DNFs to Try Again

As I was choosing titles for my second Classics Club list, I noticed several books I had dnf’ed (did not finish) throughout the years I have been book blogging. A few I knew I would never try again, but there were several that still interested me as I tried to remember why I’d put them down.

I dnf mainly because after a certain number of pages I just know this book isn’t for me. Before the point of putting it down, there is some recognition that “this better improve” or “but I really liked her other book, what’s the matter here?” or “isn’t this one of the ‘should’ classics, so I can’t just chuck it, can I?”

If I can’t engage with the story or the characters I find it hard to continue, especially since there are so many other books to try. I don’t want to seem superficial or demanding in my reading and I have certainly had the experience of sitting with a book I am sure I’d dislike, but finding the opposite reaction. I’ve come to the conclusion it is a matter of balancing so-called “good books” with personal taste—sometimes they match and sometimes they don’t. 

I do hold out until I feel like I am wasting my time, but as I looked at the titles below, I realized I’d dnf’ed them for other reasons.

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
I started 2020 reading this as a group readalong and it seemed so manageable—one chapter a day. The chapters are fairly short for a book only a little less than 2000 pages long, so how could I fail? Until I got behind and then overwhelmed. Only a chapter a day, Laurie. You should try that again.

The Ladies Paradise,  Emile Zola
I picked this up when I realized the PBS series The Paradise, which I absolutely loved, was taken from Zola’s book. However, the book delves deeply into the French economy and methods of business practices, and is full of characters not in the series and I was just not prepared for something that deep. I fully admit I put this down for superficial reasons, however, I am going to take it up again for the 2021 #Zoladdiction.

North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell
Early in 2020, I read Wives and Daughters, which became one of my favorites of the year. I was keen to try another Gaskell and after posting my reaction on Instagram, so many readers said North and South was their favorite, so it was a natural next choice. But where Gaskell’s commentary on class and status was woven effortlessly into Wives and Daughters, in North and South I felt I was being lectured to; that the characters stopped in their tracks giving Shakespearean-like monologues on urban vs. industrial life, instead of showing it through the narrative and stories of the characters. I found it unrealistic. Still, I will revisit this book again, because I put it on my Classics Club list!

Britannia Mews, Margery Sharp
I read my first Margery Sharp novel for 2018s Margery Sharp Day, The Foolish Gentlewoman, and enjoyed it. The next year I tried Britannia Mews, one of her better known novels. I remember liking it, but not enough not to be distracted by other books I wanted to read. I picked up a hardcover in a used bookstore, so I know I will try this one again.

Green Dolphin Street, Elizabeth Goudge
This is a very interesting dnf. I really enjoyed this even though I thought it a bit odd. When I saw this on my bookshelf I couldn’t for the life of me remember WHY I stopped reading it. When I pick it up again for my Classics Club list, I wonder if I will remember why I stopped reading it?

The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
I have every intention of picking up this one again and probably soon, because I am about 2/3 finished. Why put it down, then? My very embarrassing answer? I was very angry at the course James was taking for the main character’s story line. Isabel Archer was being duped. Such a strong female character and she didn’t see what was coming? I do take literature too seriously!

Have you dnf’ed books and then taken them up again? Do you remember why you picked them back up?

21 thoughts on “DNFs to Try Again

  1. A thumbs up vote for all of these, although with trepidation A Portrait of a Lady but I know you like/understand James so you’d be good with it. I’d like to read both Brittania Mews and Green Dolphin Street. I’ll keep them in mind for this year. The only classic book I remember DNFing is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Luckily I blogged about it so I still remember why I didn’t finish it, lol! I might try it again or I might not. We’ll see …..

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    1. I created this little “James Test,” that I will pass along to you and may help you decide if you want to try him:

      In the Golden Bowl we find out Maggie Verver and her father are very wealthy and travel through Europe collecting art. Maggie is engaged to marry impoverished Prince Amerigo, who is marrying her for her money. He is in love with Charlotte Stant, a friend of Maggie’s, also poor which is why they won’t marry. Charlotte arrives and is coming to their wedding.

