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No-one likes to think of themselves as a flaky reader – and yet most bookshelves are home to at least a handful of reads that their owners have never finished.
Either these titles are there for intellectual window-dressing (aka, your untouched uni texts from 10 years prior), or more likely, you’ve waded through 50 pages before throwing in the towel.
There’s a peculiar guilt associated with these unfinished books. They remain lurking on the shelf like an unwanted guest, picking up dust; a reminder of our weak-willed preference for cheap domestic noir over weighty, improving tomes.
But not all abandoned reads are the cumbersome classics we imagine them to be. In fact, a list of most frequently discarded books compiled by users of the website Good Reads – the world’s largest online community of readers – reveals a curious mix of heavyweight staples and more mainstream fodder.
The books we struggle to digest may be famously difficult reads; but they also tend to include hugely popular authors and titles, whose hype not everyone is convinced by. And some of the world’s most revered writers count in their mix; showing talent is not always matched by reader enthusiasm.
For bookworms who pride themselves on their stamina and staying power, these reads represent a clear challenge. Below are the top 10 in all their unfinished glory, as revealed on the website For Reading Addicts. How many have you made your way through?
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
Joseph Heller’s satirical novel is based around a group of airmen in WWII Italy grappling with red tape, and is deliberately absurd and nonsensical in style. Its comic depiction of bureaucratic madness sees fans herald it as exhilarating; life-changing, even. But not everyone can get their head around the use of humour, let alone the sometimes abrupt narrative, along with a dizzying cast of more than 50 characters. Time will tell whether George Clooney’s much-anticipated TV adaptation inspires a new generation of readers.
The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling’s first foray into adult fiction sold over two million copies before it was even released. Based around rising tensions in a close-knit country community, the story is an obvious departure from the world of Hogwarts. Given Rowling’s peerless skills as a writer, a high drop-off rate is likely the result of readers who brought it on the author alone – in fruitless search of some Harry Potter magic.
The Lord Of The Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic ranks among the top bestselling fiction of all time, having shifted over 150 million copies worldwide. But coming in at 576,459 words, devouring it is not a feat for the faint-hearted. Even fellow writers are divided when it comes to assessing the merits of this other-worldly fable of good vs evil. W. H. Auden described it as a “masterpiece” in a glowing assessment for the New York Times in 1956, while, writing the same year, American critic Edmund Wilson felt it was “balderdash”. Evidently, modern-day readers are similarly divided.
Fifty Shades Of Grey by EL James
The bondage bonkbuster is the fastest selling paperback of all time, and made author EL James an overnight sensation – as well as one of the world’s most influential authors. But clearly, not all readers can stomach the full lowdown on Christian and Anastasia’s BDSM antics. Unfinished business here has the telltale signs of those who want to know what the excitement is about but then don’t last the 514 page count. But hey, at least their curiosity gave the book sales industry a much-needed boost.
Ulysses by James Joyce
James Joyce’s most famous work is notoriously difficult to read. Surely no other book has quite so many articles dedicated to how to make your way through it – and yet is still considered a masterpiece. Written as a modern parallel to Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses is stylistically florid, with dense streams of consciousness and throwbacks to Chaucerian English. The events of the book all take place around Dublin over the course of just one day; but it may take rather longer for you to digest them.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
This classic 1851 novel is based around a doomed whaling mission, interweaved with rich symbolism and existential questions on the meaning of life. Though hailed as a magnum opus of American literature, the text – spanning 135 chapters and jumping between narrative and essay-like junctures – requires a certain level of endurance to wade through. Captivating and darkly comic, say some; exhausting and impenetrable, say others.
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir about her quest for identity in the wake of a messy divorce inspired millions of women to hit the road solo on similar pilgrimages of self-discovery. It even led to a spike in tourism in the Balinese town of Ubud; the place where Gilbert eventually finds love with a Brazilian traveller. And yet, the author’s meandering, semi-confessional style of prose may be an acquired taste. Not all stay on-board with her soul-searching voyage through Italy, South East Asia and especially India, where the narrative becomes more dense and introspective.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Even the hardiest reader might quake in the face of Ayn Rand’s 1,200-page dystopian novel based around a crippling economic crisis faced by millionaire tycoons and their “looter” foes. One character’s speech alone, reaching to 60 pages, took the Russian-American writer a full two years to create. With key parables around individualism and capitalism, the book remains hugely popular today but a “shrill” style of writing may prevent some readers from reaching the finishing line.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
The first of the Millennium crime trilogy was published posthumously after the death of Swedish author Stieg Larsson in 2004, kick-starting an international phenomenon of readers obsessed by the exploits of his protagonist; the brilliant and damaged freelance hacker Lisbeth Salander. The original novel and its two sequels have sold over 40 million copies worldwide, inspiring a smash-hit film series in the process. Devotees say they’ve read and re-read the book compulsively; but others claim the first 200 pages or so are hard to get into. Make it past that point, and you may be a fan for life.
Wicked by Gregory Maguire
Wicked The Musical may be the source of enduring Broadway magic, but not everyone is enamoured by the book it’s based on. The story re-tells the 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum through the lens of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. There’s no doubting its creative scope and clever use of imagery throughout, but some people find the text slow in parts, and the characters hard to relate to.