I’ve never been very good at giving up on things.
That might sound like a humblebrag, but I promise that’s not my intention. While a healthy dose of perseverance has been beneficial for me in many areas of my life, it’s slowed me down in others, holding me back from making progress on worthwhile projects and endeavors because I was so committed to finishing less worthwhile ones.
Many of us grow up with the understanding that there is an inherent value—always—to finishing what you start. Generally speaking, I think a no-quit attitude is a good thing, but I would argue that there are exceptions, that my parents’ endless lessons about tenacity have led to some mixed results. The commitment I was taught to exercise in my relationships has made me a better partner to my husband (no matter how annoyed we get with each other), but it’s also made me stay in unhealthy friendships longer than I should have. The focus I learned to exercise with my work has helped me build my freelance writing career, but it’s also caused me to hold back in conversations with difficult clients when I was very clearly not the right match for their business.
I think you probably catch my drift.
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Believe it or not, though, the same principles apply in my reading life. It took me a long time to come around to the fact that my stubbornness about finishing a book—no matter how much I wasn’t digging it—actually had the potential to be a bad thing for me as a reader.
There were a lot of reasons, I think, that I convinced myself I wasn’t “allowed” to leave a book unfinished. First, of course, is the essential moral value that is generally placed on finishing things in our culture. From the time we’re small, we are celebrated for seeing pretty much every endeavor through to the end—including books. You probably can’t remember exactly how you felt when you finished reading a picture book aloud from front to back for the first time, but I’m willing to bet it was a pretty good feeling. And the first time you were able to excitedly report back to your parents or teacher that you’d finished a chapter book all on your own? Forget about it.
The emphasis on required reading in many schools also contributes to this mindset about reading. As a student, you could only really be guaranteed credit for a book report if you actually finished the book your teacher assigned. There was no value assigned to a report that thoughtfully explained why you’d chosen not to finish the book in question, no matter how well-crafted your argument. (If you ask me, the latter book report sounds like it has the potential to be a lot more interesting than the former. Just saying.)
If I can make it about me for a second (again), I’ll also admit that my resistance to giving up on a book before I’ve read the whole thing is rooted in a general stubbornness about, well, pretty much everything. Oh, you think I can’t finish this novel because I’ve just explained to you all the reasons I hate it? You think I won’t? Don’t test me. I will finish it… and then I’ll give you a full presentation about why it was such a drag, whether you like it or not.
Yes, these are my instincts, but over the last few years, I’ve tried to overcome them. Quitting on a book doesn’t come naturally to me—and it does fly in the face of so many of the lessons that so many of us were raised with about not quitting—but I’ve learned from some wonderful book friends that doing so is totally okay. In fact, giving up on a book at any point can really enrich your reading life. I’ve seen it firsthand!
When I launched my book podcast nearly two years, I learned about the wonders of bookstagram, where I connected with said wonderful book friends. In this space, I found people who were willing to weigh in the books I should prioritize on my TBR list, debate the merits of Baby-Sitters Club versus Sweet Valley High with me, and even offer real-time feedback on what to do when I was having trouble getting through a book. As I got more comfortable talking about what I was reading in my Story, I also began putting the handy poll feature to use, at first more or less rhetorically asking my followers if I should finish a book I wasn’t loving (to put it politely).
I was shocked by the sheer volume of feedback that rolled in on these polls. I couldn’t believe how many people actually cared whether or not I finished a book. More specifically, I couldn’t believe how many people were telling me to fight those basic instincts telling me I had to see it through to the end. The vast majority of the advice I got encouraged me to ditch the book in favor of something I could get more excited about.
And while I wouldn’t suggest following all of the advice you get on social media, I really benefitted from listening to my Internet friends on this particular subject.
Over time, it felt less preposterous for me to set a book aside. I learned to listen to my own reader senses—to tell the difference between simply being in a reading rut and struggling to find my through a specific story. A reading rut, in my experience, is best cured with a night of binge watching reality TV. If it’s a particular book that’s making me feel “meh” about reading, there’s no real option other than DNF-ing (ICYMI, that’s the bookstagram slang for “do not finish”).
My personal preference is still to be pretty stubborn about most books, but I have found it helpful to keep DNF as a mental escape hatch any time I’m having mixed feelings about something I’m reading. There’s nothing wrong with giving yourself permission to think critically about a book. Isn’t that kind of the point?
If you don’t finish a book, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t supported your library by borrowing it or the author or bookstore by buying it. It doesn’t mean that you’re a quitter. It means that you gave it a shot and it didn’t quite work for you—and you can always try it again some other time! Sometimes, a book just isn’t right for the moment. Saying a polite “thank u, next” to a book also gives you the opportunity to explore even more of the books you’re excited about. After all, there are too many books out there and way too little time to try to get to them all. It’s totally okay to quit on one (or more than one).
And I’m happy to review any adult book report that explains why you did it.
Featured image: @coffe.books.rewind via Twenty20