I’ve been talking to readers for a long time now about their reading lives, and how they get more meaning and enjoyment out of the books they choose to read. Would you like to know the #1 piece of advice I can offer on how you can improve your own reading life, based on those thousands of conversations?
It’s this: You don’t have to finish every book you start.
For a long time I thought the question of abandoner vs finisher was one of personality: some people are finishers by nature; others find it easier to abandon books that aren’t working for them. I used to believe the answer was value-neutral, but I don’t think that anymore, because that’s not what my experience—including my conversations with you—shows.
Instead, I’ve seen how readers who are willing to set aside books that aren’t working for them are more satisfied with their reading lives. They’re happier with what they read, and they read more books overall.
My own finisher-to-abandoner conversion
I’ve made the change myself. I used to be a finisher who thought that the responsible thing to do was finish the books I began. To not do so would feel like being late with the rent, or standing up a friend for a coffee date.
I changed my mind over time, for philosophical and practical reasons. (I’ll expound in more detail very soon—more on that below.) First I read a slew of not-quite-right books in a row: not bad books, but books that weren’t right for me at the time.
Then I read an interview with John Irving, who said “grown-ups shouldn’t finish books they’re not enjoying.” (I would quibble with this, but it got me thinking.) And then I began putting together Summer Reading Guides each year, at which point abandoning became not just a nice idea, but a necessity.
A few good reasons to quit reading that book
There are good and bad reasons to not finish a book; here are a few good ones to not persist in reading a book you suspect you would be better off abandoning:
• You don’t get that time back. When you spend your time reading books that aren’t worth it, you do so at the expense of all the other books you could be reading.
• Reading becomes drudgery. When you’re in the middle of a book you’re not finding worthwhile, you don’t look forward to reading time. (This can be disastrous for young readers.)
• Your reading life grinds to a halt. Worst case scenario: when you’re reading a book you don’t enjoy, you don’t want to keep reading … so you don’t read at all.
My personal favorite reasons for abandoning books that aren’t working for me
Did you notice that phrase, “working for me?” I’ve found there are all kinds of good reasons to persist in reading books I’m not enjoying, but I strive to quickly abandon books that aren’t right for me, or aren’t right for me right now, because:
• It frees me to read the right books at the right time. I frequently begin reading a book and think, I want to read this, but not right now. A funny example: I had a strange streak last year where I kept beginning new books on airplanes … only to realize there was a plane crash in the first twenty pages. I ended up reading all those books, but not till I was safely on the ground.
• It frees me to acknowledge I chose poorly, and move on. This happens most often with new releases, where I realize on page 40 that I’m not the right reader for this book, and I only picked it up because of the marketing hype.
• It frees me to take chances on new books. This is crucial for projects like the Summer Reading Guide, when I often can’t rely on reviews or other readers’ recommendations because it’s too new.
Join me for Book School
If you could use more tips and tricks like these to give your reading life a boost, these are the kinds of topics we’re covering in Book School, the new course I’m teaching in the MMD Book Club, where we’re learning to read better, together. We’ve never done a course like this before and I can’t wait to get started. (This course is now complete and available for all Book Club members in the archives.)
This regular weekly course lasts six weeks. Our syllabus looks like this:
Week 1: Track your reading: why and how
Week 2: Assess what you read: 2 strategies that go beyond “I liked it”
Week 3: Pithy book talk: how to talk about books so readers sit up and listen
Week 4: Conquer your TBR: blocks and zones are your friends
Week 5: How to review anything: 3 questions to ask yourself
Week 6: How I vet books: deciding what to read next
This course is part of the MMD Book Club, our group devoted to book club discussions, community, and classes. Every month we read one core pick together and meet to discuss it on video, sometimes with the author. We have a great bookish community online devoted to all book talk, all the time—things like our favorite indie bookstores, our New Year’s reading resolutions, or the books we’ve abandoned lately. And we go back to school with classes designed to equip you to get more out of your reading life.
We’d love for you to join us. This new Book School course, along with all our classes, is included with your Book Club membership. Click here to get more info or sign up now.
I hope to see you there: it’s so good to be among people who are reading, and who are learning to read better, together.