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Should You Finish Reading Books You Don’t Like?

February 25, 2014
As far as my American Lit professor was concerned, I finished Moby Dick, the book, not the comic. (image via Wikimedia)

As far as my American Lit professor was concerned, I finished reading Moby Dick, but this was as close as I got. (image via Wikimedia)

When I first started reading, I took pride in finishing every book I started.  In elementary school, I finished Harold and the Purple Crayon, even though Harold was getting out of control.  In middle school, I finished The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, even though I was being mocked for carrying big books around the school (they were WAR books, I explained… luckily, I had a copy of Massage Parlor II that kept me from getting beat up).  In high school, I finished Noble House, despite having to read a bunch of Willa Cather books in my English class.  In college, I finished reading The Mists of Avalon, even after my girlfriend broke up with me for calling it a “woman’s book.”

But somewhere along the way, I lost my passion for finishing books.  I became more critical of books I read and I began noticing how much time it took to read some of them.  I finished Sarum by Richard Rutherford, but I gave up on Russka.  I stopped reading a Colleen McCullough Rome book within the first hundred pages (I almost got kicked out of my family’s Thanksgiving dinner for that) because I already knew what was going to happen (and it was waaaaayyyy too long).

It’s an internal debate that many book readers have.  If you don’t like a book, should you finish reading it?  I try to be unbiased when I answer the tough questions.

3 REASONS TO FINISH A BOOK YOU DON’T LIKE

1. You get a Sense of Accomplishment.

I like to brag that I finished Moby Dick (even though I didn’t) and Crime and Punishment.  I even brag that I finished War and Peace, Atlas Shrugged, and The Brothers Karamazov, but I’m lying when I brag about them.  Still, it feels way better to brag and tell the truth than to brag and lie.

2. You can actually judge a book if you finish it.

You don’t really know if an entire book sucks until you’ve read the whole thing.  A couple years ago, I gave up on The Passage by Justin Cronin about halfway.  I heard later that the ending was pretty good and that I had missed out on a good ending simply because I was too eager to give up on the book.  Maybe I should have finished it, but I’m glad that somebody else finished it for me.

Maybe I would have appreciated Moby Dick if I had finished it.  I’m open to that possibility, but not open enough to finish it and find out.

3. You finish what you start!!!!!!

I grew up in a household where we were taught to finish what we started.  I learned that you don’t leave a job unfinished or halfass…errr…  halfhearted.  You give 100%, or you give nothing.  You eat all the food on your plate.  You stay awake during church.  You complete all your homework.  And you finish every book you start.  Once that’s ingrained, it doesn’t go away… until your parents aren’t looking.

To this day, I eat all the food on my plate (but I get to choose the food now), I stay awake in church (when I go), I make sure all my work gets completed (so I get paid). But finish every book I start?  Not anymore.

3 REASONS TO NOT FINISH A BOOK YOU DON’T LIKE

1. There are always other books to read.

Every moment you waste reading a book you don’t like is a moment you’re not reading a book you might enjoy.  Reading isn’t supposed to be an endurance test, unless it’s for academic purposes.  Think of all the enjoyment you’re missing out on just so you can “endure” a book you don’t like.

2. You save a lot of time.

I hate it when I spend money on a book and then don’t finish it.  To me, that’s wasted money.  Yeah, wasted money ticks me off, but wasted time is even worse.  I’m at an age where I’m much more aware of how much time I have left (even in the best case scenarios).  I don’t mean that to be grim, but I’m not wasting my time reading an unenjoyable book if I don’t have to.  Me reading a book I don’t like is similar to former President Bush (the first one) eating broccoli.  He doesn’t have to eat broccoli anymore, and I don’t have to finish books I don’t like.

3. You don’t HAVE to read an entire book to judge it.

Once you read a few chapters of almost any book, you know what the rest of the book will be like.  That’s true at least 90% of the time.  I’m not sure where I pulled that 90% number, but it’s probably true.  If enough people agree with me and keep repeating it, then it will be true whether it’s true or not.  So I’m sticking with 90%.

FINAL VERDICT

This is pretty simple.  It all depends on your purpose for reading the book that you don’t enjoy.

* If you’re reading for the challenge, finish the book.