      It took 73 pages in my edition to say just this. By the book’s end as is typical James, you will know every nook and cranny of their thoughts. If that scares you well….But James does create some wonderful characters and situations!

      If you’ve not read any James I’d suggest you start with Daisy Miller or Washington Square, both novellas and very good.

      The only Fitzgerald I’ve read is The Great Gatsby, which I struggled with, so I fear anything else by him could very well be a dnf!

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      1. Lol! No it doesn’t scare me. I’m reading what equals a university thesis right now so I’m used to working through books. I just hope it’s worth it.

        If you didn’t like The Great Gatsby I would suspect you’d like Tender is the Night less. The content is quite disturbing. If you like characters who do everything to mess up their lives and then revel in it, it might be the book for you. If I read a few uplifting books beforehand, I might give it a try again. Might, being the operative word.

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  2. Pingback: January 2021 Wrap-Up – Relevant Obscurity

  3. I want to try War and Peace someday, maybe at a chapter a day. Maybe in 2022? Buddy read?

    I really enjoyed Britannia Mews, if you’re in the right mood you should be able to finish that. And it took me a few tries to get into Green Dolphin Street (still wish the original title of Green Dolphin Country had been retained) so I think I can understand why you abandoned it. Goudge can be a little long-winded at times.

    Gaskell fans seem to fall into those who think that North and South is the goods and Wives and Daughters is insipid, and those who appreciate the quieter virtues of the latter. I only read N&S once and did not love it as much as W&D either, but I should try again to remember why. I think feeling lectured at could be a good reason.

    Good luck with all of these! Some good reading here for sure. I will attempt Portrait of a Lady one day too.

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    1. W&P 2022, please.

      I think North and South is an important book, but because I enjoyed Wives and Daughters so much, the difference may have been a matter of timing. Had I waited for N&S I may have been able to accept the lecturing; seeing it in a different way. “Timing is everything!”

      The characters and plot of The Golden Bowl are good, but James….what can be said in a paragraph takes him pages.

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  4. I rarely try again with a book I’ve abandoned, but this last year I’ve been in such a slump I’ve been abandoning books all over the place, including several from favourite authors. I’m waiting to be sure my reading is fully back to normal and then I intend to revisit some of them. Classics can be such a time commitment that it’s hard to keep going with them if they’re really not engaging you, but sometimes it’s just a matter of timing.

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  5. That is a bit annoying about Isabel Archer, isn’t it? I did finish it & thought it pretty good, but I do think it’s a bit of a mistake on James’ part to paint Osmond so black in the book and so soon. Then why didn’t Isabel see? If we can see it so clearly… 😉

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  6. War and Peace took me several years to get started properly: I used to keep a copy in my car to remind me to work on it, but not until the Classics Club did I do it justice. CC also made me commit to Catch-22, which I’d tried and stopped three times before.

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  7. Such an interesting list of books. I have only read Portrait of A Lady and North and South. While I loved both books I agree with your observations of them.

    I will probably be trying War and Peace for the first time soon.

    Good luck with the books and happy reading.

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    1. Good luck with War and Peace. I did enjoy it until I got behind.

      One thing I noticed, is the same I found with Anna Karenina, there are so many characters in his books. My copy has a character page that is three pages. And the thing with Russian names is that everyone also has a nickname it seems or at least a shorted version of their name and that can be very confusing. A cheat sheet is recommended!

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  8. I’ve never read any of those books. I used to feel a responsibility to finish a book I’d started, however the slog, but that was some time ago. A friend, who is a writer, told me to abandon anything you’re not ‘getting anything out of, as life’s too short for those’. Usually if a book is struggling to hold my attention-normally if I’m feeling bored by it, unforgivable I know, I’ll give it so many pages and then abandon it if it still doesn’t engage me. Never less than fifty pages or so.

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