Monday, 3 May 2021

Do you finish every book you read?

There are excellent cases for both sides of this question. I was conditioned not to read every word during my English degree at Uni when we were given way more books in the syllabus than we could possibly read. It became impossible to cram in one per week, when we were talking about novels the size of Little Dorrit, Bleak House or Middlemarch. The staff admittedly knew we'd focus on our essay topics and skim through the rest, and they instructed us to cherry pick. But was it a good habit they were encouraging students to take on board? Here are some pros and cons for both sides.

I Finish Every Book

These are people who grit their teeth and plow through no matter what. They believe being faithful in small commitments makes them more likely to be faithful in larger ones. 

One friend of mine says that she can't count the numbers of times she was bored at the beginning of a novel and wowed by the end. Sticking to a book, in her opinion, is its own reward. She makes a valid point. I can think of numerous times I've loaned books to people who I'm sure would have greatly loved them if they'd only persevered. Instead, they ditched the attempt after a few chapters because it didn't hold their interest. I've no doubt I've done the same, although I may never know. 

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, 'I've only abandoned three books that I can remember, preferring to soldier on through unmemorable chapters than to let an unfinished plot clutter my thoughts.' He'd probably claim to be aghast by the superficial skimming era we find ourselves in, and perhaps he'd have a point. Nicholas Carr, the author of the book entitled 'Shallows' would surely agree with him. What can be more shallow than making snap judgments about any given book based on first impressions?

I Don't Bother Finishing Every Book

These people may be aware of statistics. Google says there are nearly 130 million books in circulation in the world, and 4500 are published in the USA alone, daily. A person who commits to completing 50 books in a Goodreads challenge each year, would have to read for a century to tap into 0.00004% of them.

As the years are short and fly by so fast, and there are many books we'd enjoy far more just waiting to be discovered, what is the point of slogging on with a book which isn't engaging us? Not every story is to everyone's taste. Doggedly persevering simply wastes the precious time we could be spending on books which could be a far better fit.

Librarian and author Nancy Pearl addresses this in her book entitled, 'Book Lust.' She suggests her 'Rule of Fifty.' If you're 50 years old or younger, why not commit to reading the first 50 pages before deciding whether to read on or give up? If you're over 50, she recommends subtracting your age from 100, and that's the number of determining pages you should read. 

My Point of View

I admit I've reached a certain age which makes me more inclined to side with the non-finishers. I believe in giving books a fair, fifty page, or even 100 page trial, but by then, I've probably developed a fair idea of whether I should keep going. Over the years I've stuck to books I've been forced to study or have committed to review for blogging programs or authors. This has been enough to show me that the first third of any given book is usually a sound indicator of whether or not I'll enjoy the whole.

If it's a novel, and the characters are flat and the plot creeps along like a tortoise, it probably won't get much better. I've read many of books in my lifetime, and generally find that if I'm going to like them, I'll be engaged right from the start ninety percent of the time.

Did you ever complain about having to read books you hated at school, just so you could churn out painstaking essays about them? Some of these school novels left us with bad after-tastes about perfectly good authors for years. Well, the good news is that in most cases, nobody is forcing us stick with unpalatable books any more. I like to encourage readers to appreciate and utilise the freedom of no longer being in school.

If you need somebody to give you permission to quit a book you're finding tedious, maybe I can be that person. Although books may feel like people, it helps to remember they are only books, and won't get offended (although the person who wrote or recommended it might). But in general, leaving a library book unfinished is not as hard as breaking up with somebody you're dating. If you're procrastinating rather than hugely anticipating your next spare moment when you can pick up the book, it might be wiser to drop it. If you don't daydream about it and sense it calling you back at every opportunity, then it probably doesn't matter if you don't finish it.

I don't share Tolkien's experience of unfinished plots cluttering my thoughts. If I'm finding books to be a drag and put them aside, they're more likely to burst like bubbles and disappear from my thoughts. Especially when a better fit comes along.

So take it back to the library, donate it to a Goodwill shop, delete it from your kindle and get on with something good.

Now, I'm aware that this is just me, and perhaps my current DNF exhilaration is the result of many years of having to read books I didn't enjoy. I'd be very interested to know where you stand on the subject. 

