What book have you started the most times without ever finishing?


What book have you started the most times without ever finishing?

I asked this question on Twitter a few days ago (and then asked it a few more times, probably annoying some of the nice people who follow me), and I’ll write a bit about some of the responses later this week. I’m hoping too that some of this blog’s readers will share the novel (or novels) they’ve opened the most times without actually ever finishing.

I got to dwelling on the question a bit after talking with two friends, separately, over the past few weeks, both of whom were having a tough time with Gravity’s Rainbow. Up until last year, Gravity’s Rainbow would easily have been my first answer to this question. How many times did I try to read it between 1997 and 2015? Probably like, what, once a year? At least? And while I don’t think Gravity’s Rainbow is the best starting place for Pynchon, the book is endlessly rewarding, and fits nicely into a little mental shelf comprised of books I made plenty of false starts on before finally finishing (Moby-DickUlyssesInfinite Jest…titles that cropped up on Twitter in answer to my silly question).

Gravity’s Rainbow impacted me so much that I immediately reread it. But I don’t think I would’ve gotten there if I hadn’t read more Pynchon first—and honestly, if I didn’t trust certain critics, if I didn’t trust the book’s reputation. But what about all the books I keep cracking open but can’t quite crack into? Am I missing something? I’m probably missing something.

I rounded up most of the novels I could think of that I’ve tried to read at least four times (conspicuously absent is Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which I’ve tried to read, hell, what four times? Five including an audiobook?)—I’ll riff a little on them. (As an aside: There are certain books I’ll probably never “finish,” that I have no aim of finishing, which I’m not riffing on here—I’ll write about them separately. The include Tristram ShandyThe Anatomy of MelancholyDon Quixote, and Finnegans Wake).

 Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my favorite writers, yet I can’t get past Ch. 6 of The Marble Faun. His pal Melville’s Moby-Dick is easily one of my favorite books, one that I return to again and again, and yet I can’t seem to get through Pierre without skimming. I “read” the book in grad school, but I didn’t really read it. I’m fairly determined to read both of these, if only to ameliorate my shame as a would-be completist.

Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma is another book I’m determined to finish (at some point, not now! Not today!—is there another translation besides the Moncrieff?!). If the bookmark in the edition above is true, I made it to page 43 on my last attempt (stopping in the middle of a chapter—never a good sign).

By my wholly unscientific calculations, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is the book I’ve started and quit the most times. It’s not even a novel. It’s barely a novella. I should be able to finish it. Maybe it’s a stamina issue. Maybe if I could just sit and read it in one go…

I’ll never finish Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, but I tried to finish it repeatedly because I, uh, took it from a bookstore without, uh, purchasing it first—the only time I ever did such a thing. When I was a kid. A stupid kid. I confessed (on this blog, years ago—not to the store. The store is gone).

I think I might have read too much Thomas Bernhard too fast, because I keep stalling out on The Lime Works. To be fair, it’s almost impossible for me to read Bernhard in hot or warm weather, and I live in Florida, so the Thomas-Bernhard-reading-weather window is slim. Next winter.

Watching Tarr’s film adaptation of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s Satantango was difficult enough. (No, I did not do it one sitting). I tried. I tried. I doubt I’ll ever try again.

My Struggle, Book 1. Again, I tried, I tried. Several times. I can’t get down with Knausgaard.

I’ve tried to read Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual every summer for a few years now, and I’m not really sure why I can’t get past Part I (about 75 pages or so in). Every time I start into Life, I feel as if I’m missing something, as if some of its humor or complexity is lost on me. Maybe I need something like A User’s Manual for Life A User’s Manual.

I’m sure I’m forgetting plenty of titles (I’m really great at not finishing novels)—but these are the ones that stand out in recent years.

By way of closing: I’m almost finished with Stanley Elkin’s 1975 novel The Franchiser, which would’ve been on this list just a few months ago.

And again, I’d love to hear what novel (or novels) you’ve started the most times without finishing (yet!).


43 thoughts on “What book have you started the most times without ever finishing?”

  1. Not a novel, a book called On the Origin of Objects; the only book to have ever defeated me but I will get it read one day! The Idiot is a wonderful book, do keep at it! Enjoyed the article, thank you.


