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Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50 for dropping a bad book (theglobeandmail.com)
247 points by ingve 7 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 173 comments

I had the interesting experience of returning to two of Iain M Banks's novels, both of which I had read in my late 20s (20 years ago). Feersum Endjinn was fun but not at all profound: I had found it to be very thought-provoking the first time around. In fact, it was the first Banks book I read and it had me hooked. Consider Phlebas I had read and enjoyed, but it seemed flat, uninspired and uninteresting on second reading. I abandoned it after several chapters. I hardly ever abandon books but have done so more often recently - encroaching age does lead to impatience in some things. I'm not sure how I would feel returning to Use of Weapons and The Wasp Factory, both of which I found shocking and profound the first time around.

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.

I loved Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton when I first read it as a teenager.

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.

That's just Michael Crichton in general. He went a lot further off the deep end after that judging by his output.

now i'm scared to re-read prey. loved that book in high school but i was a simpler man then

If this line of thought scares you, don't reread prey. This is science fiction for people who hate science. (that's not to say they're "bad" books, but his work seems to have a "tone")

Odd. My memory of that book is that premature commercialization of science was presented as evil, not science itself. I admit not re-reading it since being a teenager.

Novels are written to satisfy the social milieu of the time in which it's written. Society's moved on since Jurassic Park, why would it still be relevant?

If the book addresses human fundamentals instead of transient silliness, it can last forever. The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), Heart of Darkness (1899) and Jane Eyre (1847) are still relevant and enjoyable, for example.

I loved the Count of Monte Christo, and took pains to get an unabridged copy. I got through it, but if I'd had anything else to do at the time, I don't think I would have.

The impatient sci-fi fan can can substitute Alfred Bester's resetting in space. Much shorter and has some cool ideas about teleporting in addition to the revenge served cold. Lacks the lovely florid language of the original.


> Novels are written to satisfy the social milieu of the time in which it's written.

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.

>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.

I think the parent's comment was more about the literary tastes of a teenager / young adult verses an adult / older person. That isn't to say your point isn't valid, just that it seems orthogonal to the parent's point.

He didn't say it was no longer relevant, just bad. Are you saying we shouldn't read books that are older than a given time limit?

And I'm saying that the perception of a novel's 'goodness' depends a lot on its relevance. I'm not saying that you shouldn't read them, but rather that you should consider their relevance when you make your judgment call.

Then I'll say this: I'm pretty sure Jurassic Park was bad science fiction when it came out too.

But a very entertaining story though!

Nonsense. We still read works from centuries or even millennia ago that continue to be lauded and enjoyed.

Not millenia. The oldest novel that we still read is The Tale of Genji, written in 1010, followed by Romance of the Three Kingdoms, followed by Don Quixote. That's three still-relevant novels from 1010 to 1605. There are assuredly dozens to hundreds of novels written in that time period. Three are still relevant today.

Whereas many ancient Greek and Roman plays are still performed today, right alongside Shakespeare. The play is simply a more durable form of literature.

He said works, not novels? Odd choice of specificity on your part.

Wikipedia describes Lucian's True Story as a novel written circa 200 AD. I had to read it in high school. I'm sure there are other examples.

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!

Apuleius' "Metamorphoses" is probably the oldest complete novel known. It is from the second century, so much older than the novels you mention. And it is still read - at least I read it a few years ago in translation and found it hilarious and fascinating.

What about The Golden Ass?

Obligatory Shakespeare wants to talk to you.


> I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the HN crowd doesn't care to distinguish between types of creative media

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.

No, I don't.

I think I agree with you that the context of an artistic work is a valuable lens through which to view it, but there are definitely timeless works of art, too. Don Quixote or most of Dickens come to mind.

Sure. But novels specifically require a greater-than-usual time investment, so they will appeal to a more niche crowd than a play, it's modern analogue, the movie, or a poem. And the length practically requires filler.

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.

sick burn

> Consider Phlebas I had read and enjoyed, but it seemed flat, uninspired and uninteresting on second reading.

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.

Consider Phlebas was how I discovered the "rule of 50" (or more generally, "put down a book when you are sick of it").

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.

I remember thinking it felt a lot like a series of short stories centered around set pieces, that happened to have some degree of continuity.

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.

enlightening is the right word.

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.

> but the ideology and technology of the Culture -- there's the entire value of the series.

> 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.

