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You Don’t Have to (Finish That Book!)

If there’s one thing I hate about book culture it’s when someone gets up on their high horse and tells me that I am reading the wrong books, or reading them the wrong way, or reading them in the wrong format.

Juliet Lapidos is one such person. Writing in The Atlantic, she takes the position that you should always finish all of the books you read.

I finish every single novel I start. If I happen upon the first line of a 1,000-page novel, I of course don’t feel compelled to read to the end. But as a matter of personal policy, when I decide I’m going to read a novel, I read the whole thing.

I’ve gathered over the years that my persistence—or stubbornness, depending on your point of view—is unusual. Most people I encounter think nothing of dropping a novel halfway because they find it boring or because they can see where it’s going or because they forgot it on the subway and moved on to the next thing.

This behavior, common though it may be, seems lazy to me. Wrong, even. Once you start a book, you should finish it.

This is one of the links in tomorrow’s morning coffee posts, but after having read and thought about it today I have decided to respond directly.

Lapidos presents several arguments, none of which are compelling. For example:

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.

I don’t wish to sound like I am criticizing her reading choices, but I don’t find boredom pleasurable. It’s boring, and I don’t see why I should spend any of my limited time on this planet reading a book that is tedious. I’ve already made that mistake too many times.

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.

Let me cut her off at the knees: People like her are why some kids grow up hating to read. She is the type of person who would hand a kid a boring or difficult book and tell them to finish it anyway, thus instilling in that kid a hatred for the experience of reading.

But since she also brought up willpower, I will point out that there is research to suggest that willpower is a finite resource. The more a person must force themselves to finish a book, the less willpower they have to use for other things.

Like, you know, work.

Third: Respect. …

To drop a novel after a few chapters is, then, to disregard what makes it a formal work of art rather than a heap of papers that reside in a desk drawer. Today, books and authors need all the help they can get; if you care about literature as an artistic endeavor and the people who create it, then you should do so fully.

Rebecca Schinsky tweeted a good response to this. Earlier today she asked: "Does music suffer when you change stations mid-song? Does food culture die when you don’t finish a meal?"

She’s not wrong.


I don’t usually pay attention to people like Lapidos, and to be honest I don’t think enough of her arguments to come up with a clever closing argument which ties this post together.

I say read however you want, whatever you want, wherever you want. And while you’re at it, please extend the same courtesy to other readers.

image by jlz

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LS November 6, 2014 um 11:17 pm

Yep, that about sums it up.

Jon Jermey November 7, 2014 um 1:31 am

The poor woman has a five-hundred-word gap to fill and nothing original or useful to say — cut her some slack! Besides, some of us don’t even finish reading articles.

puzzled November 7, 2014 um 3:14 am

I read her article. Got three paragraphs into it, got bored, and moved on to the next thing…

doubleshuffle November 7, 2014 um 3:20 am

Remember: Every time you don’t finish a book, a little Pegasus loses its wings.

Loïc November 7, 2014 um 6:14 am

I have a mixed stance on that. I do dislike not finishing a book, so I got to have a real damn good reason.
Platon’s Republic bored me to death and frustrated me with its half assed logic, a random Marc Levy’s book made me feel this author took me for an idiot, Proust "In Search of Lost Time" made me cringe with his mad 1 page sentences. No exaggeration here, just plain truth, I could not even remember the beginning of the sentence.

Being mildly boring is not a reason to me, it got to be a real pain. Everyone got his own limits for pain.

Barney November 7, 2014 um 7:55 am

She writes: "The most common defense of book-dropping I hear is that because there are more good books than any one person could possibly read, it’s stupid to waste time on a dull or otherwise unsatisfactory novel."

Exactly – I honestly don’t understand how readers could possibly feel otherwise. These days, thanks to the internet, you have easy access to all of those good books, so there is absolutely no reason to be satisfied with books that are anything less than enthralling to you. Life is too short to slog through swamps of "meh".

Lapidos – I’m guessing she’s a recovering English major – concedes that, okay, you’re allowed to abandon books that are pure trash, but you must finish books that have any value at all. She and her kind are Puritans (books should be improving). I am a devout Hedonist (books should be pleasurable.) The war continues.

Nate Hoffelder November 7, 2014 um 8:01 am

"She and her kind are Puritans"

There are certain similarities, yes.

fjtorres November 7, 2014 um 9:10 am

There’s a reason the puritans got kicked out of Britain.
Nobody could stand them 😉

Guillaume November 7, 2014 um 9:10 am

When I was young, I was a book Puritan

It took me far too long to become a Hedonist.

I’m still having difficulties to quit a bad book, but I’m getting better and better.

Susan Mark November 7, 2014 um 10:20 am

My husband has a saying that you don’t have to sniff the milk twice if it was bad the first time. I don’t need to slog through the next 150 pages of a novel if the first 50 didn’t cut it.

I also believe that willpower includes saying "no" to things that sap our energy, not blindly plodding through tasks simply because you’ve started them. It’s not giving up. It’s letting go.

Juli Monroe November 7, 2014 um 10:35 am

Life is too short to waste any of it on a bad book. Granted, bad is relative. What’s bad to me might be great to someone else. Still, if you’re not enjoying it, there’s nothing wrong with stopping.

Kama November 7, 2014 um 11:33 am

I’m puzzled by the argument that it’s *wrong* to abandon a book. What’s morality got to do with it?

Nate Hoffelder November 7, 2014 um 4:23 pm

I don’t know, honestly, but I suspect that it’s like common sense. Both are arguments some people make when they don’t really have an argument to make.

