Do you read multiple books at once? I sometimes claim that I do, but it’s not really true. It’s not literally true, of course, because my eyes can’t focus on two books simultaneously. But it’s also not true in the sense that when I put down one book to start another, I often don’t return to the first book until I’ve finished the second book. As a result, I normally have a few books lying around that I’m in the middle of, but haven’t opened in months. Quite often, I don’t end up finishing those books that I stopped reading. Overall, I probably make it through two thirds or so of the books I start.
When a book does not interest me, I tend to give the author another chapter or two before I stop reading. When a book is interesting to me but poorly written—and this happens far too often—I’m likely to lose my patience quickly. No disrespect to writers, by the way—particularly if I’ve enjoyed some of your other writing, I’ll likely plough through some tough bits. But there’s a limit.
Recently, for instance, I stopped reading Flow by Mihali Csiksentmihalyi a couple of chapters before the end. It’s an interesting book, or rather, the author’s description of “flow” and his research on the subject are interesting. But three quarters into the book, I had gotten the gist of it and felt that Csiksentmihalyi was only belaboring points he’d made earlier.
I felt guilty for “giving up”, though! Am I a quitter? Isn’t is disrespectful to put down a book before reading all of it, like it would be disrespectful to walk out of a lecture halfway through? In the end, the rational part of my brain “won”. I decided that guilt is a silly emotion in this instance, because I had not promised to anyone else that I’d finish the book. I think I felt guilt because when I start a book, I make an implicit promise to myself that I’ll try to finish it. When I give up, it’s easy to feel like I failed.
Reasons to finish a book you started reading
To help myself and you to decide whether to finish a book, I wrote out some of the pros and cons. Reasons in favor of finishing a book:
- To better understand the writer’s point
- To finish the story (if there is one)
- Respect for the author
- Guilt (for example if you paid for the book and you want to maximize the time you spend “enjoying” your purchase)
- Fear of being seen as a quitter
- To follow a line of thinking or a story that spans several books
- The book might get better later
- You know the author
Reasons not to finish a book you started reading
- Nobody makes you
- You might have better things to do with your time
- You got the point already
- The author is repeating himself
- The book won’t capture your attention anymore
- You want to start reading another book
- The writing is difficult to understand
Can you think of any other reasons?
So… what do I do?
To lose the guilt, I decided to stop promising to myself (even implicitly) that I’ll finish each book. Instead, I decided that I’ll read a book only for as long as I enjoy reading it. Time is the most precious commodity I have and I want to spend it doing things I enjoy, not doing things that I think I “have to” do. Of course there are things that aren’t fun as you do them, but that have long-term benefits, such as cleaning the toilet. But I don’t think that finishing each book I start reading, no matter whether the middle or end of the book is enjoyable, is one of those things. In that sense I’m glad that I stopped reading Flow when it no longer effortlessly kept my attention. I hope to do more of that in the future.