Unfinished Books: Preventing Disappointment

A little while ago, I gave myself permission to give up on books, to leave them unfinished if I felt I wasn’t enjoying myself. While I have a list of books I’ve given up before, I’ve always felt guilty about it — like it’s me, letting the book down. Which is silly, but, also, it’s my brain, so. But, telling myself not to feel guilty (or at least less guilty) has helped me cease reading when the book wasn’t doing it for me.

The past few months I’ve been having an extra problem with it. There are at least a dozen books I’ve cracked open and then put aside before even reaching the halfway point. While in retrospect I agree with my reasons for ditching those books — not in the mood, could only think of other books I wanted to start while slogging through this one — I still don’t really like doing it, since I’m wasting precious book time. So I’ve been thinking: How to keep this from happening entirely?

  • books by johnny_automatic - Line and Form by Walter Crane, 1914Test the waters. Not sure about a book? Crack it open, give it a quick read. Sometimes I read the first page or two before I take an unknown library book home to see if the opening sentences hook me. A friend (who obviously doesn’t care nearly as much about spoilers as I do) reads the last page to find out if she cares to learn how the characters got there. Maybe you want to flip to the middle and see how the writing carries through.
  • Check your mood. Yeah, you’ve been meaning to read that 1,200 page fantasy novel…but is that what you really want to read right now? Maybe you’re more in the mood for a funny essay, or an emotional but quick young adult novel. I try to make sure I have the right attitude for a book so I don’t prematurely cast it aside, or feel like I have to slog through. Which brings me to…
  • No “obligation” reads. Unless you’re in school, or it’s for a job, or you’re doing a writing friend a favor, there are very few books that you have to read. Never read Jane Austen? Don’t worry, the English Majors police won’t shoot you (they may give you funny looks, though). Can’t get amped up for that popular paranomral thing everyone you work with is talking about? No big deal, you can stand to be left out of the conversation sometimes, maybe (not really, but you’ll figure it out). Basically, you have too many books to read (I don’t know about you, but my Goodreads “To Read” list is over a hundred long, and I can’t think of anything to cut) so why waste precious reading hours on something that feels like a chore?
  • Careful about those impulses. I’ve done it. You grab a book with a pretty cover and an interesting title off the shelf, only never to open it, or to start and find out that the writing isn’t very good, or that the main character is irritating (this is while I drop a book more than anything — if I can’t stand the MC why should I follow him?) I’ve had lots of good impulses — I only read Amy Tan because I snatched The Joy Luck Club of a book sale cart at the last second — but there are too many other books that I’ve grabbed on a whim only to add another book to my unfinished list. If leaving a book half-finished bugs you that much, I suggest holding back and doing a little research before you lug those books home.

I’m hoping that if I check down the list I’ll keep myself from wasting time on books I don’t feel like, or that I don’t really want to read. But mistakes happen; you are misled. Even with your anticipation the book’s just not hitting any of the right chords. And then you have to figure out if, or likely when, to give it up.

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