Robert November 7, 2014 um 11:58 am

Heck, I have an "abandoned" bookshelf on Goodreads to document the books I can’t force myself to finish. The Casual Vacancy motivated me to create that bookshelf. Bleh.

Angélique November 7, 2014 um 5:21 pm

There’s a difference between giving a real chance to a book and wasting your time. There are indeed some (extremely rare) books which opening was boring to me and turned out to be absolutely brilliant (I think of the French book "Belle du Seigneur" by Albert Cohen) but let’s be honest, it’s not common. I don’t drop a book often but when it happens, I don’t feel bad: I gave an honest chance to the book, wanted to drop it, pushed it a bit further, still wanted to drop it, then dropped it for good. No book is for everyone (authors knew about this) and reading is not supposed to be a chore. I’d rather spend time reading a book that I will enjoy since there are only so many books I’ll be able to read during my life.

MizzBee November 8, 2014 um 7:59 am

Well, Pick a subject I like, write it well, tell a good story about interesting people, and finish up the book in less than 300 pages. I have a mortgage, student loans and daily living expenses, so do not even think about trying to sell me a $26.00 book. Whether or not a writer can make a living selling books is not my problem.To ask me to consider that is to invite me to channel a Marine Corps drill instructor on your ass. I am talking about the one at Parris Island, S. C.

Felipe Adan Lerma November 8, 2014 um 8:08 am

A smile and a ditto 🙂

Mary November 8, 2014 um 9:36 am

I wonder how old she is. The older I get, the less time I have left to read, and I do not intend to waste it on something which is boring or badly written or annoys me in some other way. Too many books waiting on my TBR list.

Doc November 8, 2014 um 11:07 am

The older (smarter?) I get, the easier it is to abandon a book. And, it’s so much easier with ebooks! No unwanted tomes piling up beside the chair, no stacks of unloved reads sulking in the corner until there’s time for a run to the library.

Of course, many of the "free" ebooks beg to be abandoned. Take your pick why: poor grammar, spelling, plot, style – makes one appreciate a publisher’s editors. Then there is the download that you discover is only book one of a 79 part series, that big A wants to hook you on.

Mik Finkel November 8, 2014 um 11:30 am

The arrogance. I read for pleasure, not for plodding thru. Their are way to many good books to read, to little time to read them in.

R. Scot Johns November 8, 2014 um 11:31 am

What bothers me most about articles like this one by Lapidos is the underlying presumption that what this person is doing is "correct" and everyone not doing exactly the same is "wrong." This is called intolerance. It’s how Fascist regimes begin. It limits free will by removing freedom of choice from the equation, by imposing an arbitrary, external "moral" code on an activity of inherent personal preference. The line of thought goes like this…

"You must read every book that you begin to the very end or you are less worthy than me, and therefore, flawed. And since, of course, I am perfect and you are not, I get to set the rules by which you must abide, and the punishment you must endure should you not live up to my high standards. That makes me the ruler, and you subservient to my will. Because me and my army of perfect book readers say so."

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s look at this from a completely different, more pragmatic point of view. Let’s say the average studious reader consumes one book per week – one full-length, 200-300 page novel or non-fiction tome, cover to cover, end to end, start to finish, nothing skipped. That’s low for some, high for others, but a good probable average overall. That’s 52 books per year.

And let’s say your serious reading years begin in your mid-teens, we’ll say 15 as another rough average. That’s late for some, early for others, but again, an overall median age for diving headlong into a reading habit that will last the rest of your life.

Now, given that the average lifespan (here in the U.S. at any rate) is 76 for men and 81 for women, we’ll just take another average of 78 years here, giving us an expected 63 good reading years.

At 52 full-length books per year, that’s a total of just 3276 books you can ever hope to read in your lifetime (barring a lot of free time and speed reading skills that most of us don’t have). Pick them well, I say. With over three million new titles now being published every year, your chances of finding and reading all of the good ones – and only the good ones – is fairly slim.

There are well over 3276 novels that are considered "must-read" classics, let alone works of modern popular fiction or important subjects of study, such as philosophy or history. Biographies alone could take up your entire reading life if you find interesting people’s stories fascinating. I have way over 3276 books in my library already, a great many still waiting to be read, which means, I suppose, that I shouldn’t bother buying any more, since I can never hope to read them all.

Time is limited. Words are not. So don’t waste your time on tripe. If it bogs down, move on. If it’s slow and muddled, toss it aside for something better. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of good books to read. What there is is a shortage of time to read them. Make the most of it.

Nate Hoffelder November 8, 2014 um 11:45 am

It’s actually worse than one bad book taking up the time you could spend on a good book. I found when reading the Game of Throne series that it takes a lot longer to read a boring book than a book i like.

It took me 3 months to finish all 5 books of Game of Thrones. If they hadn’t been so tedious I would have finished them in 3 weeks – or less. In comparison, I read all 7 books in the Harry Potter series over a Thanksgiving Day weekend.

Richard W November 9, 2014 um 11:59 am

I can’t agree more. Life is short and the reading list is long. I’ve decided long ago that reading is supposed to be a pleasure and I should read only what I enjoy reading. Not only have I stopped reading a book halfway, a third of the way etc if I don’t enjoy it, I have decided that I can browse my bookshelves like I do in a book shop. Take a book out that I feel like reading, read a few paragraphs and put it back on the shelf when I have to do something else. Since I enjoy browsing in book shops, what is there to stop me browsing my own shelves, especially since my books are mostly non-fiction.

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