I did something unusual last month: I gave up on reading a book. Two books, actually.
This is pretty rare for me. I will ditch a TV series without a second thought, and regularly lose interest in video games before playing them to the end. Films are a different story, but they’re also so short that I can tolerate a bad one in its entirety. But when it comes to books, I will generally grind through to completion, no matter how long it takes.
My latest book abandonments happened back-to-back. First I dumped Shardik after only a few chapters. Then I made it halfway through Brighton Rock and decided not to stick around for the second half. The books sat together at the top of my charity shop pile, a reminder of my shame. I began to wonder if there was something wrong with my attention span.
But the next time I picked up a book, I tore through it in 24 hours. I still felt bad about abandoning its predecessors, but I realised this felt like a much better use of my time than slogging through something I wasn’t actually enjoying.
I decided I should give up on more books. Why I don’t do this more often?
It only counts if you finish it
I have a bad habit of gamifying my reading. Back in 2016, I resolved to read 25 books by the end of the year, and I’ve kept increasing that target. Last year I overshot my goal and finished 51 books. So this year I have to finish 52, or I will consider myself an abject failure.
I keep track of my completed books in my journal and worry about whether or not I’m keeping pace. This also means that taking on a long book is more of a risk, because I feel like I’m falling behind if it takes a while to complete. (This doesn’t actually stop me from reading long books. It just means I resent them more if they turn out to be a slog.)
But if I spend weeks on a book, then give up and don’t get to log it… that’s way worse. The whole thing feels like a waste of time unless I can award myself valuable Reader Points.
I realise this attitude is ridiculous and slightly unhealthy, and this blog post is basically half humblebrag, half self-snitch about what a weirdo I am. On the other hand, it’s also doubled the amount of books I read annually, and that gives me a sense of accomplishment. And for that, I blame Calvin’s Dad.
When I became an adult, the Dad character from Calvin & Hobbes quietly moved into my head, and now I grind away at tedious objectives with the sense that completing them will “build character“.
Reading is generally accepted to be a virtuous pursuit. When I read a book, I am enriching my mind. Or I’m winding my brain down before bed and getting some valuable time away from screens and that nasty blue light. Or I’m continuing to justify my English degree by proving to myself that I am a Person Who Appreciates Challenging Literature and not a Person Who Wrote A Lot Of Essays Based On SparkNotes.
All of these connotations make it harder for me to ditch a book that I’m not enjoying. I feel like I should keep reading because even if it’s not fun, it must be good for me. Dull books are the kale of media. (A bad comparison. I do genuinely like kale.)
But when I’m reading a book I really like, it does not feel like I am eating obligatory vegetables. Submerging myself in a good book feels like an indulgence. I purposely take the slower train on my commute so I can have more time to read. I stay up too late so I can finish one more chapter, and then another.
If I gave up more books I didn’t like, I could spend more of my reading time in this pleasurable state and less time on Literary Kale. The question is when I can allow myself to give up.
The 100 Year, 100 Page rule
This is the most common standard I’ve heard for when to quit a book. You take your age in years and subtract it from 100. The result is the number of pages you should read of a book before you can justifiably abandon it.
So if I get to page 71 of a book and have no desire to continue, then it’s OK to call it quits. Next year, I’ll only have to read 70 pages. The idea is that if you are older, you’ve probably read more books, and therefore can make a quicker assessment of whether you’re going to enjoy the book or not.
The other way to look at this rule is that if you are older, you probably have less time on this Earth to waste reading something that you don’t like. So every time you read a dull book, you can also consider your own mortality and spice up your boredom with a dash of existential dread.
I’ve played with this rule in the past but have found it too brittle. If I’m enjoying a book, I can get to 71 pages pretty easily. If I’m not, even getting that far can be a slog.
But often I’ll get that far in a book which I don’t like and still feel hesitant to give it up, because liking a book isn’t the only reason to keep reading.
The value of reading something you hate
OK, “hate” is the wrong word. There are plenty of books which I found enormously frustrating but don’t regret reading.
Gnomon is 700 pages long and has interweaving narratives from six different protagonists. These include a dystopian future cop, a shark-obsessed banker, and a time-traveling, planet-sized being made from 10,000 merged consciousnesses. Every single one of them regularly uses words like apocatastasis and hierophant. I found it such hard going that I regularly passed out mid-paragraph and smacked myself in the face with my e-reader. Was that month of confusion and intense mental effort rewarded with a satisfying conclusion? Not really, and I probably would not recommend the book to a friend. But its characters and concept were interesting enough to make me push through to the end, and I found reading it a unique experience.
Too Like The Lightning lured me in with its Enlightenment-era language gimmick, utopian setting, and the promise of having something interesting to say about gender. I ended up finding it hugely irritating on all three counts. Years later, thinking about it still makes me feel a milder version of the feeling I get when I think about the movie Prometheus. I do not like it. But I could definitely summon a good-sized blog post or pub rant out of all the gripes I have about it, so clearly I do care about it.
If I read a book and it pisses me off, at least it’s prompting some sort of emotional reaction. I’m engaging with it, even if it’s not in the way the author and I would hope. To paraphrase Marie Kondo, I can appreciate the book because it taught me that I do not like to read books like this. And the reasons for my dislike may be interesting or revealing.
What I’ve decided I can’t abide in my reading is boredom. If I can’t find anything interesting to grab into in a book – characters, narrative, world, language – then there’s just no point.
My new rules for quitting a book
Based on this conclusion, I’ve come up with my own rules:
- If several nights go past when the book sits on my nightstand and I decide I’d rather stare at the cracks on my ceiling than read it – give it up. (This was the case with Shardik.)
- If the only reason I’m still reading the book is out of a sense of obligation to my idealised, literature-appreciating image of myself – give it up. (This finished off Brighton Rock.)
- If I catch myself stopping my current book to gaze longingly at the spine of a different book which I’d much rather be reading – give it up and read the other book.
I’m looking forward to not reading more books. Or at least making my relationship with reading a little healthier.
I’m hoping this means I’ve built character.