Opinion

Why Do We Keep Reading a Book We’re Hating?

Have you ever finished a book and hurled it across the room? Or at least felt that desire? Then you have finished a book you hate. Why do we do this to ourselves? We can talk about bad books in all sorts of ways. We readers are gluttons for punishment. Books are train wrecks we can’t look away from. At our most trollish, we might even encourage someone else to read a reviled book, the literary equivalent of “This smells bad. You smell it.”

I quit books all the time. Perhaps they haven’t hooked me, or if I drift away because something else shinier catches my attention. But I’ll tell you what I never do: quit a book I loathe. The caveat is that I will happily quit a book because I find its treatment of a sensitive topic offensive. For example, a lot of casual fatphobia in a book that allows said fatphobia to go unnoticed and unaddressed? No thanks. To me, that’s emblematic of an author incorporating their own biases into a story without anyone catching it in the editing process.

But a book I think is bad for other reasons? Maybe because I find the storytelling lazy, the themes underbaked, the characters insipid? True bitter-ender right here. I will refrain from naming any such books, preferring to use my wild and precious life to shout about books I enjoy. Still, I wanted to dig into some reasons why you or I might soldier on through a whole book full of nonsense.

The Thin Line

I don’t always think the adage “there’s a thin line between love and hate” is true, but I do think it applies to a lot of art, including books. We read books for lots of reasons, but surely one of them is to experience emotions. A book we hate is not a book that is boring. Emotions: they’re being stirred. Maybe not the preferred ones. But when you’re ranting to someone about a book that you hate, don’t you feel a little more alive? Others can decry hate watching, hate following, hate reading, but I think it’s useful to exorcise feelings of negativity in relatively harmless ways. A little cleansing fire is good for the soul, I reckon.

Writing bad reviews — and reading them! — is arguably as fun as good reviews. (For the love of all that is sacred, just don’t tag an author in them.) Those bad reviews can be instructive for both you and other readers as well. After all, someone’s negative 1 million-star review can be someone else’s 5-star. They say there’s a lid for every pot. If I hate this lid, I will enjoy hurling it like a discus as far from me as possible, maybe even in the direction of the correct pot.

Morbid Curiosity

Another reason I finish a book I hate is to make sure I’ve gathered all the evidence. I’m a thorough book detective. I want to be able to say “AND ANOTHER THING” as many times as possible when listing all the book’s crimes. Haven’t you noticed that it’s the hated books that get the really lengthy reviews?

In addition to the data collection, there’s a sense of awe that comes with reading a book you hate. Can it really be this bad? The whole way through? The only way to know for sure is to keep reading. For me, I think the morbid curiosity and the thin line are the primary reasons I personally persevere in the face of a book I hate, but I’ve theorized some other reasons that might come into play.

Misplaced Optimism

As someone who’s generally optimistic, I definitely understand the urge to want a book to get better by the end. But if you’re already experiencing actual hatred, is it even possible for a book to turn that whole ship around? I’ve definitely read books I was skeptical about until they landed someplace I found satisfying by the very end. Even then, such books would never earn a five star review from me.

But have I ever experienced true hatred redeemed? I cannot recall such a book, but perhaps you are a combination of more optimistic and more forgiving than me. I may have called your optimism misplaced, but know that I admire your spirit.

Swallow Your Pride?

Where one places their pride is very personal. I, for example, am a proud quitter. We only get so many books to read in our lives; should we save space for hate? I fully realize I’m arguing against my aforementioned cleansing fire point. Are hate reads good for the soul? Maybe, maybe not. I’m a complex human living with contradictions and I don’t actually have the answers.

But if you place any sense of pride in always finishing books, I think that’s worth interrogating. Know when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em. And consider whether you think there’s a morality attached to finishing or not finishing books. Because that bleeds into my next point.

The Guilty Conscience

If putting a book down makes you feel guilty, again, take a moment to consider that feeling. To whom do you owe a thorough read of a book? Perhaps you believe you owe it to an author to finish their work and give it a fair turn. Or perhaps you owe it to yourself, because there’s some part of your sense of self tied to finishing books.

I’m not here to tell anyone how to feel. But it’s always possible to rethink your relationships to books and ask whether the feelings they give you are serving you well. Speaking for myself, I want the books I read to make me feel like my mind and spirit are expanding, and guilt always makes me feel like I’m shrinking. 

Don’t Go Chasing Waterfalls

I love book podcasts, and I’m an especially big fan of bad book podcasts. The Worst Bestsellers and I Don’t Even Own A Television, specifically. They read the (allegedly) bad books so we don’t have to. A clear pattern has emerged over my years of listening. These podcasters mine a lot of comedy from the books they read, and those laughs certainly keep me listening. But most of the books they read are either not as bad as people claim, or are more the bleak and soul-destroying kind of bad rather than the cleansing fire kind.

This leads me to believe that it’s not wise to seek the intense feeling of reading a book you hate. And perhaps that’s another reason why we can’t quit them. Encountering a true archenemy is rare. So happy reading. I wish you a team of superhero friends that vastly outnumber those archenemies.

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