I agree re: Phlebas. Use of Weapons, while I know it's one of the more famous ones, didn't strike me as much better, though. A lot of people have taken me to task for that opinion, though, so I've a hunch I'm missing some type of life experience that would allow me to better connect with the stuff detailed in Weapons.

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.

Wow - our experiences are completely different! I consider the God-tier to be exclusively Excession, The Player of Games, and Use of Weapons, and most of the rest are simply "good" (but, as a later commenter points out, still enjoyable because you get to experience The Culture) - and I thought Matter was particularly weak. I'm looking forward to going back to Matter and The Hydrogen Sonata to see what I missed in them! Thank you!

Fascinating differences. I hope you really enjoy Matter; it's largely a hyper-polished version of what he does in a lot of the other culture-agent-plus-less-developed-society books. Let me know what you think!

I actually gave up on Banks’s The Player of Games a couple of days ago. Maybe I didn’t give it enough of a chance, but I just couldn’t get interested.

Player of Games is the book I recommend to people to know if they'll like all of his books. It's kind of a set piece for all of them. So I can say with some confidence that you probably won't like many of his books.

I thought Consider Phlebas was pretty good. Maybe I should give this one more of a chance.

I think Consider Phlebas was more of a generic action/adventure yarn, whereas Player of Games is a good tour of The Culture (by contrasting it with Azad).

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.

I couldn't get into Consider Phlebas---I found the 'protagonist' too deeply flawed and unlikable. Is it likely I'll enjoy his other work in light of this?

If your only issue was the unlikeable "antihero" protagonist, then maybe? Most of his characters tend to be, at best, morally ambiguous. I know I said so in the previous comment, but Player of Games isn't too bad - the protagonist isn't really a good guy, but he's also not an amoral killer-for-hire.

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.

The Player of Games is sort of Banks-lite. If you didn't like that then you are not going to get into his other stuff. Personally I like his novel but I can understand why others don't - he has a certain style and way of constructing plots that either grabs you of leaves you bored.

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_.

i only read consider phlebas after reading player of games as my introduction to banks. gotta say, consider phlebas didn't come off well at all. fairly flat, not really many interesting ideas or characters. kind of a generic space opera-punk story.

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.

This was me. Now I think I’ll give Use and Player a chance again. Thanks!

...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.

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.

I made it about 2/3 of the way through Wasp Factory, first book I've tried by this author. I just couldn't find a reason to keep going, the book didn't do it for me. I think I quit shortly after he killed the little girl by tying her to a kite and letting her go over the ocean - too absurd for me I guess.

Dude, major spoiler!

I don't understand the pique, the thread is not about this book, but about dropping bad books. I found this one particularly bad. Regardless, the minor plot point I gave away didn't seem very important to the story, in fact it was so stupid that I didn't finish the book. Typically if I'm interested in a book, I'll avoid conversations about it on the internet, "spoilers" are guaranteed to occur in any meaningful conversation about anything.

Despite that, I'll edit my original comment with a spoiler warning.

Edit: Too late to edit...

Its a short book with a delicious twist at the end. I think the pay off was somewhere in the last 10% of the book.

What has worked really well for me has been to follow Peter Bregman's reading technique, which he got from history professor Michael Jimenez (story and full article here: https://hbr.org/2016/02/how-to-read-a-book-a-week):

  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 found that this has worked wonders for my reading. A year or so later, I refined this technique further, as I found that it didn't work for all books (it works for 'single-idea' books, which I call 'branch books'; it doesn't work as well for 'map of ideas' books, which I call 'tree books'.) For example, The Long Tail is the an example of a branch book, and Thinking: Fast and Slow is an example of a tree book.

(I've written a longer post about the categories here: https://commoncog.com/blog/the-3-kinds-of-non-fiction-book/)

Edited for formatting

I'm trying to just not read "single-idea" books at all any more, especially of the "take a 30 minute TEDx talk and turn it into 352 pages" variety. If a book isn't worth reading cover-to-cover, it's not worth reading at all.

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.

I am glad other people get that feeling too. A lot of pop-sci books are not terribly bad but could be cut down to 1/4 of their length. Another example for this is "Deep work" by Cal Newport. Great idea, something to actively think about. But not necessary to be spread out across 300 pages...

Wow. Yes. I have seen this book recommended endlessly online, but I found it near unreadable when I finally picked it up.

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.

As a counterexample, I felt "The Information" could have easily been three times its size.

