The single best thing you can do for your reading life

The single best thing you can do for your reading life

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 conversation?

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.

I’ll talk about all this in more detail, and answer your questions, today on Instagram live at 1pm EST. Follow me here, and come prepared with your readerly questions!

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 regular weekly course lasts six weeks, beginning Wednesday, January 16. 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

We’ll meet Wednesdays at noon EST. If you can join us live—great! If you can’t, no worries—you can watch on your own schedule.

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.

82 comments | Comment

82 comments

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  1. Lindsay aka @adventures.in.stories says:

    Wow! This is exactly what I was thinking I needed to do this year, but couldn’t figure out where to go for it. I’ll be there for sure. Your classes are so fun, I’m a huge fan of your bookstagram class which sucked me into the IG world over a year ago. Looking forward to it!

  2. Suzy says:

    Good advise – I started a list of abandoned books on Goodreads. I think you should give a book fifty or a hundred pages before quitting, unless you don’t like the characters. Sometimes it takes a while to get into the story, but on the other hand, you never get that time back.

  3. Jaimie says:

    I had to learn this through a few books that people often find brilliant and chastise me for dropping – a few years ago, I decided to try Philip Roth because he’s so well known and considered to be an excellent author. So I read The Human Stain, which was…okay for me. But I was able to finish and not hate it. So I picked up American Pastoral, which I know is widely believed to be one of the best books out there by quite a few people.

    Thing is – I absolutely HATED it. I tried to read it three separate times over the course of a year and I just couldn’t slog my way through so. So finally, I gave up. I realized that I didn’t have to finish it, especially when I genuinely hated the reading experience itself. That was a big point for me in my reading life – to learn to recognize when to step back instead of feeling guilty for not finishing it. I went through this with Libra by Don DeLillo too – that book made me angry reading it. I hated the writing style, the characterization – everything. I got about 3/4 of the way through because it was a for a book club and then I just couldn’t do it anymore. I’m still working on recognizing when to step back from a book I’m not enjoying but it has made my reading life better.

  4. Ruth Bence says:

    John Irving is one of my all time favorite writers! It made me so happy to hear him agree with my thinking that one of best things I have learned as adult is that it is okay to abandon a book. I am trying to teach my kids that too. It is important to know what you dislike so you can’t focus on what you like.

  5. Dee says:

    Anne, you were really the first person who gave me “permission” to quit reading books I didn’t enjoy. I had been a finisher until Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Reading it was pure drudgery. I felt guilty as sin, but the idea of continuing to read that book was unpalatable. (I did skip to the end to generally find out what happened.) I was well more than half-way through it, but it was soul sucking and definitely worth it.

    I don’t quit books very often. I think I generally choose well. But if it’s not hitting me right, I now happily close it and move on.

  6. Actually, I’ve felt free to do this for a long time, ever since I read Stephen King’s take from years back (and I paraphrase): after reading about 10-15%, a book is not giving back to you what you’re putting into it, feel free to walk away.

    Really, life is short.

  7. Carol Rinke says:

    Not right for me right now is my current dilemma. I will have to give up on Once Upon a River today. And I like it! Life has become very demanding the last few weeks, dealing with health issues for my father-in-law. The book has a slow, immersive beauty, but I cannot concentrate. And it is due at the library with no renewal option. This makes me sad. I will come back to it, maybe when my reserve for the audio version come up. For now, a ? DNF.

    • Tory says:

      I gave up on My Antonia for a similar reason. I just wasn’t getting into it (I thought the audio narration was terrible), and I could tell that it was a great book deserving of more attention than I was able to give it. I’ll come back to it someday!

      • Kim K says:

        I hope you get back to it when the time feels right, Tory. I loved Death Comes for the Archbishop, so I was already primed for another Cather book. It’s been a while since I read it, though, so I can’t remember whether I needed that “warming up” period a book sometimes requires. I do know I ended up loving it!

  8. Cindy Fried says:

    I am a finisher, through and through (apart from Moby Dick…but maybe one day?).
    However, I do a fair bit of research before starting, flicking through to judge the writing style, reading blogs and reviews, a bit of Googling. Then when I start I am committed to the dogged end. Not all the books I read are wonderful, but my research significantly cuts out the dross. Though I can understand that other readers operate in a different way, this works for me.

    • Anne says:

      If I were able to do this for every book I started, I would abandon far fewer books! It’s the unvetted, unreviewed ARCs that really up my set-aside numbers.

    • Tory says:

      I’m the exact opposite – I love to open a book with as little information as possible! But if I get a couple chapters in and am hating it, I do the kind of research you described to decide if it’s worth continuing.

