio online to get a sense of the person’s bias and perspective.
2. Read the title, subtitle, front flap, table of contents. Figure out the big-picture argument of the book, and how that argument is laid out.
3. Read the introduction and conclusion word for word to figure out where the author starts from and where he eventually gets to.
4. Read/skim each chapter: Read the title, the first few paragraphs or the first few pages of the chapter to figure out how the author is using the chapter and where it fits into the argument of the whole book. Then skim through headings and subheadings to get an idea of the flow. Read the first sentence and last sentence of each paragraph. Once you get an argument, feel free to move on to the next argument, skipping over the many repeated case studies or examples.
5. End with the table of contents again, looking through, and summarising each.
(I've written a longer post about the categories here: https://commoncog.com/blog/the-3-kinds-of-non-fiction-book/)
Edited for formatting
After suffering through most of "Grit" I just couldn't take it any more and vowed not to read a book like that again. It was one of a few books I've read that's just taking an existing idea (in this case, trait conscientiousness), re-branding it as something else (grit), and then page after page of hammering the same point + anecdotes.
It reads like a student paper trying to meet a word count. Constant detours, references, and needless, lengthy quoting (says Prof xyz, in his paper [paper] of June 8th....) to pad out a blog post into a book.
I did find its aimlessness useful for falling asleep, though.
I too feel like that with a lot of books.
If the answer is 'yes' then I can tolerate the single idea taking up a whole book.
If the author then goes on to write a second, third, fourth book then they have probably crossed over from writing books that needed to be written to just regurgitating the same idea, based on the fame of the first book.
Publishing is an industry and they know how to do marketing.
> 1. Check out the author’s bio online to get a sense of the person’s bias and perspective.
> 2. Read the title, subtitle, front flap, table of contents. Figure out the big-picture argument of the book, and how that argument is laid out.
> 3. Read the introduction and conclusion word for word to figure out where the author starts from and where he eventually gets to.
> 4. Read/skim each chapter: Read the title, the first few paragraphs or the first few pages of the chapter to figure out how the author is using the chapter and where it fits into the argument of the whole book. Then skim through headings and subheadings to get an idea of the flow. Read the first sentence and last sentence of each paragraph. Once you get an argument, feel free to move on to the next argument, skipping over the many repeated case studies or examples.
> 5. End with the table of contents again, looking through, and summarising each.
Less so to fiction or entertainment.
Roughly 30% of the text in your average book occludes understanding if you read through it linearly. This is a technique for getting at the essential thesis, which can then be supplemented with a thorough, cover-to-cover re-reading.
I don't recall the realisation that life is short and there is so much to do. Neither of us are finishers now. But I do have a special shelf for unfinished books. They stare at me.
1. Start reading Atlas Shrugged. When John Galt starts making his speech, skip to the next chapter. You have now gained the ability to skip pieces of a book that are really, incredibly tedious.
2. Start reading Twilight. When it starts feeling like torture to continue, stop. Use the rest as fire starters for your grill. You have gained the ability to not read books you discover that you don't like.
Take those unfinished off the shelf and get rid of them. Sell them to the used independent. Donate them. Burn them. Landfill them. Whatever. You can reclaim that shelf space for books you not only want to finish, but re-read and finish again.
okay, so now for the obvious question, what's the correct way of framing the which-books-should-be-finished problem, and what's the optimal strategy?
is this a bandit algorithm thing? at each interval t, sample a page from a book according to gittins indices to minimise lifetime regret? does it need monte carlo tree search?
Greedy strategies probably work reasonably well.
For non-fiction, it's worth separating books which sincerely have a thesis and supporting arguments from books which are trying to sell you an idea, even (especially) if it's an idea you really want to hear.
There is no longer a "canon" that you can expect everyone to have read; the world is far too big and contains too many people, books, cultures and ideas.
(For youtube videos, when I'm trying to get information on something, I employ a "rule of third": just drop the slider a third of the way in and skip all the personal introduction and setup, to see if this video might actually get to the point.)
(And if the payoff doesn't, I drop the book. That's what I did with Mieville's Embassytown at the 50% mark.)