I felt like The Information was published when the author got tired of revising halfway through. It started very well but the quality seemed to slide as it progressed. It certainly wasn't the low quality meandering pop-sci book you'll find so often, but I found it lacking in different ways. You might also like Dark Hero of the Information Age

That's a book I've approached conversationally -- asking it questions, essentially. And been somewhat frustrated by promising hints of deeper meanings not revealed.

I'm reading "Deep Work" currently, and I agree with your sentiment. I find myself ironically losing focus and thinking about how I can get the meat of this book from a blog post a tenth of the size. The case-studies he presents are interesting though, so I keep reading.

Yeah, I agree on Deep Work. There's probably a collection of Cal's blog posts that would get the idea across just as well in a fraction of the time.

I guess the publishers need a minimum page count to sell the book and that has some influence on it.

I too feel like that with a lot of books.

A better question is 'did this book have to be written?' and with most of what you see in the bookshop window the answer is 'no'.

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.

Opening a book at a random places and reading a couple paragraphs was easy in physical bookstores but now so difficult online. In particular, Amazon insists on showing only the very beginning of a book (preface, table of contents, intro) and the end of a book (the index). You can no longer browse random pages out of the middle of the book.

Please for the love of god don't use code blocks to format quotes. This one is tough to read even on desktop due to the scrolling!


> 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.

That looks inspired by How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler. One of the few "self-help books" I can wholeheartedly recommend.

But how do you read "How To Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler?

I really appreciated the ideas of that book but felt it would have been better delivered at a quarter of the length. Much of the volume was spent inventing or explaining classifications and definitions which seemed wholly unnecessary.

Could this have something to do with the time in it was first published (namely in the 40's)? What is obvious now may not have been obvious then.

To clarify, I didn't think the unnecessary parts were obvious, I thought they were manufactured and arbitrary... inventing classifications for books and discussing them at length in a way that didn't serve any purpose.

Catch-22 situation. Which is also the title of a book.

This applies, generally, to nonfiction works (and I apply a similar strategy, often focusing heavily on the index and endnotes, or their lack (a very bad sign)).

Less so to fiction or entertainment.

At the end do you still read the book straight through? Even so, it seems equal in effort to just read the book. Though to be fair I haven't tried your method, I just feel skeptical.

I routinely use a similar method, and the idea is not to reduce the amount of work, but rather to increase the degree of comprehension.

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 definitely used to be a hardcore finisher. It's a really difficult habit to break, as it feels like personal failure, and violation if principle. My wife was also, and independently a book finisher.

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.

I used to be, too. Here are the two easy steps I took to break that habit:

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.

ive seen twilight books in curbside as trash

Did the garbage collectors take them with the regular pickup, or did they stay until hazardous waste day?

one thing i started doing in recent years is just borrowing heaps of books from the library. trawl the catalogue, see what's ready for borrowing, borrow half a dozen ones that look interesting or are on the reading backlog. then start reading a few of them in parallel. if some of them don't hold your attention, stop reading and focus on the ones that are interesting. take them all back to the library when they're due, read or not.


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?

Not a classical bandit because the arms have a finite lifetime (the arm is no longer active once you read the whole book) and you know this lifetime. Definitely can be viewed as some form of RL problem. For me the challenge is how you define rewards and hence what information reading part of a book gives you about the total reward for completing the book. Maybe assume some smoothness criteria, so that the reward for reading part n of a book is highly informative of reading part n+1, but less informative of part n+2, and so on. More formally, each book gives some total reward on completion and that reward is distributed according to some stochastic process.

Greedy strategies probably work reasonably well.

Massively Parallel Speculative Evaluation. I like it!

I usually have a stack by my bed. Each time I get bored with a book, I put it on the stack and start another one. When I finish, I pop the stack. Maybe now its interesting? It usually works, but it can take 6 months or a year sometimes to get back to bare table top. And the stack can get really tall.

In your system, one might not even be compelled to finish any book at all. Instead, read as much as you want, at any pace you want, and drop the book once you don't see any need to read it further - maybe you got bored or felt you've extracted everything meaningful out of it.

Definitely a "journey" vs "destination" thing going on here. If you're interested in finding how a novel ends, of course you can skip to the back; but hardly anyone does that, because it's the process of reaching there that's the important (and supposed to be enjoyable) part. So if it's not an enjoyable process, it's worth questioning what social ideas of "worthiness" are leading you to press on with it. Doubly so with "classic" books, where you might need to read a whole other chunk of canon to have the proper context for understanding why this book is supposed to be good in the first place. Or you need to skip some bits that have aged badly.

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.)