  9. Cathy says:

    I could have written this myself as I was a finisher. Once I gave up finishing books I didn’t like my reading life improved. I still have to fight it once in a while when I’m not enjoying a book that readers I trust have recommended to me. I always try to give it at least one hundred pages because some books are slow developers.
    And now I am intrigued by Book School!

  10. Stephanie says:

    I’ve always said “life is too short to read bad books.” My TBR pile is so large, thanks in part to book club, that if something isn’t working for me, I need to move on!

  11. Heidi Benson says:

    I am a committed finisher but I have, in the last few years, adopted the theory of “not for me right now”. So many people — Anne included — recommended “Winter Solstice” by Roasmund Pilcher. I got a paperback from the library and after two tries, couldn’t get into it. Finally I realized two things — first, it was past the “reading window” (I started it after Christmas and it’s very much a book to read before Christmas) and second, the print was so tiny, I was squinting at it! I returned the book but will request it again in November… and in the large-print format 😉

  12. Melissa says:

    Thank you, Anne! Reading this made me feel even better about my reading mantra: life is too short to read the wrong (for me) books! But, it took me a long, long time to arrive at this “feel free to abandon a book that is not right for me” attitude.

  13. renee says:

    I’ve become so much better at putting down books I’m not enjoying after realizing too many times that when I don’t it often leads to a reading slump for me. As a blogger it’s hard not to feel guilty since many of the titles I pick up are upcoming new releases but whether it be on Goodreads or my blog I do try to tell others what wasn’t working for me at the time I picked it up. Many times I’ll revisit a book I hadn’t finished later on and find that I really enjoy it. I would agree that this makes for a much more enjoyable reading life for me!

  14. Bernadette says:

    I just abandoned Winter’s Tale, after slogging through the first 200 pages. And that’s what it felt like to me. I asked myself, do I want to slog through another almost 600 pages? The answer was no. And if I’m reading a book that’s a slog I read way less, just like you said. I avoid reading. If I’m loving a book, there’s nothing to stop me from reading.

  15. Elizabeth says:

    I just quit my real life book club for this reason; I want to be able to quit a book I am not enjoying. Last year I had so many reading slumps, some of which were due to forcing myself to finish books (Life of Pi ruined my reading life for a whole week…which is a long time for me). I really thought I would love being in a book club but it turns out that I just want to read what I want to read and not what I have to read.

  16. Katie W says:

    Recovering Finisher right here! In 2018 I really worked on NOT finishing books. I DNF’d about 4 or 5 which is huge for me. I also read the most books I’ve ever read last year and I think not getting slowed down by books I wasn’t interested in helped.

    The last DNF for 2018 was actually Station Eleven. I had been meaning to read it for the longest time because you mention it a lot. I actually kind of struggled with whether or not to put it down because I felt like I was disappointing MMD haha. But while I enjoyed it when reading, I seemed to not want to pick it up when I had free tiem. So I decided that maybe one day I would come back to it, but it just wasn’t the book I wanted then. The characters and that question of “what happens?” is still lingering in my mind, so I think I will go back.

    The Book Thief is one I wish I had given up on. I just didn’t care for it. That’s so many pages I won’t get back. But some many people told me it was one of their favorite books when they saw me with it that I figured I had to press on. Nope, got to the end, not for me.

  17. Paula Bulger says:

    I rarely have not finished a book, maybe two. I have found that my mood may be the culprit, I may put books aside and then get back to them….several years later. Patience is a virtue, and reading some books comes down to letting the author unravel the story….unfortunately that may be well past 100 pages in.

    • Heidi Benson says:

      Same here — I’ve put aside books for years at a time, sometimes on my shelves, where they can mock me. I remember writing a HS test on “The Scarlet Letter”, having only read the Cliff’s Notes, because I just couldn’t get into the book. When I was twenty, before I went to college, I made myself read the darn thing. It took a month — yikes! — and I hated it, but there was such a sense of accomplishment. I guess that’s why I always finish — just to say (to myself) “I did it.”

  18. Katie W says:

    One thing I have started doing when I decide a book isn’t for me, but I am kinda curious as to what happens, is I’ll still DNF the book, but will find a plot summary online. That seems to satisfy my curiosity, saves me hours reading the book, and most often confirms my decision to not read.

    • Melanie says:

      I’ve done this too! I can’t remember why I put aside 11/22/63, but I did so reluctantly because I wanted so badly to know what happened. I ended up looking it up on Wikipedia. The full plot summary only confirmed my decision to walk away from the book.

  19. Barbara says:

    I’m an older reader who is a recovering-Finisher. I had followed the maxim of reading at least 50 pages before abandoning a book, but then I attended a lecture by Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl. As she pointed out, those of us over 50 have less time left to waste on books we don’t love – too many good books, too little time! Here is her sage advice: take your age, subtract it from 100. That is the amount of pages you should read before chucking a book not working for you!

