Reading all the way to the end

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When we pick up a book and begin to read, should we finish it, come hell or high water?

Or can we be permitted to discard a book before its finish?

This morning, as every morning, Felix fetched his book after breakfast to read me a story. I read him one in the evening, he reads me one in the morning. That’s the deal.

A short while ago we finished David Walliams’ Billionaire Boy. It is a wonderful, exuberant book. When Felix read the last page, we heaved a sigh and stared at each other, agog. We had been on an adventure.

However would his school follow that, I wondered?

The next book that came home promised Errol-Flynn style swashbuckling. It was called, simply, Robin Hood.

Whose heart would not quicken at the tale of Robyn Hode?  The shady outlaw-hero whose name has been sung in ballads and stories since the thirteenth century?  We adore a handsome clever leader who subverts the law to achieve its true aim: justice.

And with Robyn comes a cast of characters who seem to have always been with us, and a set of values which play like a pantomime. Robin Hood, who robbed the rich to feed the poor. Robin Hood and his girl Maid Marion, and Friar Tuck and Little John and Will Scarlet and the Merry Men. We know the whole thing by heart.

Yet like all legends this one has come together piecemeal. The name murmurs out of our earliest legal records, the same name, ‘Robinhood’, ‘Robehod’ or ‘Robbehod’, would pop up, linked to places as far apart as Berkshire and Yorkshire. Robert Cecil once called Guy Fawkes and his men Robin Hoods. Ballads written in English as baffling as Chaucer’s, tell of his deeds and add accomplices: Little John first. Old French ballads pair Robyn with Marian. Friar Tuck appears in the stories as late as the end of the 15th century.

It’s a web of would-be’s, a yarn to be told. A tapestry of sparkling tittle-tattle.

So when I looked at the author of Felix’s book and saw it was Antonia Fraser – Pinter’s wife, stunning academic, historical writer extraordinaire: well, you can imagine my hopes were high.

We have been reading for weeks now. And it feels like months.

Far from being sparkling and compelling, Fraser’s version of the antics of the men in green is pedantic. To us, it feels dull.

My antennae went up when Fraser included  ‘zounds’ as an exclamation. Meaning God’s wounds, it surfaces in the English language around 1592 according to Mirriam Webster, long after Robyn Hode’s name first appeared.

But we suspend our disbelief, because, well, it’s a fairy tale. Here lie our role models, those of whom we dream.

Felix was reading this morning and suddenly, with a few words, my hackles were on edge.

We were at the bit where Marian has been rescued from a nasty piece of nobility who wants to marry her. The Merry Men have ambushed her  and dispatched noblemen and servants. So she swoons.

Good grief.

When she wakes Robin tells her she is safe: she may go on her way.

And her response?

She starts to weep.

“Oh, do not leave me,”she cries. “I dare not go any farther in the forest. One of my men-at-arms has fled and the other lies senseless. Let me rest awhile with you. I feel so weak and frightened.”

It was at that point that I thought: Felix needs another reading book. I wrote in Felix’s reading record, which travels between home and school: “Maid Marion is a wimp. Shame on Antonia Fraser!”

If you’re going to tell myths, then for goodness sake, get mythical about it.

And so I’m asking, once again: when we pick up a book and begin to read, should we finish it, come hell or high water?

Or -if it leaves you lost in the forest – or weak and frightened – are you permitted to wimp out?


Robin Hood, by Antonia Fraser, is published by Dolphin Paperbacks.


81 thoughts on “Reading all the way to the end

  1. I’ve encountered some books I simply couldn’t take after persevering for a few chapters. There are too many good books waiting to be read than to waste our eyesight on drivel.

  2. I haven’t seen any Antonia Fraser for yonks and I would have been very disappointed too. It’s difficult one isn’t? Deciding whether to do a book the honour of finishing it.

    PS. I wish more parents had the gumption to send honest appraisals back to school! 😉

  3. I used to feel honour bound to complete a book, but not so much now.

    I have just abandoned ‘Half a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, although I have heard so many folk rave about it. I found the writing lacked sparkle. I have now looked a the reviews on Amazon, and have discovered I am not the only one which sort of helps!

