The 5 Stages Of Breaking Up With A Book


On my 30th birthday, I made a “Before I Turn 40, I Want To ______” list.

No. 1: Read each of the 100 Greatest Novels of All Time, as enumerated here.

Before my 31st birthday, I’d read 10 of the books. Dostoevsky, Austen, Capote, Roth, Waugh, Woolf, Steinbeck, James—these authors’ volumes no longer merely lived as props on my bookshelf, artfully arranged to give my home a certain air of sophistication. I actually cracked the spines, pored over the texts, and read them cover to cover.

And then I decided to tackle Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.

To paraphrase Mr. Dickens himself, it was the worst of times… and it was the worst of times. Eventually, I abandoned David Copperfield after the tragic thing happened to him that I was supposed to care about but didn’t and before the next tragic thing happened to him that I was supposed to care about but wouldn’t. But my decision to let go of dear David was not made without a bit of hesitation and a soupcon of angst.

I know that I am not alone. Surely some of you have struggled to find the courage to put down that classic piece of literature you were more than a little smug to be seen reading on the subway, in the waiting room, or at the lunch table.

As a public service for those of you who may be staring at the hefty volume on your nightstand and thinking, “We’re not right for each other. But how can I give up on this?” I have outlined below the five stages of breaking up with a book (which happen to coincide with the Kubler-Ross stages of coping with loss).

Sure, you may have nodded off three times in the last 10 minutes while reading it. Sure, you may find yourself making your grocery list in your head as you stare blankly at the page. But that’s not because you don’t love it. I mean, this author has given us some of the most eloquent and poetic prose the western world will ever know. It’s a literary masterpiece. And you are the sort of person who reads literary masterpieces. No, you definitely love this book, you just need to focus a little more and Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

“How can this #!@$&*! book be so #!@$&*! dull?” you ask yourself. You decide to Google the title in hopes of discovering some fascinating analysis of it that will suddenly make it riveting, compelling, a real page-turner. But instead you learn a tidbit such as the following: David Copperfield isn’t the title Dickens gave to his novel. No, he planned to call it, The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account). And that’s when you start yelling about being misled and how obviously you never would have attempted to read something with that title. Soon you’re directing your anger at characters in the novel and muttering things like, “Ham Peggoty—what the $#@ kind of name is that?” and trying to rip out the pages of the book, which proves to be a little challenging, as you are reading it on your NOOK.

After you calm down, you attempt to reason with yourself. True, reading this book is not exactly a joyous experience, but you can and will finish it. You’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment upon the completion of this lengthy text, and isn’t that reward enough? No. It’s not. So you create a figurative carrot for yourself. As soon as you get to the last page, you’ll treat yourself to a manicure. Or a glass of wine by the fireplace, in which The Complete Works of Charles Dickens will serve as the kindling.

This book is never going to end. It seems to be getting longer. Are the pages reproducing at night, like Gremlins? During this stage, you may become despondent, spending days on the couch, unwashed and unable to bring yourself to read anything at all, instead watching hours of Jeopardy! and giving the (incorrect) answer of “Wuthering Heights … no, Great Expectations … no, Wuthering Heights” to every question in the literary categories. The person watching with you may say something like, “What exactly did you study as an English major?” to which you may respond, “There’s more to being an English major than reading old books. It’s about learning skills to analyze texts with.” He/she undoubtedly will then point out that you just ended a sentence with a preposition, and soon you will be seeking comfort in the bottom of a Seagram’s Jamaican Me Happy wine cooler and muttering about the present participle and how you should have majored in political science because even though that was an impractical course of study, too, at least those people know how to drink the hard stuff.

You’ve now showered and brushed your teeth. Congratulations. You are ready to acknowledge that you are never going to finish the novel, and that’s OK. It’s not that you’re incapable of enjoying the classics or even other works by the same author—I mean, you own the movie musical version of A Christmas Carol starring Kelsey Grammer. It’s simply that this book was not right for you. Occasionally, you’ll pass by it as you’re scrolling through your NOOK, and you will briefly consider going back to it. For a fleeting moment, you will only remember the good times—didn’t page 53 offer at least a modicum of reading pleasure?—but at these times you must not forget what the other 237 pages put you through.

I hope this will help some of you through the difficult task of letting go of a book.

As for myself, I’m happy to report that I’ve just begun James Joyce’s Ulysses, and it’s amazing. I mean, Joyce has given us some of the most eloquent and poetic prose the western world will ever know. It’s a literary masterpiece. And I am the sort of person who reads literary masterpieces. I definitely love it. I just need to focus a little more and …

  • banana_the_poet

    Moby Dick.

  • Charlotte Dixon

    I seriously love this.
    Sometimes we get so caught up in “but it is a classic” – that we forget all literature and art is subjective – nothing is universal – no matter what our High School English teacher said.