Aka the Wadsworth constant: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/the-wadsworth-constant
Currently I'm struggling to get through Gödel, Escher, Bach. I like the ideas presented, especially the parallels between music and art (which I know little about) on one hand, and mathematics and computer science (which I know more about) on the other hand. But I think that it lacks focus and a clear thread. Additionally, I already know most of the mathematical concepts presented in the book, so I don't feel like I benefit much from the long chapters detailing various proofs and formal systems. To make matters worse, Hofstadter avoids using conventional notation and terminology, so I'll be reading through page upon page of detailed descriptions of his own little formal system only to finally realize "Oh, he's just describing propositional logic in a roundabout way".
Meanwhile, I've got a bunch of other interesting books sitting on my shelf that I'd like to read. Alas, there are only about 300 pages left...
Often the rest of the book was a boring, pointless drudgery that rehashed arguments I'd already read and that really opened my eyes.
I remember more than once deciding to read the whole book instead of the recommended chapters. Descarte's Meditations springs to mind, the first half of the book is great (think therefore I am), the 2nd half is bad (trying to prove the existence of god, having just disproved him).
Also, I read Immanuel Kant and he is probably one of the worst famous writers in history. He was awful at expressing himself, and if you've had to endure that, you learn to skip chapters at a time looking for the crux of a book. Hegel was similarly bad I seem to remember.
when to quit, is a really hard problem
I'm reminded of the Hacker New link from a month or so ago about 'The emotional journey of creating anything great' https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17164822
where most of the time invested in doing something, looks like all the time you invested, will end up having a poor ROI
pretty much every point there except the end looks like a case study for calling it a sunk cost and quitting to do something else.
Its a hard thing to know when your sample size of data is big enough to make conclusions that have consequences on
(I guess all in all that's the point, you need to use some heuristic, and the link is arguing for a heuristic of 50 pgs when reading a book, which seems like a rule of thumb that I have no particular objection to)
To bolster confidence in the decision to drop a project, it's also important to "complete" (feel like you've completed...) a certain number of projects. Wellness/self-esteem are also improved with project completion.
If there's going to be a hockey stick growth at the end, the net present value looks a lot different, but what's my basis for knowing that it will be there?
Ironically, I simply wanted to know what the actual rule was. It takes some effort to find it hidden in the middle of the article.
I am also pushing fifty and have read a lot, life’s too goddamn short to not give up a book the moment you stop giving any fucks about it.
I read a lot, but have a lot less time for it since I started biking to work instead of taking the train. This is best viewed IMHO as making the best/most efficient use of a scarce resource. If you are really just dragging through a book because you don't enjoy it, or its tedious, just drop it. When I read a truly great book, it sticks with me forever, its a shame that I hadn't read it earlier.
FWIW, Wheel of Time is actually what made me ok with dropping books/series. That series was just an enormous drain of my time, and personally, I thought it was really poorly written and excessively long- I stopped caring for the characters and secretly hoping even my "favorite" characters would die just so we could get on with things. After the end of Book 7 I just said enough is enough, I am accumulating a pile of books I actually want to read and just dragging through these 1000+ page slogfests because of stubbornness about finishing what I started. Tugs Braid Smooths Skirt
If you're not adverse to wearing ear buds while biking (I know some people are, for situational awareness reasons) I recommend using FBReader with the TTS plugin for 'reading' ebooks when you can't have your eyes on the screen. I do this while running. The computer voice is offputing for an hour or two but if you push through that it becomes a great way to get through books using time that would have otherwise been book-free.
There is also the trouble of "A/V sync", wherein you want to mix reading the book with listening to the book. You can do this with some proprietary solutions like Kindle if you purchase both the ebook and get the audio book, but this is again limiting.
The rule of thumb fails.
If someone has reason to know that the book does get better, then great. But it's no reason to grant every book that much leeway.
The whole you have to watch/read/listen to X amount before passing judgment is bullshit. If I surround a chocolate cake in three inches of shit, no one will fault you for not eating through the shit just to get to the cake. It might be a good cake. It might be the best cake. But I'm not chowing through three inches of shit just to get it.
Maybe next time, don't cover your cake in shit and see how that goes.