    I have just finished Salmon fishing in the Yemin (enjoyable, light reading) and started Middlesex, which I’m already enjoying 12 pages in and there is a completely different feel about it.

    There’s good reason to read many different styles of book, especially when growing up, so as not to get caught in a trap of reading simialr things all the time (Like I did at one time, only reading Enid Blyton!)

    Maybe you and Felix should review this book on Amazon as at the moment, when I looked the UK page has only one review and it is glowing!

  4. As far as I can remember there has only been three books since i could read for myself that I haven’t finished – I always feel that I must finish esp. if I want to trash it in my mind – maybe there will be a small gem/idea/redeeming feature later on, as it is impossible to like every book I look for whether it works in the style intended, if it would please someone else.

    But I am not so sure when reading or being read to by children – it is so essential they get hooked before all the other distractions crowd into their lives – drudgery should never be part of their early reading experience – to discuss what is wrong – send feedback to the school all good responses.

    You hear constantly how wonderful books have been killed at source because of forced reading/ wrong age at school, which distresses me – reading fiction should always be a good experience – even if sad , a feel good factor.

    dont listen to me – I can’t even bring myself to actually trash/throw away a book,I will vanish one day under an flood-tide of books- they will find my skeleton in years to come not in a car park but within the covers of too many books hoarded:)

  5. How very disappointing (I’ve always loved the Robin Hood stories). I say it takes more strength to leave a bad book rather than slog through it as we’ve been so programmed to finish. Off with its head, then, but a gentler note to the school about why it shouldn’t be read. Wimpy Marion, indeed!

  6. For school, eh? Here’s the school answer: plow ahead. Discuss all this with your child. It’s important for our kids to begin to think and talk like readers, and that means looking at what makes a book good, or bad, or mediocre. It helps our kids as writers, too. Later, find other versions and compare them. But a huge reason for plowing ahead is the reality, especially in school and work, that we don’t always get to like what we read. Whether its an assignment for school or a book study for work, whether it truly nauseates us or not, we still have to read and think critically about texts. Sad or not, our kids must learn to persevere through texts they hate, just as you and I have done. How else would we have found, amongst the mountains of literature, those special books we love so much? That’s the school answer.

    However, I’m not in school anymore. Life’s too short to read yucky books.

  7. As long as no one with black boots shows up at your doorstep to beat you with a baton, I vote for wimping out of finishing that one and moving onto another. I don’t think there’s any law that equates putting down a groan of a book with wasting food or being nasty to critters. Felix will probably love you even more for being reasonable about that lump of disappointment. Antonia Fraser, who woulda thunk it, but I seem to recall that Sofia Coppola adapted her take on Marie Antoinette into a pretty dreadful film. I originally blamed SC for that, but now I’m thinking that it was more of a collaborative dud.

  8. I have definitely put some books aside over time and that was a bit painful as I almost always purchase a book so I am emptying my pockets after an empty book. I usually go back in a few months and try again as it may have been my state of mind that made the book unreadable. Sometimes that works, more often, not.

    1. That’s a really clever perspective, Lou. I wasn’t ready to read Charles Dickens until my thirties. Readiness to read is an important part of the relationship between author and reader.

  9. Life is too short for bad books. It’s also too short for a Marion who won’t hike up her skirts and join the merry men for a drink and a laugh. Or at the very least sign on to help the cause from her noble abode.

  10. In my younger years, if I started a book, I finished it. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts.

    It didn’t matter if I had borrowed the book from a friend, received it as a gift, checked it out of the library, or purchased it for myself: once started, I read through to the sometimes bitter end.

    That is no longer the case.

    If an author hasn’t hooked me in the first 25-50 pages, I close the cover and turn my attention to another book . . . without regret.

    Of course . . . Felix may need to FINISH this wimpy book in order to ACE the test. 😀

  11. I was a real Errol Flynn fan but that dopey Robin Hood costume in which they dressed him made him look more like a forest elf or Peter Pan. I wish he would have drank less and acted more.

  12. “Maid Marion is a wimp”—Funny! 😆

    I rarely ever finish a book that I have to force myself to read. It’s much too “painful” and it’s difficult to get anything out of a book one detests.