The point is that if you're not enjoying the journey, you skip to the end and take out the "I need to get to the destination" motivation for finishing. I do this all the time: if the book is getting tedious, I prevent myself from compulsively finishing it by "giving away the end" to myself.

I do the opposite. If I'm finding the novel a slog, I'll read the Wikipedia synopsis. If the payoff seems worth it, I'll keep going - I think that most novels where a "twist" isn't the only selling point are worth reading even if you know the plot.

(And if the payoff doesn't, I drop the book. That's what I did with Mieville's Embassytown at the 50% mark.)

>(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.)

Aka the Wadsworth constant: http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/the-wadsworth-constant

Rather than skip to the end, googling plot summaries (for popular books) and or other summaries like Cliff's Notes (for classics) are also really useful. If you don't care about spoilers (and if you're considering just dropping the book, why would you care?), you can get a good idea of "what happens" and see if you are interested enough in the "journey" to bother with the "destination."

I suffer under the same affliction Nancy is describing: I cannot bear the idea of putting down a book that I've started.

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...

One great thing about Gödel, Escher, Bach is that you can enjoy it by flipping it open to a random place and reading a few pages, or if you don't like it or get it, flip to a different section. It's neither a novel nor a textbook. You don't have to understand A, B, C, & D, before you can understand (or at least appreciate) E. I treated like a coffee table book, reading 2/3 of it but randomly.

I was in almost exactly your position two or three years ago. I appreciated reading about Bach's self-referential patterns and had some fun playing with the toy formal systems, but as someone with a background in pure mathematics I found much of it long-winded and tedious. I carried on trying to slog through it because a friend (who's sister had bought it for him) shoved it into my hands on the proviso that I explain to him what it was all about. Eventually - about halfway through - I simply surrendered in the face of mounting gratuitous discourse. I just wanted it to cut to the chase.

I've never struggled stopping with non-fiction, I think because at Uni when studying philosophy they often recommended a lot of books with "read chapter 10 + 14" of a book.

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.

I give you permission to put down GEB. If you already know some logic and music, there's no point in reading it.

I disgree, but only the stories of Tortoise and Achilles. They're the most original bits in the book and they make great repeat reading, reading aloud to others, etc.

More generally than just books,

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)

For me it would've been 1 year into my (ultimately failed) Ph. D project. I would be a lot wealthier now if I'd launched into the tech world then and been working all that time.


Having a hard time discerning your point.

There's an algorithm for this: if the risk-adjusted net present value (whole utility curve, not money) is lower than something else you could be doing, then do that instead. Obviously, humans like variety so one needs to consider goods and experiences where the commitment is in multiple units and baskets.

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.

What's actually hard is calculating those values with any degree of confidence

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?

When to quit... great question! Seth Godin wrote a wonderful little book on this called 'The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and when to stick)'

Thanks for the recommendation!

And if, at the bottom of Page 50, all you're really interested in is who marries whom, or who the murderer is, then turn to the last page and find out.

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.

My rule is that you can’t drop a book until you’ve read at least as much as the most you’ve told someone else to read before giving up on something you’ve loved. Saying “Oh, Wheel Of Time is GREAT once you’ve slogged through the first three shitty tomes!” means you are fucked by this rule.

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.

"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

> "I read a lot, but have a lot less time for it since I started biking to work instead of taking the train."

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.

Or you could listen to "real" audiobooks, narrated by professionals. A great way to use the time while running / biking / working out / doing chores.

Real audiobooks are fine when available but the selection is very limited. Many books worth reading have never been narrated.

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.

Some books do pay off after the slog. Anathem after about 200 pages. Cryptonomicon after 100. The Baroque Cycle after most of the first book.

Some don't.

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.

Yeah, entertainment's purpose is to entertain. If it fails to do that in the beginning, it's not for you.

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.

This doesn't hold in all cases. One of my all time favorite books is Catch-22. That was an absolute slog to complete when I first read it in university and I considered abandoning it several times. However the ending surprised me and I went on to reevaluate the entire story with fresh eyes. Plenty of novels (and other media now that I think of it) require long setups for a sufficiently sophisticated punch.

If you're reading purely for entertainment you're entering the act with a bunch of expectation baggage (and probably looking over some worthwhile literature in the process).

Like expecting to be entertained? He was talking about fiction. Mentally change the word to engagement if you find entertainment too trite.

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 recently read the book Deep Work by Cal Newport, and I wish I had employed this 50-page rejection rule instead of pushing through the whole thing.

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.