The point is that if the creator wants their work experienced, they must make the experience enjoyable in some fashion all the way through.
I’m a big proponent of deep work habits, avoiding open-plan offices, etc., ... most of the stuff the book talks about. But it is just so poorly and shallowly written, mixing in little factoids or sound bytes that have no real evidentiary weight behind them and as a result just go in one ear and out the other. Most of the advice is entirely subjective, supported by anecdotes about unrealistically successful people who can use their positions of luck-driven-success to be sounding boards for whatever grandiose selection bias and retrospective plaudits they want.
I was very disappointed after seeing the book praised often here on HN. But boy, it was a total stinker and there are many better books on the topic (Peopleware, for one).
The whole book of Deep Work could have (and should have) been summarized with about 5 pages of bullet points, and published just as some blog post. It is absolutely dreadful as a long form book.
Newport's main failing was his laser focus on how to schedule your waking hours to spend more time doing deep work. At least half of the book addressed only this. Personally, I'd have preferred to hear more about what deep work is, what ends it serves, and how to do it better. But I guess we were supposed to read Csikszentmihalyi's "Flow" for that.
Mostly I came away from the book with deep insights into how Newport manages his daily routine for maximum productivity. Useful info perhaps, but not what I sought. However, as a self-help book, Deep Work shines. And seen in this light, its many 5 star reviews start to make more sense.
As a self-help book, it’s beyond pitiful. The advice given is often totally impractical for most people and is extremely hard to read because of the meandering inclusion of useless anecdotes about what this or that CEO does or the throw-away sound byte statistics cherry picked from old research studies and quoted out of context.
The closest thing to a self-help guideline that the book gives is to just state, unqualified, that you should make a ritual out of dedicating certain hours to deep work that cannot be interrupted by shallow work (unless you’re a journalist, in which case he advises some totally fictitious concept of just grabbing deep work time in an ad hoc way, whenever you can).
Really, I was interested in reading it primarily as a self-help guide for how to effectively enforce deep work time in my schedule despite meeting-oriented company culture and open plan offices.
In terms of self-help, not only does the book fail to deliver anything useful, but it could even be considered harmful to the extent that people buy into the anecdotes and sound bytes in the book.
Never felt guilty about not finishing a book again. Life's too short to be giving due diligence to poor authors.
I can usually tell within 10-20 pages.
I also have the "five minute rule" with TV shows, movies (on streaming services), and other activities. Only so much time left on this planet.
> But dude, you just have to get through the first 3 seasons and the show gets so good.
No, I'm really fine not wasting 15-30 hours of my life when there's hundreds of other incredible shows, movies, books, and video games.
Books, I'm a bit more dogged about. It has to be pretty bad before I won't at least skim it before giving up. Partly this is because I'm a very fast reader and most books I can finish in a sitting or two.
Thank God for Wikipedia's plot summaries of books and films.
> there's no way that anyone there will be able to tell (even if they were interested) whether you've really read every page of the book you just returned.
Unless it was a Kindle book, right? :-P
I think it is also a question of the other factors indicating that a book might be worth reading... is it a classic? Have others highly recommended it? Is it for a book club?
While I'm well aware of sunk cost and realize that it often makes sense to cut and run, I have had the experience a few times with both books and movies where it all came into focus right at the end and make the whole thing worthwhile. If I'd stopped 90% of the way through I never would have had the moment of appreciation.
Just as a hike through the mountains is often rugged and lacking in scenery, reaching the peak changes the entire experience and puts the grueling work needed to get there into proper context.
Some albums are uninviting on the first, second, and even third listens, yet after a while something is unlocked and the music finally makes sense.
I'd argue that some of the best things are good in spite of being inaccessible. It's asking a lot of any creator to give us a happy path and also give us something deep and significant. Sure it happens now and then, but I prefer the significance over the happy path just as I prefer a carefully prepared meal to a piece of candy.
The world wants to give us candy... the endorphins of the clickbait headline are 90% of the endorphins one gets after reading the whole article... the endorphins from watching a porn scene are 90% of the endorphins of watching a romance with a plot... a few pop tarts will go down quickly and dampen our enthusiasm for any cuisine.