    1. To be honest, I think Antonia Fraser based her Marion on the Marion of the old ballands, JG. Who was, to all intents and purposes, a bit of a wimp. But The prime purpose of any ballad is to engage and entertain; and a Marion like this does nothing like.

  13. If I’m not enjoying a story, I see no reason to continue reading it. Obvious exceptions during my school years were required readings, but frankly, better to give Felix joy of reading good books than force a dull story upon him.

  14. Wimp out? I would not call it that, Kate. Life is too short and books too many to waste on empty words and wilting Maid Marians. On to another book, I say; perhaps a better version of the Robin’s myth.

    I think you are a most fabulous mother!

  15. I tend to be a little ritualistic about finishing, but I don’t that that’s a virtue…it’s a bit compulsive, and with as little time as I have to read for the simple pleasure of it I may need to make some personal changes. But I definitely think for a still developing child it is really important not to waste one moment on a book that isn’t bringing pleasure and supporting the delight in reading. You are so on top of it!

  16. It’s ironic that until I started writing books, I always finished them, no matter how dreadful, plodding, non-sensical or downright awful they were. These days, I don’t stick with a book to the end if it is dreadful, other than to deduce where it went off the rails and learn from that mistake.

    Because my reading right now is consumed with research for another book, I don’t expect to get lost in what I’m reading. I read certain books to fire ideas for my own writing, and I always finish those, regardless of quality.

  17. I tend to feel like I’ve failed if I don’t finish a book that I’m finding hard going. There’s a particular book, which I bought a few years ago, following rave reviews. I was so chuffed to have it and began reading it with great enthusiasm, but I found it so hard going that I abandoned it. The story could be brilliant, but I don’t know because the descriptions of the setting and the people’s clothes are so long-winded it is hard to weed out any action. It seems so very slow moving as a result. I love good descriptive passages, I really do, but the descriptive passages in the book in question seem more about the author trying to prove to her readers that her research was meticulous, rather than getting on with the telling of the story. As a kind of pseudo-New Year’s resolution, I bargained with myself to read a page a day this year in order to complete it by the year’s end. Unfortunately, I’ve given up again! 😀

  18. Life’s too short, and reading choices too abundant! Discounting school “requirements,” I’ve put several aside over the years, with seldom a backward glance. 🙂

  19. I fear that I have started, though not finished, about half the number of scrolls in the Library of Alexandria. My husband, on the other hand, feels compelled to finish every book that he opens—something that I will never understand.

  20. Kate, I always tell my students to check out the first few pages of a book. If it holds their interest, then – by all means – check it out and keep reading. If it doesn’t, it’s all right to return it to the shelf and move on. (This advice is especially true for reluctant readers. I want them to find a book they really love so that they will finish it – and, hopefully, be very glad that they did.)

  21. This reads quite like my review of Eat, Pray, Love. But Kate, I have this quirk where I cannot stop reading a book. I do want to at times and know I’d be better for stopping but if I’ve begun, I must finish.

  22. I liked it when I first saw this post on the home page that it began with “Reading all the way to the end” only to be soon interrupted with the option to “Continue reading>>”. Hmm, shall I read all the way to the end a post about reading all the way to the end?

    Well, of course I did! And I read the comments to the end! Like many of the posters, I hate giving up on books, though I have certainly wimped out in the past. My solution now is to review pretty much all the books I read or re-read, and that forces me to give each title due consideration. Only occasionally have I recently been temporarily defeated, as with A S Byatt’s ‘The Children’s Book’, though I have every intention of going back to it. Instead, gave another Byatt title a go (‘The Biographer’s Tale’ since you ask) and enjoyed it tremendously. Your solution is to write a blog post about it…

    Certainly life is too short to waste time on inconsequentials; instead, I’d not call abandoning a book mid-read wimping-out (it’s a bit like browsing a book in a bookshop before rejecting it) but positive action in favour of something more worthwhile.

  23. I think you can drop a book with a clear conscience if it doesn’t compel you to read further – after all, if that’s the case then it hasn’t quite fulfilled its purpose, has it? There’s one book I have returned to around 3 times, but all my attempts end after just ten pages – for me it’s just unreadable.

    What I*m trying to say is – go for it, be a wimp! 😉

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