Top 5 book fails

I hate leaving a book unfinished. Even with a book I’m not especially enjoying, I usually keep reading, hoping that there will be some spark or epiphany or one small moment where I will find something, even if it’s just a sentence, that makes the time spent reading worthwhile.

But, there are a handful of books that have utterly defeated me. Despite my best intentions and cheering myself along, occasionally I am unable to find anything in a book that keeps my hopes alive of finding that one small moment and I have to put the book back on the shelf, unfinished. Here are my top 5 book fails.

1. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

The Hobbits and I are not friends. We cannot find any common interests or any shared passions.  I tried to read this when I was in my late teens. It’s beyond famous and I love books so, even though I’m not a huge fantasy fan, I thought I would find something worthwhile within its pages. But this is my worst ever book fail. I have read less of this than any other book I’ve had to put down. I barely made it to 20 pages. Needless to say, I haven’t tried any of the other Tolkien books.

2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The words comedy plus science fiction plus trilogy should have been enough to warn me off this one. I was given the book by a huge fan of the series and their enthusiasm convinced me to give it a go. I may have giggled once or twice but that was not enough, nor was the fact that it was the only book I had taken with me on a plane flight to London. I still couldn’t make myself finish it. I will never know how to hitchhike through space, but I’m okay with that.

3. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Never have I been so disappointed with myself than I was when I put this book down. I like Virginia Woolf. Orlando and The Waves were strangely compelling. And writers who I really admire have mentioned Mrs Dalloway as one of their favourite books. I was so sure I would love it. But I just couldn’t find a point of connection with the characters or with the story. I expect I will try this one again some day and who knows, maybe at another time and in another place, I might find its beauty.

4. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany

Quirky title. Good reviews. Huge sales. Another book I felt sure I would like. But it felt too strained to me and that made it exhausting to read. Another one I had to let go about half way through.

5. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

This is the only Henry James I have tried and I’m not sure I will try any more. His writing style just didn’t draw me in. I felt as if I was on the outside of his fictional world – which of course as a reader you are, but you want to feel as if you are living in the same world as the characters for the duration of the book and I did not.

What are your top book fails? Do you try to make yourself finish a book or are you happy to put it down if it doesn’t grab hold of your attention in the first few pages?


  1. Yeah, reading a 32 page essay on the differences between Faerie and Fairy by Tolkien in Fantasy and Cultural Rep. turned me off reading any Tolkien ever again. That boy can rabbit on about nothing for a very long time =S

    • But he’s so famous and so many people at least claim to have read his books. Why? I just don’t understand.

      • I’ve read The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit and loved both. The trouble is, they are very challenging to read. We have to remember that Tolkien was a historian first. He became immersed in the wonder and glory of the intricate world he created so his books tend to go on and on and on and on about the world and the history and the culture. The story is in there, buried beneath all that, and it is a beautiful story, but you have to be able to get past the laborious reading of Tolkien’s writing style. Watch the movies, they cut all the excess crud out of Tolkien and just leave the compellingly rich story and remarkable depths of the characters’ story arcs.

  2. Glen Hunting

    I went through a period recently when I was ‘failing’ all the time. It was simply that I couldn’t find time with enough consistency to keep the substance of the novel alive in my head. So I would start forgetting who characters were and where they fitted into the story when I came back to it a week later. I’m not good at nibbling my way through a novel; I need to spend solid blocks of time on sequential days or I forget where I’m at. My solution at the time was to read only articles and short stories but, as good as that was, I am happy to say that I’ve since rectified my novel-time shortfall.

    There are two fails that I’m okay with: One Hundred Years of Solitude and As I Lay Dying. The first was just tedious (and Love in the Time of Cholera was fantastic), the latter was just plain obtuse. I appreciate the modernist experimentation, but God it was hard to read.

    There are two other fails that I’m less okay with. I got three quarters of the way through The Vivisector before I gave up. White’s style is definitely challenging, but I made it through The Tree of Man and actually got something out of it. I’m going to try again – White fascinates me too much as an artist and as a man for me to give up so easily. And I got almost to the end of The Brothers Karamazov and then stopped, and I have no idea why. I was really enjoying it. Why did I fall at the last hurdle? It makes no sense. I think I’ll just pretend that I read it anyway, and hope that people don’t ask me how it ended!!!

  3. I couldn’t finish ‘Possession’ by A. S. Byatt or ‘Howards End’ by E. M. Forster…..never again…. I haven’t read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and I don’t intend to because I know I’ll hate it. It’s very rare for me to give up on a book but sometimes life is just too short!

    • Ditto Howard’s End – I tried it many years ago and I know I never finished it. But Possession is one of my favourite books – just goes to show, I suppose, that all books will find love somewhere, just as all books will fail elsewhere.

  4. Cindy

    I listened to a group of librarians all agree that their all-time favourite book was Room with a View, E.E. Cummings. I thought that was a good recommendation and as I had never read it, picked up a copy from a second hand bookshop. It was nice and thin and didn’t look painful. How dreary. Obviously it was just me. Or maybe there weren’t enough chariot chases in it for me?

  5. annabelsmith

    I also failed to get through your books 1, 2 and 3. But i have an extensive list of fails – in fact i have a shelf on Goodreads for my abandoned books and it reveals that I’ve abandoned 17 books in the last 2 years. I abandon with abandon! Life’s short…

    • I’m with you on that one! Life’s too short. Having said that, sometimes you can abandon a book only to pick up at another time to find it blows your socks off. That happened to me with The Book Thief. The second time I picked it up, it grabbed me right from the start and didn’t put me down until weeks after I finished it!

  6. Ulysses by James Joyce. Hard going, but I haven’t yet said ‘fail’…. yet. I will keep trying. I find it can depend on my mood and the place/time I am in. Sometimes I come back to a book I have set down, start again and its all ok.

    Ms EL James, trilogy I failed, I could not stand the awful writing. But I am quite happy about that. Anything fantasy, I don’t even bother with, with the exception of The Hitchhikers, oddly I enjoyed that, but I was in my early 20’s.

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