  • nycisbliss

    YES. Moby Dick. I had to read it for AP English in high school and again in college. Never finished it.

  • TerryMarie

    I had the same experience with Dickens, only it was Bleak House, which I was supposed to love because I wanted to be a lawyer. I’ve now been a lawyer for 32 years, and I still haven’t finished Bleak House. (Or Moby Dick, Banana, even though my husband the English professor swears it’s the best book ever written.)

  • anna

    Ulysses by James Joyce!

  • Bob Latchaw

    Wonderful, Jill! I began reading Nicholas Nickleby out loud to Paula at one point and the pretzel-like construction and incredible length of the sentences made it an insurmountable task. And keep in mind I once read the entirety of Watership Down aloud to her. Never have I spoken of so many windflowers and weeds. Anyway, great stuff. Please write more.

  • LesYeuxHiboux

    The second book in The Inheritance Cycle, I want to say Eldest? Literally threw it across the room. I barely got through Eragon.

  • Gretchen Leech

    Haha… I’m an English major with a political science minor… and I wonder why I can’t find a decent paying job.

  • Kevin

    Oh man, I loved Copperfield, and Moby Dick. I have however had to close up Tropic of Cancer, Ulysses, and the The Naked and the Dead recently. Maybe stream of consciousness is not really my thing….

  • ✨Caroline

    Jane eyre! omg I just could not read it I see where people saw it as a good book but 100 pages in I just cant go on and I’ve tried twice.

  • Shannon Chamberlain

    I was an English major and to this day I still can not finish Frankenstein. I guess since I watched the movie as a kid my expectations are a bit skewed, but come on, it is totally different. And I hate all things Hemingway! Oh, and I can not stand Moby Dick either. BOoooring!!!
    This article is hilariously true. Thanks for that!

  • Susan Wortham David

    I LOVED David Copperfied! There were books I disliked that are considered “classics,” though. I just cannot get into “The Lord of the Rings” and my daughter thinks I’m heinous for it. Can’t help it. I struggled through The Hobbit and the first book in the succeeding trilogy…almost made it through but I quit 2/3 of the way through when I realized I couldn’t care less if they made it to Mordor or not. Just can’t get into it. There. I said it.

    • RichmondMom

      God yes. I really wanted to, because so many interesting people loved the Rings, but I just wasn’t up to the challenge.

  • Marci Yesowitch Hopkins

    Pilgrim’s Progress. Trilby. I haven’t given up on Pilgrim’s Progress though. I WILL get through that book…someday.

    • Stephanie L. Pyke

      Read pilgrim’s regress by C.S. Lewis. It’s far easier to slog through.

    • Katie Strand

      Alternatively read Little Pilgrim’s Progress. It is a version adapted for children and so much easier to get through. I actually enjoyed Bunyan’s version after having read this version.

  • Erin Moore Quinney

    Moby Dick and Les Miserables. Never. Ending.

  • Ken Lenoir

    David Copperfield . . . my favorite Dickens novel and one of my favorite novels of all time.

  • Spazmelda

    Anna Karenina. I read that book for what seemed like forever and ever and ever, and still had, like, 8000 pages to go. I’m still not even entirely clear who all the characters are. They seem to change names and wander in and out of the story. I’m still in the denial phase on this one. I will pick it back up eventually.

    • hangemwayhigh

      The names do change to confuse the innocent.

      • Spazmelda

        Do they, for real? I wasn’t sure. That makes me feel a little less crazy. :)

  • Anne Stratford

    I know it’s not a classic, but right now I am seriously considering breaking up with Ranger’s Apprentice, Book 1. I am only reading it because it’s so popular with the kids I work with and oh my God, it is SO DULL– and there are ELEVEN books in the series! I think you just gave me the courage to quit it while I still have my sanity intact.

    • Carolyn Moore Mooso

      That’s right, Anne! Be brave. You only have to be able to share SOME of what they’re into!

  • Melissa Renee Sanders

    I read 3 chapters if The Odyssey, but couldn’t stomach the introduction of every third cousin of the 1st cousins son who is twice removed. Blah blah. But I’m sure some where in there us a great story about a son searching the Se for his lost father. Like every breakup in my past, I haven’t totally written it off.

  • Sectumsara

    The Casual Vacancy

  • Holly Ites

    Pride and Prejudice. I felt like a complete loser because I couldn’t finish that book. I mean, even Meg Ryan in “You’ve Got Mail” loved it. How can I not be able to finish it???? ~sigh~

    • Nurul Hudaa

      I can’t finish this either! I skimmed through it for one of my lit module….just not my type 😉

  • Andreia Medlin

    Made it through about half of Moby Dick before I started to zone out. Never read David Copperfield, but I read A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Carol was good, but I couldn’t tell you what A Tale of Two Cities was about…. at all.