* If you’re reading for the experience, finish the book.

* If you’re reading for enjoyment, don’t finish the book.

* If you want to make your decision on a book-by-book basis, then make your decision on a book-by-book basis.

Me?  The only reason I read books anymore is for enjoyment, so my decision is always easy now.  And it’s made life a lot less complicated.

What do you think?  Do you finish every book you read?  If not, how do you decide whether or not to finish a book you don’t like?

*****

If you start reading this e-book, there’s a 90% chance you’ll finish it.  I’m not sure where I got that number, but 90% sounds right.

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Now only 99 cents on Amazon!

53 Comments
  1. I too used to torture myself cos I was convinced that not finishing a book was akin to homicide. Many are the books I’ve struggled with. After reading your post I’m thinking of making changes in that policy because your argument of losing out on a good book by concentrating on a not-so good one, is quite convincing !

    • Thanks. I used to beat myself up if I gave up on a book, but after a while, it becomes very easy. Reading becomes more fun when there’s no pressure.

  2. I finished reading The Passage and regretted it. The book was okay in parts but desperately needed whole chunks cut out. When I first started getting into genre fiction I tried reading a Lisa Gardner novel. I didn’t know my ass from elbow and thought the premise of the story sounded okay. I couldn’t get past the first ten pages. It was like reading another language or something. When I asked my wife about Lisa Gardner (my wife has been reading genre fiction for much longer than I) she laughed and laughed. She said no man would ever enjoy Gardner. Her stuff is pretty much for ladies only. And then she laughed some more. I did not finish the book. Life is short. Comically short. I only read what makes me happy and only occasionally read what is good for me.

    • I’m glad your wife understands that not all books are gender neutral. I’ve had issues with a couple girlfriends in the past about that.

      Was the ending of The Passage good at all? I gave up in the middle where there were too many characters to keep track of and the pace slooooooowed down.

      • Of course there is writing that appeals to men and writing that appeals to women. Of course, if you said this within the confines of a Lit. Theory class you might get castrated but we are out in the real world (cyber world?) and so we can say what is taboo in small circles.

        The ending of The Passage was unremarkable. I think the book is the first in a series of two or three. There was a military element to the story that I found interesting but, my god, did the plot slow. When we start to read loooong descriptions of landscape, grass, a back yard, a few trees, the snow, a shit someone had that morning, etc. please Jesus kill me now. Just tell the goddamn story and never mind showing us how good you are at masturbating. I appreciate what Cronin was trying to do which, I believe, was to be Stephen King like but with an elevated aesthetic atmosphere but I think he missed the mark. This was not for me.

  3. I read another post on your site recently that got me thinking of writing a post very similar to this one. Now you’ve written this one. I may write mine anyway. For now, I will say that having worked in bookselling for 15 years, the ease with which I can decide to not finish a book is stunning. Olympic gold medal stunning. There’s absolutely no point to forcing your way to the end of a book that is not good. Or is the wrong book for you at the time.

    • “Olympic gold medal stunning.” I like that. I thought the ease with which I could stop reading a book was “startling,” but “Olympic gold medal stunning” is way better. I hope you write your post. With your 15 years in bookselling, you probably have a lot of insights and know things that I have no idea about.

  4. Who has time to read books, with you asking so many questions?

    You read “The Mists Of Avalon”? Are you gay?

    • I like King Arthur stuff, and my girlfriend knew I read King Arthur stuff, and it wasn’t football season, and it seemed like a good idea until I started reading it, and somewhere along the way I told her it was a woman’s book, and she started using a bunch of five-syllable words, and I started feeling guilty for a lot of things other people had done throughout history, and we broke up, and she started dating a professor when she had already gotten an A in his class.

      • How do you feel about evil squirrels?

        (was all I was able to process out of that).

        Jimmy, you’re funny and even kinda hot, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Even if you read chick lit. I’m not gonna quit you, I already told you.

  5. “The Mists of Avalon” was on Jeopardy the other night. I can’t remember if it was an answer or a question.

  6. I’ll stop mid-series. I really don’t care what they think. I stopped game of Thrones series because I just couldn’t stand the repition of accents and words and ge5ting caught up on everyone’s story, in fact I’m one of the few who just can’t read series all together but so I just get too annoyed usually and will stop because otherwise I’m likely to hurt myself or somebody else. But you bet your ass I’ll teach my son to finish every book he starts!

