This post was originally written for The Startup. I write a lot more posts on Medium these days, which you can read by following me on there, or without a paywall by subscribing to my newsletter.
I strongly suspect that one of the big reasons why the majority of people don’t read is because they don’t choose books they enjoy. And then they force themselves to trudge through every last page, bored and desperate to do anything else. It’s how we learn to approach reading in school, after all.
A full two-thirds of people don’t even read one book per year and while the average number per year is 12, the most common is 4. When you look at the power law distribution that is book sales (the top few make up the majority of sales), it seems safe to say most people are just going for those.
While I have nothing against bestsellers (and read plenty of them myself), I can’t help wondering if the expectation that a book must be good because it’s popular pushes people to feel like they should enjoy it, making them more likely to finish it whether they do or not.
The simple reality is that if you force yourself to finish books you don’t love, you’ll end up not enjoying the act of reading. So you’ll read less and your capacity to focus on a book will erode. This paints reading as a chore.
But there is nothing wrong with choosing the books which appeal to you and freely abandoning ones that don’t. There are millions of books out there and no matter how esoteric your interests are or how high your standards are, you have more options than you can imagine.
As Taleb writes in Antifragile:
‘The minute I was bored with a book or a subject I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether — when you are limited to the school material and you get bored, you have a tendency to give up and do nothing or play hooky out of discouragement.’
For every book I read cover to cover, I give up on at least one other.
There’s no question that I’m privileged to have always had easy access to well-stocked libraries. I’m also lucky to have access to dirt cheap second-hand books, family members with plenty they could lend me, and parents who prioritised buying me books above all else. Now I’m an adult, I’m lucky to be able to afford them (and to have readers who are kind enough to send me books.) I am lucky I don’t have dyslexia or any other condition that might make reading hard.
So I want to emphasise that I do approach reading from a privileged standpoint, and it’s something I try to keep in mind when writing about this topic. It’s too easy to lose perspective and forget being able to liberally quit books is a luxury.
But if you do have the means (and there are lots of options — libraries, thrift stores, borrowing, Google Books, public domain ebooks, book swaps etc), life is too damn short to read books you don’t enjoy.
The assumption is that the point of reading is to finish a book. Many of us attach too much self-esteem to getting to the last page, when the aim should be to benefit from it. With so many options out there, the opportunity costs of trudging through something you’re not relishing are too high.
People I’ve met who value reading in the same way I do often seem to have the same view; they understand we all have a limited amount of time in the day and in our lives to spend immersed in books and there are millions of good ones out there, so it’s wasteful to persevere with drivel. Even the most vicarious reader will never complete more than an imperceptible fractions of the tomes in print.
Forget sunk costs. You can’t reclaim the time you’ve already spent, you can avoid wasting more.
Quitting a book doesn’t even have to mean you don’t like it or don’t think it’s worth reading. Some books need reading at the right time in our lives or in the right circumstances.
In the last few weeks, I gave up on The Psychedelic Experience, The Myth of Sisyphus, Daring Greatly, Games People Play and The Hedgehog and the Fox. I’ve never gotten on with Jane Austen (Persuasion is the sole book on my university reading list I didn’t finish.) But I don’t doubt those are all amazing books I’ll revisit and love at a later date.
As Susan Neiman writes in Why Grow Up?, you ‘wrestle differently with a classic at twenty as you do at fifty.’ I first read Animal Farm when I was about 9 with no knowledge of its underlying meaning and enjoyed it. Then, a few years later, I read a book explaining its meaning and found, upon rereading, I didn’t like it as much. But now having read a few books of Orwell’s essays, I suspect I’ll find a new sort of delight the next time I revisit it.
In the same way folding corners and adorning a book with marginalia can be an act of love towards it, deciding to put it aside until you’re ready can be too.
So how does one decide if a book is not worth finishing? It’s not an exact science. This article by Ginni Chen for the Barnes & Noble blog puts it better than I can:
When you’d rather browse the internet aimlessly than read the book, it’s time to quit.
When you’d rather play with your phone than read the book on your commute, it’s time to quit.
When people ask you what you’re reading and you don’t want to talk about it, it’s time to quit.
When no plot twist imaginable (i.e., a character dying, or two characters falling in love, or an unpredictable act of nature, or a big reveal of a character’s identity, or whatever deus ex machina you can dream up) can redeem the book for you, it’s time to quit.
When you keep forgetting who the characters are, but you don’t care enough to go back and figure them out, it’s time to quit.
When you’d rather go to sleep immediately than read before bed, it’s time to quit.
When you keep counting how many pages are left, it’s time to quit.
When you’re in a waiting room or an airport and you’d rather read magazines about cars, babies, quilting, D-list celebrities, birdhouse-building, literally anything else rather than read your book, it’s time to quit.
There are good and bad reasons to desert a book without finishing it. The bad ones include:
you can’t focus on it (problem: your attention span, not the book)
you find the act of reading hard (problem: probably circumstances, not the book)
you don’t agree with the author’s opinions (problem: you don’t want to be challenged, not the book)
you want to get through as many books as possible and feel like a partial read counts (problem: you’re forgetting the point is to benefit)
If you can’t finish any book whatsoever because you give up at the slightest problematic sentence, or because you don’t agree with every word, or don’t understand the author’s perspective. or find it challenges your worldview, that’s a whole other problem. But remember I’m not your mother and that’s not to say you shouldn’t quit a book for any of those reasons.
The good reasons include:
the entire premise of the book is flawed (as in inaccurate, not as in your disagree with it)
the author is just regurgitating other people’s ideas and has none of their own (99% of what airport bookstores sell)
the actual content is boring (not that you find the act of reading boring)
you don’t feel in the right place to read it now.
There are plenty of grey areas. If I read a recent book where the author has problematic/offensive views, I’m likely to quit it. Yet I’m more willing to put up with it in older books — e.g. I tolerated Cyril Connolly’s horrible homophobia and misogyny in Enemies of Promise because his views were pretty normal in the 1930s.
Likewise, there’s a fine line between boring and challenging. Sometimes it does us good to wrestle with a difficult to decode book.
But the difference between the satisfaction of feeling a complex text bend to your will and the frustration of wading through the sludge of another dreary chapter is palpable. You know when you’re ready to give up.