  2. I did a post on this sometime ago, three books I felt I should have read and hadn’t. The aim was to have another go at them…I failed miserably. The main one is Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky, I have tried so so many times and I just cannot get into it. I have friends who rave about the Russian classics but my multiple attempts at this have put me off ever reading anymore…I’m far too fickle. Another was Ian McEwan’s Atonement, not because it was difficult to read but I just cannot get into his writing. But friends love him and people in class referred to his works as modern classics. I failed first attempt at reading, so tried On Chesil Beach a shorter novel to break myself in, and hated it, I eventually completed Atonement on the 3rd attempt as it was set for a class…I won’t be reading any more McEwan!


      1. Thanks for the link I’ll take a look, I want to love it and get through it, it just never happens! And yes I am definitely done with McEwan the two I have read were so so boring! To each their own, I suppose!


  3. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve been defeated by Lassie Come Home since I was a child. Picking it up triggers thunder storms.


  4. Okay, yeah, The Lime Works. Finished it, but I’m still not sure how.
    But Laughter in the Dark? Still my favorite Nabokov. So much better than the massively impressive but still overpraised Lolita. Please please retry, and just keep going. Worth it, I promise.


  5. Was Gravity’s Rainbow until a couple weeks ago (though I too am immediately wending my way back through the book). Had been taunting me from the shelf since 1996 and it wasn’t until I read everything else by Pynchon that it finally took.

    So, now it’s Finnegans Wake. I’ve read Ulysses more times than any other book but I just drown in FW. Though reading it inebriated and aloud is great fun. Vollmann probably wins though for the writer I’ve started the most books of without finishing. However, after Gravity’s Rainbow I think Europe Central just might be my next attempt at Mt. Vollmann.


    1. Vollmann is almost certainly the writer I’ve started the *most* books by without completing…but I don’t really go back to them to be honest. I somehow read Europe Central on the first try. It’s one of his more accessible ones, in the sense that he actually creates meaningful characters, and not just Avatars of Vollmann.


  6. McEwan’s Saturday is awesome. I’ve never finished The Bible.Nor Gravity’s Rainbow.Read Infinite Jest non stop barely eating and sleeping and resenting doing both.No to Lime Works also.


  7. Trying to choose books as carefully as possible, I almost never leave one half-read. A single one comes to mind, not a novel but still: Jostein Gaarder’s “Sophie’s World”. I would try to read it once a year during high school (so, that’s three consecutive times), and then gave up forever. I remember always quitting at the same chapter, just after the middle. It’s still somewhere in by bookshelves, though, so it might not be definite.

    I do start most of the books that I read in French multiple times, but mostly because it takes a while before I delve into them and I always finish them. I was also disappointed by Joyce’s “Dubliners” Greek translation and I gave it up, deciding I would go for the original, but I don’t know if it counts.


  8. Pynchon’s Against the Day. I’m sure I’ll love it once I give it a good go since Pynchon is one of my favorite authors (Mason & Dixon is probably my all time favorite novel) and AtD is a fan favorite it seems, but I have twice read the first 20-30 pages and then moved on to something else.


  9. I call them my Waterloo books. The books my reading pursuits couldn’t conquer. Sometimes these books make me go on a reader’s guilt trip. This is how I struggled through Moby Dick. Ulysses? I pick up the book and say to it, “Someday I am going to read you. Someday. Just not today. Not now.” Then I stumbled on your post on How to read James Joyce’s Ulysses… I think I will have another shot at reading the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Infinite Jest. I can’t stand it. And only those that have finished it think it’s great. I have a feeling they are just in on the joke. That no one has ever actually finished it. I feel like just by starting it you become the butt of the joke.


    1. I read it in my early 60’s not the generation DFW thought he was writing for eh.I read it straight through barely eating and sleeping and resenting when I had to stop.I read all the footnotes too. Utterly brilliant. BUT when you can’t finish a book it just may be the wrong time for you to be reading it.


      1. I’ve read Infinite Jest 2.3 times and it owns me. But speaking of generations, I’m 65yo. I had no idea what he was talking about. I was obsessed with how beautiful his writing was. Finally I had to put it down (pain!) and research the generations after mine. And watch all his YouTubes. And read Broom, which finally did the trick, and I went back to Infinite Jest. I had promised myself I could reread the “garage/Marlon Brando” bit if I researched, but I couldn’t find it (Kindle) so I just read the rest of the book. On the first reading of anything I obey the author, so I read the footnotes as they came up and became thoroughly lost. But it’s so incredibly beautiful. Somebody called his writing ‘hysterical kaleidescopic’ (I think) and I liked that.


