At risk of offending the no-judgments crowd, here is my case.
First: Pleasure. When you stop short, you risk missing something incredible. I can’t count how many novels have bored me for a hundred or even two hundred pages only to later amaze me with their brilliance. Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers is long and dated. I quickly grew tired of Samuel Pickwick’s adventures, which were probably funny for 19th-century readers but which I found annoyingly quaint. Yet I stuck with it, because I always stick with books, and also because I thought I should give the benefit of the doubt to an author who would go on to write several masterpieces. I’m glad I did.
Deep into the novel Mr. Pickwick is incarcerated at Fleet Prison over a financial dispute. Suddenly Pickwick Papers isn’t quaint at all but social satire that skewers the absurd unfairness of debtor’s prison. Dickens cared deeply about that subject and would return to it many times over the course of his career. So when that turn happened in the novel, I felt as though I were watching Dickens become Dickens before my eyes. That sensation more than compensated for the previous few hours of tedium.
That’s just one example. With the exception of Portrait of a Lady, every Henry James novel I’ve read has tested my patience. Yet in each case I’ve hit a transcendentally good scene that makes up for all the preceding irritation.
Second: Fortitude. When a book makes me antsy I sometimes think of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment from the late 1960s, which found, in brief, that children who were able to wait longer before stuffing themselves tended to do better in school and have a healthier body mass index later in life.
It may be disagreeable to slog through a novel that you stopped liking after 50 pages, but it’s a sign of strength. Resisting the impulse to stop midway also teaches strength; it works out your mental-resilience muscles, wherever those may be.
I found Part I of Ian McEwan’s Atonement quite good and despised the rest. Part I, about a country dinner party experienced from a child’s perspective, was suspenseful—almost a page-turner. Parts II, III, and the Postscript, which span the length of World War II and then land the reader in London, 1999, were mawkish. All that nursing of fatally wounded soldiers felt cribbed from a soap opera rather than life.
Yet I don’t wish for those hours of my life back, because they built up my ability to endure intellectual anguish—something I need in my job as an editor. This essay is terrible, I think to myself, but I got through Atonement. I can get through anything. Readers in other professions will reap the benefits of finishing, as well. A waiter, for instance, might think: Serving this table of European teenagers, who probably don’t understand the concept of tipping, is terrible, but I got through Atonement. I can get through anything.