    • I also stopped reading Game of Thrones. What really killed me were the constant introduction of new characters while the stories of the characters I was invested in just seemed to languish. It seemed a project that may never end. I like the show though.

  7. I fully agree that time is too precious to waste on bad books. I used to finish everything I read, but not anymore. If I’m not enjoying it, or if it’s rubbish, it’s out. (I wish I could apply the same rule to academic reading…)

    This month I’ve actually given up on two books already. The first was just so poorly written that I couldn’t continue – every second sentence my former-English-teacher-brain just wanted to reach for a red pen (and it wasn’t just a case of non-existent editing). The second was actually a James Patterson. The plot and characters were too unrealistic. I was rolling my eyes so often I kept losing my place on the page. Hopefully the one I’m reading now (a John le Carré) will work out.

    • Years and years ago, I stopped reading A Perfect Spy. I don’t remember why (I wasn’t trying to rhyme). I think I liked some of his really early stuff, though. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, I think. Man, it’s been awhile.

  8. There are lots of books I look at briefly. But nearly all of those classics are worth the read. Moby Dick sure goes on for a long time, though. I skip passages on some of those long ones, those great philosophers etc. Bashevis Singer said that everybody skips the military history sections of War and Peace. Yet it is one of the greatest novels ever – in the top ten for sure. Anna Karenina would also make top ten. Anyhoo…..

    • Does it count if you skip long sections? I might be able to read some of the classics if I could skip long unnecessary sections, but I don’t want to read abridged versions of the classics (except comic books, maybe), so I’m conflicted.

      • I will personally sanction any and all skipping of long passages. I read Les Miserables abridged years ago. But when I read the unabridged it was just so much better. It is a great great book.

  9. I read for my enjoyment and I think it is possible to understand from the first chapters , if not the first pages, whether you are going to like the book. If I am not involved and I start to feel the reading as a sort of punishment, I quit. Life is short! 🙂

  10. I think that usually we don´t finish a book not because is bad but because is not the right time for us to read it. If you feel like not reading it, then don´t. It will came it´s moment.

  11. I used to finish every book I started, and I still struggle to throw one away unfinished. But I’ve allowed myself a margin of the first 50 pages lately to decide if I really detest it enough to stop reading, and it saved me from some painful hours of reading already. Hopefully one day I will be brave enough to stop reading a book halfway. Because like you said: life is too short. Carpe Diem.

    • 50 pages is more than fair. If you quit a book after 50 pages, there’s a 95% chance that you made the right choice. Again, I’m not sure where I read that number, but I’m pretty sure it’s accurate.

  12. I feel more obligated to finish a book I own. If it’s a library book, I’ll still try to finish it, but I don’t care as much. The only book in recent memory I haven’t finished (intentionally: some I just wander away from and never come back to) was Angels and Demons, by Dan Brown. It was action-packed, but the characters really annoyed me.

    • Ha ha! I actually finished Angels and Demons. I liked it better than The DaVinci Code, but I also decided I wouldn’t read any more Dan Brown novels after that.

      • I haven’t even tried DaVinci Code. I find the main character, considering he’s a supposed a genius, to be really stupid.

  13. Are you kidding? Why suffer through that horrible task?

  14. My belief is life is too short and my to-read list too long to waste time on a book I can’t get into by page 50, or 100 if I’m really trying. Now some books I will struggle with and just assign myself x number of pages a day just to get through them. Those are usually ones read for work, but most of my reads are for escape and who wants to escape someplace you don’t like.

    Also I enjoyed The Passage, agree though about a lot of characters to keep track of, a bit wordy and long. Book two, The Twelve, was a struggle for me even though I wanted to enjoy it. It was one of those that I kept assigning myself pages to read just to finish it.

    • You’ve read The Twelve? I think you’re the first person I’ve seen claim to have read The Twelve, except for reviewers who claimed to have read it, but reviewers don’t count. Is there supposed to be a third one? I think it was supposed to be a trilogy. If there is one more, are you going to read it?