          1. A moebius strip – brilliant! DFW said on YouTube that the structure he intended was his favourite fractal, a poster of which he had hung on his bedroom wall when he was 14 because “It was pretty.” But he went on to say that the intended structure was compromised with the “mercy cuts” encouraged on him by his editor. So I’ll keep moebius strip in mind. Many thanks. So good to talk to another fan.

            Liked by 1 person

  11. Strangely, the book I’ve tried and failed to read more than any other isn’t some huge tome, and is by one of my favorite writers ever. It’s Omensetter’s Luck, a book I’ve tried to read once (or more) a year for the past six years or so and never made it past Furber listening beyond the wall to the Omensetters’ splashing. What’s most frustrating is just how bowled over I am every time I start, the seriousness of my conviction that I love the sentences in the book and that this will be the time I finally finish. Invariably something happens though. I work too late and come home too tired to tackle a Gass paragraph or get distracted by someone else’s sentences, always shorter and easier but duller. And when I go back into the book again the next day, whatever conviction I had is gone and I hate how hard I have to work to understand even a man just sitting at a goddamned wall listening to some people splash in the water and I give up. It’s all especially frustrating given that I’ve read pretty much every piece of short fiction and criticism the man’s ever written, and I know on some more objective, abstract level that Gass’ language isn’t even that difficult, that I’m just being a ninny.


  12. American Psycho is an absolute trudge to get through. As much as I appreciate the themes and the monologue it just becomes so tiresome reading the relentless fine tooth comb descriptions. Every time I try and finish it I get to a certain point and stop, the last quarter of the book’s spine is absolutely pristine in comparison to the beginning. I now advise people to save the effort and just watch the film.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. 1) The Richard Howard ‘Charterhouse’ is supposed to be good. I’ll admit I’m never going to read it; I sold it a long time ago. Whoops!

    2) ‘Life’ I read, like, 5 or so years ago. Loooooved it. The voice is really charming, in a way I haven’t felt outside of Cervantes or Calvino.

    3) I don’t know what to say about ‘Satantango’. I’ve read all his stuff, up until ‘Destruction and Sorrow’ that just came out, and the only one I didn’t sell—after some long deliberation—was ‘Melancholy of Resistance’. Krasznahorkai’s great, ‘Seiobo’ was real impressive, but I can never really get into his stuff. No fault of his; it’s just lost on me. I’m boring, I’d rather reread ‘Moby-Dick’ for the 7th time.

    4) On that not I love ‘Pierre’. But unless you’re in a good, somber, tranquil mood, it’ll probably make you antsy. There’s a shitload to chew on.

    5) Oh yeah, my book is Faulkner’s ‘Absalom’. I think I’ve started it three times and never get past page 80. Someone on Amazon said it read like bad prog-rock lyrics, and I can never get that out of my head.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually picked up the Howard translation of Charterhouse two days ago (on another recommendation)—-so, we’ll see…
      I think Absalom, Absalom! is fantastic, but I’m a big Faulkner fan.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll buy and read any Faulkner I see that I have missed. A short story usually. There’s one with a fox who plays with the dogs running through the house and I can’t remember the name of that one. Anyone? I devour them right away to sink back into Yoknapatawpha County again.


      2. I dig Faulkner, but something about ‘Absalom’ always repels me, and I read ‘Sound and the Fury’ like it was ‘Harry Potter’. Something to do with the language doesn’t bite. Again, for me.


          1. I have a feeling, regarding timing, that ‘Absalom’ is always going to be the wrong time for the wrong person. I’m raising the white flag!

            Liked by 1 person

  14. Reading Don Quixote last year is one of my most proud reading moments. I don’t remember what inspired me to read it, or how I managed to commit to it, but a big part of me finishing it is just how much I enjoy the writing style. I tried the Modern Library translation and quit after a page, but Edith Grossman’s translation is perfection.

    I read and (mostly) enjoyed Laughter in the Dark, but it’s the sort of book where as soon I finished it it started to fade from memory. I mostly enjoyed reading it as Nabokov experimenting rather childishly in writing lurid stories. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend Despair. It’s also an early book of his, but his writing style and narrative are much more ambitious and interesting. An great early example of his trademark unreliable narrators.


Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.