Unfinished, Abandoned, Abandoned, Unfinished

37788084343093605_97fq9uva_fAfter far too long a gap I’ve finally got back to Nick Hornby’s collected articles for the Believer, published as The Polysyllabic Spree.  Over lunch today I read the entry for November 2003, the one which begins

Unfinished, abandoned, abandoned, unfinished

providing a neat summary of his reading experience for that particular month.

Now, I am of the generation that was forced at school to finish any and every book that I was given regardless of whether I was enjoying it or thought it worthwhile expending time and energy on.  The phrase from Mastermind, “I’ve begun, so I’ll finish”, could well have been adapted from the first law of reading in those days, namely, “you’ve begun and you will finish”.

By the time I’d started teaching myself I’d developed a rather different approach.  The children were allowed to abandon a book if they could tell me why they thought it wasn’t worth their while to continue with it.  However, a simple “it’s boring” would not suffice.  Oh no, they had to give me chapter and verse as to why it was boring.

If you’re going to ask children to become reasoned critics of what they’re reading in this way then of course you also need to give them a framework by means of which to judge the books that they encounter.  I used to use the method outlined in Aidan Chambers’ book Tell Me  and I wondered if anyone else had come across this as it is not a bad methodology for anyone wanting to analyse, either for themselves or for a wider readership, why they feel the way they do about a particular novel.

The first rule is that you never use the word “Why”.  Instead you preface your inquiry with the phrase, ‘Tell me”.  So, the four basic prompts are

Tell me about something you liked.

Tell me about something you didn’t like.

Tell me about any patterns you noticed.

Tell me about something that puzzled you.

I promise you, that with just those four simple requests you can get a class discussion going about a book that will last for a good hour or more especially when you start to explore the reason behind any noticeable patterns and dig into those knotty puzzling passages.

Chambers doesn’t stop with simply basic questions but goes on to provide two further sets, one which can be applied to any book and another from which you select according to the book you’re reading.  These allow you to begin to explore specific literary features such as character development and the use of particular language styles.  There is also one which opens up the discussion to matters of empathy, encouraging the children to make comparison between what has happened in the book and events in their own lives.  As a teacher you have to be very careful which books and which children you pursue that particular area with. Even the most innocuous seeming tale may prompt memories that a child may not want or should not be encouraged to share with a group of classmates.  I mainly kept that question to those occasions when I was using this technique on a one to one basis.

It is sometime now since I was teaching using this method but the basic principles have remained with me and when I’m considering a book, especially if it’s one I’m going to discuss in a reading group, I still go back to Chambers’ work and use it as a basis for organising the comments I want to make.  And so, when I read of Hornby having a month in which he abandons one book after another my first instinct is to say to him “Tell me about it.  Tell, me about what you liked and what you didn’t like, what patterns you saw and what puzzled you.”   And if I get a satisfactory answer, then maybe I’ll take pity on him, let him put those books to one side and go and choose another one.


18 thoughts on “Unfinished, Abandoned, Abandoned, Unfinished

    1. It’s very effective, Stefanie. I used to use it with my students as well as a way of structuring their reading journals and it worked brilliantly.

  1. It’s only very recently that I’ve convinced myself it’s OK to abandon a book and I still feel guilty whenever I do it. It seems so rude to the author somehow… 😉

  2. This is very interesting. As I’ve got older I’ve become more at ease with not finishing a book – like you I had the idea that once you started you should finish. Recently I’ve read some books that I was thinking as I read that I shouldn’t bother finishing – but I carried on. Thinking about why I can see now after reading Chambers’ questions that there were things I liked – more than things I didn’t. In the case of the two fiction books, I read on because I wanted to know what happened – always a reason to finish or maybe scan read. The non-fiction was actually because it’s my book group read and I don’t like criticising a book I haven’t finished – and I want to criticise this book!!

    1. If I find that I really don’t want to know what is going to happen then that is a sure sign for me that I should give up on a book, Margaret, especially if it’s crime or a thriller. If you don’t care ‘whodunit’ then the book has really failed:)

  3. I do like Nick Hornby’s writing. It is a very good technique to use with students. I’m afraid I have my own 50-page test – if I’m not drawn in after 50 pages it’s the author’s fault not mine!!

    1. I think the fifty page test is an interesting one, Nicola. I have friends who use it, but I find that it depends on the type of book and often when it was written. Some books written in Victorian times perhaps need longer and some modern novels can bite the dust for me a lot sooner I’m afraid. It’s all to do with the nature of the writing.

  4. A very smart approach in deed!
    It can turn the dullest book into an instant star and the particiapnts can be really hooked rather than cut off and feel wanting to escape. Some of course may know the answers to questions but do not have the words to name them so they prefer to keep to the side.

    I come across many more books i do not like than ones i do, having exhausted many of the calssics times over, and when landing on one i cannot get myself to finsish it i still feel eager
    to name the reasons why i could not get passed the middle or three quarters…
    My poor husband copes it all quietly to let me vent, except for the ones where i simply feel
    my brain cells dying…
    At times like that i would have liked a club named ‘why i could not finish this Book” Lol!

      1. Alex i may consider it after i have completed the construction of my two health blogs -if i have any energy left! Lol!…
        In the mean time your site can provide some great pleasure and insight.

        By the way, reading a comment you made in a latest of your entries i know you are a good thinker behind the surface of stories in books and i would like to ask if by any chance you could suggest any good hard to put down books (no crime, grime, murders or Mills and Boons style books for me) as i am down to my last one and trying to compile a list for a new bulk purchase – if that would not require too much work on your part. I do enjoy period books and films, biographies, based on true stories books, social-moral- psychological etc -but happy to explore any other you may recommend.

        Enjoy a Great Day!

        1. Well you could do worse than start with the two Patrick Gale books, ‘Notes from an Exhibition’ and ‘A Perfectly Good Man.’ When he’s on form there isn’t a better stylist around. I’ve also very much enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s latest novel, ‘Life After Life’ and that certainly takes some thinking about and if you want something with an historical bent which slips real people in under cover, as it were, ‘The Children’s Book’ by A S Byatt is a real meaty read. And if you want something that has a social – moral – philosophical theme to it try the latest winner of the Newbery Award ‘The One and Only Ivan’ by Katherine Applegate. Yes, I know it’s for children but take it from someone who lectured in Children’s Literature for almost twenty years, they are frequently the books that explore ethical questions the most deeply.

          1. Wow!…that was quick and generous!
            Thanks Alex! greatly appreciated!
            Great occupation you have, i envy you…
            I agree about the Children’s books – have two daughters, now with their own children and have enjoyed the stages of development.
            I felt my inner child was sharing and reliving its time when reading to them and had started before they could even speak.

            Thanks and hope to keep in touch while enjoying visits to your site.

            Have an enjoyable weekend and great reading!

  5. I love the ‘Tell me…’ approach, I’d not come across Chambers’ specific questions before but it’s the basis of how I read. It’s one of the reasons I do include the books I didn’t enjoy on my blog – to show my working. 🙂

  6. Those questions could help me for next weeks book club since the selected book is one I’m struggling to get the energy to read. Margaret Attwood’s The Edible Woman. I wd have abandoned it already but for the fact it’s the selected text. Doubt I will finish it


    1. Karen, I only offered a selection here, Chambers takes it further and I find his system very useful indeed. I checked with Amazon and ‘Tell Me’ is still available. You might find a copy worth investing in.

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