What I’m Learning from Not Finishing Books

Two months ago I shared my resolution to stop finishing books which fail to engage me. My goal was to spend more time reading engaging books. I did not expect to learn so much about my reading experiences.

Before, when I tried to finish every book I started unless I couldn’t stand it, I didn’t ask ‘Is this book worth reading?’. Thus I read less attentively. Now, I pay much more attention to my engagement level. Wondering why I did not feel like continuing A Thousand Li after a hundred pages inspired this post.

I’m playing with where I draw the cutoff lines. Now I have two cutoffs: the hundred-page and one-third marks. The hundred-page mark doesn’t work for very long or short books; the first third may be too little or too much. Therefore, at both cutoffs I ask, ‘am I engaged?’

Sometimes the decision is as hard as choosing which personal treasures to keep and discard. Just as in curating personal collections, deciding what to keep reading makes my decision-making better.

I always knew I kept reading certain books because they fit my preconceptions, my self-image, or what other people said, not because of the actual reading experience. Earlier this year, I pushed myself to finish A Hundred Years of Solitude. If it had been an obscure, unknown book, I would have dropped it after a hundred pages. Only my desire to have such a well-reputed book under my belt kept me going. With my current resolution, I’m going to drop books like that at the hundred page mark.

After I finished a former #1 New York Times bestselling novel, I thought the story was bad overall but had redeeming qualities. I wished I had read something else instead. The funny thing was, I never considered putting it down until the end. Even when I told myself to do something else, I kept reading that book. In an interview, the writer said he spent a lot of time re-writing so it would read easily. He succeeded; it was so easy to read it continuing was easier than stopping. If decision-making had not forced me to monitor my engagement level, I would not have noticed.

In a couple borderline cases, I kept going. I regret one in retrospect, but not too much; it was borderline. I have also kept reading a couple books despite non-engagement. At least I’m aware that I’m plowing ahead without engagement. I’ve articulated my rationalizations (in short, they offer enough utilitarian value).

As I continue with this resolution, I hope I’ll learn more both about books and myself.

8 thoughts on “What I’m Learning from Not Finishing Books

  1. I refused to give up reading a book until the end until I turned about 40ish and then I realized there are so many books that I could be reading instead that would make me happy and I would be entertained. I now have about the same cut off limits as you and I no longer feel guilty about quitting a book. There are too many good books to waste my time on one I don’t like.

  2. Bit late to the party, but I started finishing fewer books a few years ago, too — without any markers, though. Either the thing is good enough to keep me engaged, or I’ll drop it at any time when it’s getting on my nerves or is overtaxing me at the moment. I usually come back to the overtaxing stuff later. Sometimes, I just need escapism by way of fanfic. So what?
    I’ve also read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I’m not sure if I regret it. Story-wise, it was a WTF-experience, but the historical background kept me somewhat engaged anyway. (I’ve forgotten most of it by now, it’s been almost two decades.) That said, I’ve since decided to tackle so-called must-reads and classics only if I actually want to, not because some literature critics say so. Which means I’ve never finished Goethe’s Faust, which is kinda a no-no to admit within the German intelligentsia.

    • I’ve never even tried to read Goethe’s Faust, but I’m not German (or at least not German-German, my great-great-grandfather was born in Köln when it was part of Prussia, but some of his ancestors were from France, and my great-great-grandmother who married had a father from Bavaria, though I’m not sure whether she was born in Bavaria or the United States).

      I need cutoffs because many books, including many of my favorite books, fail to engage me in the beginning. For example, one of my favorite books which I read this year, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, has a slow start. If I had dropped it as soon as it failed to engage me, I would have dropped it really fast. But once the story got rolling it was a powerful page-turner.

      I think the reason why the one-third cutoff works well is that most well-written stories manage to finish ‘Act One’ by that point. If a story has a really long Act One (because it’s a 1000+ page novel), then the first hundred pages are probably enough to make a good guess if the book is worth pursuing, even if Act One isn’t over. (Obviously this is for fiction books/narrative nonfiction, non-narrative nonfiction can be all over the place).

      When I read Leviathan’s Wake a few months ago, I was expecting to drop it at the hundred page mark, but somewhere between page 80 and 100 it finally managed to hook me, and I was engaged for the rest of the book (it’s about 600 pages long). If I had dropped it at page 60 (where I was disengaged), then I would have missed out on that experience.

      • Apparently, our reading habits are somewhat dissimilar after all. But then, I’ve acquired a second job as a pro editor in the past three years. So my standard for leisure reading is pretty much, “Do I want to edit it? If no, continue reading.”

      • What kind of pro editor are you? Content editing, line editing, copy editing, manuscript assessment, the-kind-of-editor-who-chooses-what-gets-published? All of the above?

        I have no intention of becoming a pro-editor, but I’ve been learning more about self-editing for the sake of my own writing (I hope that’s reflected in my most recent blog posts).

        It’s rare that I’ll read any book without finding ~anything~ that I would critique. And I certainly would not drop a book just because of a typo.

      • Copy and line editing, mostly for a small press in my county. They’re publishing fiction by local authors or stuff set in Souther Germany, and non-fiction, predominantly about art, religion and history. (I actually had to look up the differences of your editors, because that’s three and a half very different words in German.)
        And yeah, thanks to the copy editing part, I’ll always find something. It’s when my inner voice won’t stop complaining or the peeve is to big that I’ll drop the text. Also, to be fair, sometimes it’s because main characters get on my nerves or just plain fail to interest me. E.g. I’ve never read the Hunger Games trilogy because of the narrator’s voice.
        Also, your efforts in editing are definitely showing, overall you’re more on the point, I’d say.

      • I’m glad that my editing effort is making a difference.

        It makes sense that, above a certain threshold, your editor-mind takes over and breaks your immersion in a book.

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