  • Molly O

    “The Unconsoled” by Kazuo Ishiguro. Thank you SO much for this blog post. I’m not alone!

  • Rachel K

    Anna Karenina. I got stuck on the excessive farming and have yet to go back to it….WHY is there so much farming?!

    • hangemwayhigh

      Exactly. It could have been a lot better if it left out a lot of crap.

  • Stephanie L. Pyke

    this is exactly how I feel about victor hugo. there’s a reason why the films are better than the novels. I want to reach back in time, shake him, and say, “show, don’t tell!!”

  • Becky

    A Tale of Two Cities. Literally passed that test in high school by watching Wishbone the week before. Or Scarlet Letter. There are NO likable characters in that book!

  • Angie Weir

    Great post. I am on a similar mission. Reading one hundred classics. Check out my blog I can completely relate. I’m seriously struggling with Great Expectations at the moment. Have you tried to read “The Old Man and the Sea”? I am sure it has some deep meaning but oh dear, it was the longest book I have ever read. I would start reading and then I would fall asleep, no matter how many times I tried. Great post.

  • Missy

    Thanks to all of you. I feel so much better. I am not alone.

  • Melody Fohr

    Anything by Terry Pratchett. I’ve tried, man, I’ve tried.

    • Debi Biderman

      me too…even with Neil Gaiman

  • Laura E. Medina

    “IT” by Stephen King and the biography of “Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz” by Octavio Paz. On both I think I got as far as page 10. When King uses the first 10 pages just introducing the never ending characters, UGH. Paz on the other hand made a very interesting subject boring! With other books if they weren’t well-written or not interesting I would just put the book down & donate to the library not think of them again. With these two it was just painful. There was a clear difference in King’s writing before and after rehab with “IT”, there was so much rambling on and on and on. Octavio Paz I tried reading it in both English and Spanish and it was just as painful, the minutiae of the details and the grasping of the straws to fill an 800+ books when so little is known of the subject. I gave it to a friend and she couldn’t read it either.

  • Melinda Pinkerton

    Ben Hur. I was bored after struggling through the first chapter. Too wordy.

  • Renee Nichols

    Sounds like a typical semister at college!

  • Cuthbert J. Twillie

    The first half of Copperfield is absolutely magical; the 2nd-not so much.

  • RichmondMom

    I’m thinking of Evelyn Waugh’s short story”The Man Who Liked Dickens,” in which the protagonist’s hell is to be trapped for the rest of his life in a jungle reading Dickens aloud. That is the most horrifying ending I can contemplate. Thank you, Jill Boyd!

  • Debi Biderman

    could now would not read Wuthering Heights……Made a deal with teacher and read Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein instead did independent study. But could not read Wuthering Heights or Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow

  • Carolyn Moore Mooso

    I feel much better now! Thank you!

  • Kara Wirth

    Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire. I loved the movie and have tried to read the book, but I just can’t seem to make it through. I wish I could because people say it’s amazing, but I just can’t seem to get through it.

  • Not Sayin

    Maybe not a classic, but someone once swore to me that Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler was one of the greatest books ever. Been on my shelf for 20 some-odd years. Can’t take it.

  • Kathy Shattuck

    Loved this blog, writing and context. It made all the sense in the world to me. I felt the pain of enduring a novel that you just can’t make yourself finish. I’m not a stranger to slamming front and back boards together….sorry, we are not all made to read every book in print.

  • Katy Mann

    I often feel guilty about not Loving certain Beloved Classics. Gotta love those, right? Nope, not me. I’ve stopped finishing books (gasp!).

  • spottedwren

    This has happened to me with a book by an author I normally love. I keep finding it on my bookshelf and restarting it. Hey, I love this author, if I could just get through the first 50 pages or so I’m sure it improves! Except I’m not even deliberately putting the book down and deciding not to read it. I am literally forgetting about the book altogether, it is that boring.

  • Katie Strand

    I have left many books ‘to be read later’ and I often find my way back to them. But I do have some that I just CANNOT get into, I’ve tried several times to read Pride and Prejudice and I just don’t think it’s going to happen. A few others I can’t imagine ever coming back to are: The Good Earth, My Antonia, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre.

  • Dave Lahoud

    I feel the exactly the same – i just had the same experience with Ian McEwan’s “On Cecil Beach”

  • Nurul Hudaa

    I read an abridged version David Copperfield when I was 14 and actually enjoyed it haha…Ulysses, now that one, I’ll avoid reading in my whole life

  • Jennifer McGown

    I try not to give up on books, but I have – Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, almost gave up on Wuthering Heights till I starting saying the dialogue out loud. While the 100 classic book read is a noble lofty goal – try mixing in a few fun books. I did enjoy contrasting Dr. Zhivago with Anna Karenina. Two Russian authors with such different styles.

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