I recently read "Deep Work" too. I found it unenlightening but generally well written.

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.

I would disagree in the strongest terms. The book is essentially the opposite of what you described. It’s strong points are the general discussions of what deep work is and the differences with shallow work.

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.

I remember the first book I intentionally didn't finish. It was a fictional work that I'd gotten about 85% the way through and I felt the narrative start to deterioriate. It was one of those books that makes bold promises at the outset but then kind of just strung you along with increasingly vapid plot twists and I was at a point in my life where I was learning to be impatient and I just said fuckit.

Never felt guilty about not finishing a book again. Life's too short to be giving due diligence to poor authors.

Give a book 50 pages. When you get to the bottom of Page 50, ask yourself if you're really liking the book.

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.

I completely agree. I've run into a lot of people who say something like the following:

> 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.

Right! When somebody says "You should watch this great new series!" its like they're saying "You should knit this great afghan!" Man-weeks of work. No thanks.

Similar. If I'm not excited about a tv show by the time the first set of credits is shown, then I'll only watch the rest of the pilot if my friends have assured me it's really good. And even then I won't watch more than the pilot if it doesn't speak to me. Maybe it will get better in the second season or whatever, but life is short and a tv series is a lot of time.

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.

> And if, at the bottom of Page 50, all you're really interested in is who marries whom, or who the murderer is, then turn to the last page and find out.

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 makes sense to give it 100 pages, but I read a fair bit faster than the average person.

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.

This is funny because books are about the only thing I really feel compelled to finish whether I like it or not.

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..

I'm the same way. If I lose interest in a book partway through, I'll stop reading it and go on to other books for a period of time and finish it later. I currently have 6 books in my "Reading" list on Goodreads, 5 of which I started at some point in the last couple of years and haven't finished yet.

Having just published a book, and going through a couple of alpha and beta reader groups, I look at my experiences, the stack of books by my nightstand, and realize: most people do not buy books to read them

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 don't know about 'most people'. I start reading a book immediately after buying it.

It's not unusual for me to get three or four book recommendations in a week.

I try to resist the urge to buy them all, but my ability to purchase books far exceeds my ability to read them.

I don't buy books if I have any left that I haven't already read. But I read them rather quickly, so the money I spend on books is instead limited by my willingness to shop for new (to me) books.

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 suspect that I would never have finished The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead if I had followed that rule. As a matter of fact, page 120 might not have sufficed. It stopped me once, in my 20s, but when I picked it up in my 50s and pushed on, I was very glad I did.

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.

While I think this is good, my impression is that it works better for fiction than non-fiction. Most of my reading the past few years has been non-fiction, and the hardest thing is finding a book on a good subject and with interesting information, but poorly written or just generally unenjoyable. I know that continuing will be painful, but I also know that continuing will allow me to learn about the subject. Not sure 50 pages (or some other metric) works in this scenario, only real option is to find a better book on the subject!

As for fiction, what really did it for me was listening to the New York Times Book Review podcast[1], 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.

1: https://www.nytimes.com/column/book-review-podcast

I would have dropped every Stephen King book by that measure. Actually, maybe I should have.

I was gifted two of them recently, and it seems like maybe he might have chosen to sacrifice quality for quantity two or three hundred books ago.

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?

I was until recently one of those people who insisted on finishing any book (or movie or TV show, for that matter) they started. Otherwise, I wouldn't feel closure. I dropped a few books (Lolita, The Pragmatic Programmer, Kitchen Confidential etc.) but kept feeling guilty later on. I am glad to hear from so many people here that dropping in between isn't such a bad thing after all.

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.

Research papers deserve no mercy. Mine what you want out of them. Only reviewers have to read them whole.

You might also want to at least skim the whole thing if you want to use a research paper to win an argument, if you suspect that your interlocutor will try and find something to nitpick.

I personally barely ever read the meat of the research papers. Usually I am only interested in the actual results, some of their related data or figures, and the abstract of the paper. I suspect that I am not alone in this, but I wonder if this is partly to blame for so many false research findings based on bad procedures and methodologies still surviving.

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.

Yes. Research Papers:

- 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.

Ha, she really does have an action figure!


If I had followed this, I never would've finished the "A Song of Fire and Ice" series (game of thrones). I guess technically I may never FINISH since he hasn't written all the books yet.

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.

I eagerly read the first 3 books without ever considering abandoning any of them and I subscribe to the yank-the-bandage approach to dropping books if not interesting within 20 pages or, towards the end, abandoning if I find myself skimming or skipping pages. With these, it never happened.