Paula Vince is an award-winner author of Australian Christian fiction. She has been a student and homeschooling parent and is always an avid reader. She lives in Adelaide's lovely coastal suburbs, a beautiful place for inspiration.  


  1. I still regret the time necessarily expended on a couple of study books, though I take great pleasure now in gleefully extolling their horrid lack of virtues. Perhaps by persisting with the occasional ugly tome, we better appreciate the absolute stunners that do exist out there!

    Historically I've been a bit of a stickler, but these days, if the book hasn't captured my attention early on, I tend to let it go. As you say, there are so many great books out there waiting to be discovered and read.

    Thanks for exploring the issue, Paula. I feel like I've received permission to feel less guilty about ignoring the 'didn't grab me enough to finish' stack that have been staring at me just in case ...

    1. Hi Mazzy,
      I think sometimes we were brought up with the feeling that starting any book is the same as making a firm commitment, which might be enough to make young readers tremble at the outset.

      I have a similar 'didn't grab me' stack to yours, and even now they can stir up a bit of guilt. And alas, even now I face some 'have to reads' since I'm returning yet again to formal study. But I think you're right when you say that they help us appreciate the stunners.

  2. Thanks for your post, Paul - thoughtful as always. For many decades, I always finished a book once I started it. And a it was rare book that I didn't enjoy from the reading assignments in school English or at Uni (which I read cover to cover).

    I will confess, in recent years there are books I haven't finished - some I'll probably get back to and some I won't bother because they were too painful to read for one reason or another. On the whole though, I have rarely regretted finishing a book even if the beginning didn't wow me or if parts of it were not easy reading. (Wuthering Heights might be one exception.) Maybe it is to complete the story, but also because even the mediocre books add to my understanding of the world.

    1. Hi Jenny,
      You've reminded me of a maxim I tried to encourage my kids to take on board. A pastor once challenged us all to try to glean something good from every message we'd hear from the pulpit. (He said, 'If God could speak through a donkey, he can speak through me') So I tried to apply that same rule for every book they read, first with homeschooling and later Open Access College.

      I'm not sure how it's stuck with them, but I got a surprising lot of fun out of it.

  3. As a kid I used to think I *had* to finish every book I started. However, one day I realised (still as a kid) that there were too many *good* books in the world to waste my time on *bad* ones.
    If it has been recommended or is a classic, I will stick it out a little longer, but even then it might get DNF.
    As for Tolkien's view... Well, books on the whole were generally a lot better written back then!

    1. Hi Jo,
      Well said! And good on you for figuring that out at a young age. I'm the same with classics and best sellers. So true about Tolkien too. He was reading long before the 21st century, and way before certain books which shall remain nameless have gone down in history for having the highest numbers of donations to second hand shops, haha :)

  4. Thank you for this, Paula. I usually finish books even though sometimes the start might be a bit slow. The one I really struggled with was Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”. We had to read it as a school novel in probably about Year 10. I landed it again in Victorian Literature at University, so I worked my way through it that time. I remember we were in the Philippines involved in our ministry there that year and I took it with me and worked my way through it there, reading some each morning when we were free!

  5. Good on you, Heather. I read Vanity Fair for the first time last year during the earliest Covid lockdowns. I really enjoyed it, although I'm not sure I would have felt the same way as a Year 10 student. Sometimes we change our opinions down the track 😊

  6. Like you, I used to feel obliged to finish every book to the final page. But as I've got older I've realised it is a waste of time sometimes, sometimes I plan through and find the book improves the further you go, but there are some books where I said to myself this is just ridiculous, and it is a waste of time. I'm about to give up on a book soon because of that. I feel bad of course, but it's frustrating to read such bad plotting and character development. In this book particularly the anachronisms are horrendous. In times past I would've pushed through, but now I'm beginning to think it's not worth it. Thanks for all your thoughts.

    1. Hi Meredith,
      I wonder how many books we have to have under our belt that we regret finishing before we can turn to the other side. Also, our TBR piles are calling out to us. These days, I'm all for searching to discover as many of those good, engaging books as possible.