      • There is going to be a third, and I will read it hoping it is better than book two, mainly because the end of book two sucked me back in with a cliffhanger. Stuck with book two for the setting, much of the book took place in Iowa near where I live and it was interesting to see what Cronin did with that.

  15. When reading a “kill me now” book, chunk it across the room and get a new one. Life is too short to read crap!

    • I usually don’t chunk books across the room because I still try to keep them in good condition, and I’m afraid I’d accidentally hit and break something with the book, and if I broke something expensive, that’d be worse than not finishing the book.

  16. The Howling Fantogs permalink

    I always used to finish books, but have since decided life is too short. Saying that though, there have only been a handful I couldn’t see through to the end.

  17. I mostly finish every book I start because it is rare that I got to read a book I don’t like. Once I took book that I didn’t liked – it was too boring for me so I didn’t finished it. I need some action, tension so the book is really exciting and I couldn’t put it down. I don’t waiting for something to happen because if we don’t wait for our life, do we? It is just clear that we don’t want to wait for action in the book. And yes, there is no point of reading book you don’t like just to say in the end that you didn’t liked it.

  18. I just returned a book and it’s sequel to the library because I wasn’t enjoying them. I have 17 others stacked on the shelf waiting to be read, as well as dozens more that I KNOW are wonderful and would enjoy re-reading. Life’s too short.

  19. Well, if I bit into a cow-patty, it would not take me more than a bite to spit it out. When I find a stinker (and there are some) out it goes.

  20. “If enough people agree with me and keep repeating it, then it will be true whether it’s true or not. So I’m sticking with 90%.” I agree. I stick half-read books in a pile and take them to the used bookstore for some other schmuck to enjoy.

    • 20 years ago, I was the schmuck who bought all those used books and kept them for a long time… but I have since resold them for a new generation of schmucks to buy. Maybe the new generation will get around to reading all (or most) of them.

      • I think young people are getting less and less patient. Surely there will be an app to give them the gist of a novel in five seconds. Like Cliff’s Notes 2.0.

  21. I ought to have known better, but for some reason I felt as though I was the only one out there that struggled with this issue. I literally felt ashamed for not finishing books 100 percent of the time. Interesting post nonetheless, thanks for sharing.

  22. I’m of the mindset that there are too many good books to waste time reading something you’re not enjoying…even if it is a “classic.”

  23. I used to always feel an obligation to read all the way to the end. Part of it was to give the book a chance, part of it was “well, dammit, I paid for it, so I might as well read the whole thing.”

    I think I was in my late 30s before I finally convinced myself that I didn’t need to endure the agony of a bad book. I’m a grown-up, and I can make grown-up decisions.

    I’ve even reached a point where, if a book is particularly bad, I have zero issues with throwing the book across the room.

  24. Wish I’d had time to read this when you published it. I was in the middle of reading Poe’s The Story of G.A. Pym (I think that’s the title). I love Poe, but the story reminded me of Moby Dick (too many technical details). I kept waiting for the twist. And waiting. It never came. What a waste.

  25. Yes! You said it perfectly. That’s the conclusion I’ve arrived at only recently. A friend of mine told me that it isn’t pleasure reading if I’m forcing myself to finish. I was still in my English major school mode, where I had to finish something because it was part of my grade and final exam but…I’m not in school anymore.

  26. I used to always finish every book I started, mainly for the sense of accomplishment and to be able to fully and “rightfully” judge the book. However, the older I get, the more I feel like I really don’t need to/dont have the time to busy myself with books I outright dislike. Don’t even get me started on movies- there, I am absolutely ruthless (I think I’ve walked out of the last three cinemas I’ve been to. I partly blame this on my friends’ disposition towards vampires and werewolves)

    If it didn’t take me as long to read then I’m sure there are plenty of books I’d give a second chance, despite my initial doubts… This morning I read about this new app called Spritz that will allow you to read up to 1000 words per minute! Hmmm will be interesting to try it
    I read about it here http://time.com/12392/this-app-can-help-you-read-up-to-1000-words-a-minute/

    What do you think?

  27. shanzehnauman permalink

    I would ALWAYS regret buying the sort of book i didnt like but i was attracted at the time in the bookshop, i would with it so i could start the next one but i got fed up and just piled them in my shelves, the ones i didnt AND dont like

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