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.

Devil's advocate: If you hadn't, perhaps you would have found other even better books to read during that time.

I have the opposite problem, there are so many good books out there that I will often be reading several at any one time. The ones that just don't grab me tend to fall to the bottom of the pile and stay there until I realise its just not going to happen. Then it goes back in the shelf.

I remember looking at the Wikipedia history of the Nancy Pearl history and discovered, to my amusement, that a librarian at the State Library of NSW had carefully started editing her page, and a bunch of other library related pages.

When deciding whether to buy a book at a book store, I do not usually have a luxury of reading the first fifty pages; at least, I seem to be able to discern whether I would not like the book by simply opening the book on a random page and giving it a quick look. If, for example, the book consists mostly of conversations, I see it as a "talking heads" book and lose interest; there may also be other things that could immediately put me off, like "hither and thither".

I'm a finisher. But I tend to do my diligence before I start, so even if I am not particularly thrilled about the book at the end, I find there is usually something to glean from it. A few nice passages in the context of a book I'm otherwise not enjoying much is a nice experience, I find. Plus, reading other styles of writing in general is good for comprehension, I think. The more you read, the more of what you read starts making sense.

I totally agree with the author. I’m a ‘finisher’ (so tend not to start things! ;)) Like the author it’s taken me a while to get to the point where I can ditch a book part way through. But when it comes to books, if you don’t want to read it, don’t. Forget 50 pages. If it’s boring or annoying simply stop reading and use your time more wisely.

Does anyone else find it unsatisfying that it's not computed from the outset but switches to it later after a trigger?

I usually just read the beginnings of books and then selected chapters for non-fiction. That's often the best part.

Probably a fair rule to go by overall But if I'd followed her rule I might not have read 'Fathers and Sons' through. The first fair chunk of the book I found extremely boring but at some point I became engrossed and to this day remember it as one of the books I've enjoyed the most.

Hm, maybe the algorithm could be refined to define a threshold of boredom; should this be met before 50 pages, use the remaining pages (50 minus pages so far) to randomly select pages to explore for more something exciting ahead.

I rarely read fiction these days so this is a non issue. If I pickup a fiction, if I'm not into it by the 2nd chapter. I'm tossing it. I don't care how great the world says it is. If non fiction, I can always jump around to relevant parts that I care about.

Some years ago I had a conversation with a friend about Douglas Coupland's novel Microserfs. He said, "That book annoyed me so much I tore it up, on the Tube."

I had never thought of stopping reading as such a decisive act.

I think it's a fine rule; be master of your free time. But beware of the reasons you are setting it down. Profound books can be difficult reads, and older books especially were content to make you work for it.

Not a rule to apply in the first two years of undergraduate compulsory classes!

Completely stupid. Give it no more than two or three pages. (Of the real meat, not any front matter.)

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.

Gotta say, Love in time of Cholera is terrible for the first 80 pages or so, but it one of my very favorite books, and doesn't work at all without those first 80 pages.

I read quickly so 15 minutes is enough time to make this sort of call. The more you read the easier it is to determine if a book is good or not, as well.

These days, I find myself turning more towards non-fiction than fiction. History books about interesting events, for example.

i've used the rule of 40 for quite some time now for both fiction and nonfiction. it does allow for some edge cases where you figure out that the remaining pages of the book will be very similar and mostly mediocre and you end up finishing it anyway, but at least it's a known quantity at the outset.

How do you apply it to Kindle books? What is the equivalent of 50 pages in Kindle "locations"?

When you are 100 years old, I guess you just look at the cover and decide. After that, people read to you?

From reading all the comments in this thread, it seems than nobody is a hardcore finisher anymore.

50 is a bit low. Personally, I use 20%.

Sounds like you often read books with 250+ pages :)

It's the book-halting problem...

"Don't try." -Bukowski

You don't need a rule to stop reading a book and there's no reason to feel bad about it

This is such a simple counterargument to OP, It's funny to see you down-voted.

I guess we all need a system these days to validate our actions, even how we should spend our free time.

Some really good books will get false negatives by this rule, however.

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).

I’m having that problem with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

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.

It's a pretty fast read overall. But for me it fell into the category of "standard thriller fluff"

That’s basically what I expect out of it, but if it’s well written that’s fine. I’ve mostly been reading Sci-Fi lately so I’m up for the change of pace.

I’m not expecting it to be the next great literary work of the world.

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