You Really Don’t Have to Finish Every Book You Start

We’ve all been there. Perhaps you were drawn in by a beautiful cover, hooked by the summary on the back of a paperback, or intrigued by the way a book was being discussed on Twitter. You read a great review; your favorite author was raving about a book; your group chat wouldn’t shut up about a twist. So you started the book. And you knew, whether immediately or 50 pages in, that it wasn’t for you.

A certain stripe of book prescriptivist would hold that you have to finish the book. “To give an author just 20 pages of your time is insulting,” wrote Rupert Hawksley in The Independent recently. Authors, for the most part, seemed indifferent to Hawksley’s defense of their honor. (Quoth John Scalzi: “Lol, no.”) But this idea persists, this notion that once you pick up a book you are locked in, never give up, never surrender!

Please. Please just put down the book.

There is a very simple reason why you shouldn’t force yourself to finish books, and it’s this: Life is short. Would you like to do the math on how many books you can read in your lifetime? Personally, I would not. Some things should be a mystery. But if you want to know, there’s a chart for that.

There’s another simple, valid reason, too: There are so many other books you could read. In a review of Mark McGurl’s Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon (a book I will almost certainly never read), Parul Sehgal wrote, “In 2018, some 1.6 million books were reportedly self-published—all this on top of the tens of thousands released by traditional publishing houses.” 

This does not take into account all the fanfic one might read, all the book reviews one might read in place of reading a specific book, and how many other things there are to peruse instead: pages and pages of comics, essays, magazines, liner notes, letters, emails, newsletters, the classic “back of the cereal box.” I saved Sehgal’s review into Instapaper to read when I had the attention span—and where, had I not read it this morning, it might have lingered indefinitely, sharing space with the extremely in-depth reviews of Battlestar Galactica episodes that I saved a decade ago. I still believe I will read those someday.

I also believe I will read the hundreds of books on my unread-books shelf, and the hundreds more books I will buy in the next decade, and the decade after that. To be a reader is to be forever hopeful—that you’ll have time for everything; that every book you pick up will delight and surprise and challenge you; that stories will always find a new way to tell you about lives strange and familiar, worlds close and right at hand. 

Last month I read Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, a book which is as distressing as it is hopeful and practical. Four thousand weeks is the average duration of a life. It sounds like nothing, phrased this way. It makes me both want to count how many weeks I’ve used up, and to run screaming from the thought. It makes me want to quit social media and give up watching all but my most favorite TV shows in favor of spending all my time reading and writing. Four thousand weeks is not enough. It could never be enough. There are so many things to do.

Burkeman has many wise things to say about the brevity of the time available to each of us, and about how we use it—how we choose to use it. “It’s a fact of life that, as a finite human, you’re always making hard choices,” he writes. But making a choice isn’t a defeat, or a rejection of the things you didn’t choose. “It’s a positive commitment to spend a given portion of time doing this instead of that—actually, instead of an infinite number of other ‘thats’—because this, you’ve decided, is what counts the most right now.”

Books that aren’t working for you are “thats” you can let go of in favor of choosing something else to spend your extremely limited time reading. Books take hours to read. They require focus and attention—things in short and difficult supply these days. They require commitment. And you simply don’t need to commit to every single book that passes your initial sniff test. There are so many things to read. There are so many things to try and then set aside. Do you watch every TV show you stumble on whilst flipping through cable, every episode that starts to auto-play when you’re paging through Netflix? No. Why should books be any different?

I’ve given up on books for so many reasons. The book described as a writing craft book that was more of a memoir, and therefore not what I was in the mood for. The sweet meet-cute novel that was just too twee for my heart at that moment in time. The fourth book in a series that had lost its shine. 

The reason is almost never that a book was too challenging. This is a frequent argument trotted out by the book-finishing brigade: If people can just quit books whenever they want, they will never read anything that challenges them! They will simply stick with what’s easy and familiar.

To me, the opposite seems true. If there is some rule insisting that every reader finish every book they start, isn’t each reader more likely to stick to their own personal tried and true, knowing there’s no escape once the first pages are turned? 

But also: I think readers know the difference. We know when we’re putting down a book because it’s just not the right moment, or we’re not the right reader, versus when we’re tempted to put down a book because it’s formally challenging or the content is emotionally exhausting or we’re having to do a lot more critical thinking than we expected. Sometimes you still set aside the smart, hard, necessary books. Not everyone is in the right place for something heavy and difficult all the time. But those are also the books we remember, and maybe go back to.

I keep a list of unfinished books alongside my list of what I’ve read in a given year. I know which books I just couldn’t do at the time, but still want to find my way into. Don’t we all have those? I wanted so much to read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, but trying to read it one November—a month always shadowed by the years-past death of my stepfather—was a crucial mistake. I’ll get to it, though. Someday.

No book is for every reader. The only “should” in reading is that we should read widely, diversely, enthusiastically. Beyond that, to quote Burkeman once more: “Choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable diminishment whenever you can.” 

There is so much to read, to learn, to understand. But there is also, as Ursula Vernon put it, “a whole lotta…just…life…that comes between people and books.”

Let the life come. The books will still be there.

Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.

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