I've abandoned countless side projects, instruments, sports, meals, friendships etc when they stopped holding value for me.
But once I crack open a book I really feel like I have to finish it before I can get on with my life. I don't start a lot of books anymore but they tend to stay on my todo list until I've literally read every word..
They buy books for the promised experience they'll have owning them. I think most of us heavy readers are not honest enough with ourselves to admit it, but we're not enamored with the ideas in books as much as the experience. An unread book is the promise of a good time yet to come.
I don't know about the Rule of 50. I know that some of the best reads I've had were a struggle for a good, long while until I could finally get into the mind of the author. I also know that some really awful books were a struggle too -- and they didn't get better.
The problem here is that everybody has authors they are easily able to follow. The text just sort of flows. For me, Dean Koontz was like that for a while. It got to the point I started believing a machine was writing these things. They were enjoyable, easy-to-read, action-packed, and completely forgettable. I loved them. Used to call them my "airplane books". Pick one up the morning of travel, finish reading it that day.
Compare that to my current read, "The Brothers Karamazov". I'm struggling, and it's not the author. It's my mind getting aligned with the author that's causing the problem. Sometimes it takes a lot more than 50 pages for that to happen. A little faith is required.
If I had to come up with a rule, I'd go with Pearl's Rule, except for classics. And I'd add a fallback position: try the audiobook. Many times it's easier to listen to an audiobook half-way and get the general gist of it.
I try to resist the urge to buy them all, but my ability to purchase books far exceeds my ability to read them.
When I browse the virtual shelves online, I usually throw a bunch of books on a gift wish list and intentionally not buy them myself, so that other people don't have to struggle at birthdays and gifting holidays.
Also, since they were gifts, I get fewer unwanted interruptions as I'm burning through one of those books after the holiday.
I agree that life is too short to read crummy books through. I do now and then for a neighborhood book club, with gritted teeth.
As for fiction, what really did it for me was listening to the New York Times Book Review podcast, specifically the reviewers and Editor Pamela Paul. Many of them, especially PP, frequently mention not finishing a book, and hearing that from them felt liberating. It's still hard, but I figure if they can put a book down, so can I.
I'm glad I decided to avoid him as an author when I was much younger. He'd have been better off just writing them as screenplays or teleplays to begin with.
Someone recently compared my Twitter posts to Stephen King, and I winced physically. I'm almost certain they meant it as a compliment, though. And maybe that's good if I wanted to write for the mass market instead of the sci-fi/fantasy nerds?
Related question: do you guys have a similar system for research papers? I've tried reading them a lot but have successfully made it through only a few. At this point, I even question if the effort in getting through their drudgery is worth it.
I think many people do take modern research papers for granted and assume that if it is published in a scientific journal, it must be true.
- Read the abstract
- Read the conclusion.
- If paper still interesting, read the introduction and skim the rest of the paper.
This was how I got through tons of journal publications during my Ph.D. qualifiers.
It is a VERY painful start. And if you read interviews with Martin, he admits he had no idea where hew as going with the story until about halfway through the first book.
When I read the 4th book, however, A Dance with Dragons, I kept reading far longer than I would any other book, hoping that it would get better and start getting somewhere. It never did. It was a slow motion train wreck. Finally, I threw in the towel and dropped it with no desire to ever go back and finish it or the 5th book. It did strengthen my resolve to drop bad books early even if prior books by the author were great reads.
For example: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie.
By the bottom of page 50 I was not enjoying it at all, seemed like a trite mystery novel. I was ready to put it down but the friend who recommended it urged me to slog through. And boy was I glad I did. As is common with Agatha Christie, there is often a huge payoff at the very end (last chapter).
It takes 120 pages or so to get to the real plot. An amazing amount of time. But I’m kind of enjoying it and get the feeling once it starts moving I may really like it.
But at the same time it was so slow for a good portion of the start I’m not sure I want to continue.
I’m not expecting it to be the next great literary work of the world.
I had never thought of stopping reading as such a decisive act.
There are way too many books in the world, and too many bad ones, for any random book to deserve fifty pages of your attention.
I guess we all need a system these days to validate our actions, even how we should spend our free time.