    • Janice says:

      I’ve been using Nancy Pearl’s formula for several years and it has saved me many hours of frustrated slogging. I agree….Life is too short read books I’m not enjoying ….same goes for wine!!!!

    • Virginia says:

      I love this idea. I used to think I had to finish every book. Now I don’t even if they are on a number of lists. Examples: The Nest, Dreamland Burning, The Night Circus. Good reviews, but not for me.

    • Janene says:

      I knew I had heard that advice somewhere but forgot it was Nancy Pearl! I don’t quit on many books but it’s so true. A book that isn’t right for me slows me down and there’s no way I will ever finish everything I want to read in this lifetime anyway! Your book class sounds like great fun!

  20. I’m usually pretty good at choosing books for myself that I’m going to enjoy – for the most part – but obviously, I’ve come across some that just didn’t work for me and I put them down. I might try them again in the future, but if not, that’s okay! I have tons of other books I need to read.

    -Lauren

  21. Mariana says:

    I’m a little too great at abandoning books, and I wonder if I should stick with them a little more, to challenge myself. Sometimes it really pays off. Last year, I abandoned more than half the books that I started, which isn’t great for me.

  22. Ruth says:

    I used to be more of a finisher, but I’ve adopted ‘not right now’ and been gratified to find that I do pick up and resonate with a book later. Sometimes years later. This year I read the very uncomfortable “The Sympathizer” and did not finish the last 50 pages or so. I may never read them. His writing was compelling, but the denouement was going to be too intense for me to read so I left it. That one – I don’t know about later. Reading fiction increases empathy and social understanding, but sometimes fiction is just too close to home or too unsettling and our own well being suffers or would suffer at that time. With some time and distance, it can help us understand ourselves and our past as well as others.

  23. Rebecca says:

    Excellent advice, but I feel that I need to caveat my agreement. Hands down agreement for fictional books. However, I think non-fiction needs some other considersations before abandoning a book such as what was I hoping to achieve from this book in the first place and why am I abandoning it, is it too challenging, is the topic too dense for my liking or speed of reading preference. Due to the density of my non fiction choices I have a fiction book on the side always as a ‘breather’, so I don’t abandon the book that I don’t really want to abandon and also not grind my reading life to a halt.

  24. Anne Marie says:

    I have found this to be especially true for audiobooks. Sometimes the narrator and/or the actual words, just doesn’t (don’t) work for me. It also becomes clear exactly how much time I would be spending on it – and it’s simpler to say ‘no thank you.’ Doing that right now with The Divine Conspiracy.

    • Katie W says:

      I’m not a huge audiobook person (I tend to tune out noise if I’m doing something else) but I will easily abandon it in the first 5 minutes if the narrators voice annoys me. Unfortunately this happens a lot, so maybe audiobooks just aren’t for me.

  25. Amber says:

    Yes! This was the one major change I made in 2018 and I read the most books I ever have since I started tracking my reading and enjoyed myself as well! I used to be a stickler about finishing, but last year I embraced abandoning and I’ll never look back.

  26. Mary in TN says:

    The first time I abandoned a book rather quickly was A Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. But first I asked my Facebook friends if it was going to get less dreary and vulgar. Many replied they had also stopped reading it. The few folks who did finish replied that it was a hard slog. Ok, thanks, moving on…

  27. Deborah says:

    Years ago I met a psychologist who was doing work on delayed gratification – a kind of carry on from the famous marshmallow experiment. When I told her that I never felt compelled to finish a book I wasn’t enjoying, (one of her questions to decide who would succeed in life and who wouldn’t) she seemed instantly to decide that I was doomed to be a drifter who would never achieve anything. When I told her that I had two graduate degrees and was consistently moving up at work, she looked at me like I had kicked her dog. Feeling that I have to finish every book I start makes me too risk averse. Some of my best reading experiences have been because I tried something I wasn’t sure I would like.

    • Anne says:

      Hahaha! Yes, I’ve seen Finishers compare Abandoners to those kids who can’t resist inhaling the marshmallow the second the research assistant turns their backs! There’s a difference between making a strategic choice to set a book aside and plain old getting distracted or bored. But you already know that. 🙂

  28. Halie says:

    I’m still in the process of becoming a full-on abandoner. I literally NEVER used to quit books before the final page, but in the last few years, I’ve forced myself to do so a handful of times. (Actually, according to my DNF {Did Not Finish} shelf on Goodreads, I’ve done it a grand total of 12 times.) I’m still working on it though, because it makes me feel so guilty when I quit! Especially if it’s a book I feel that I’m “supposed” to like (I’m currently 30% into the audio of Farenheit 451, and just not that into it…), then I feel even worse.

    So bottom line – I’m still in the process of becoming an abandoner, but I’m glad you wrote this post about it today! I can clearly see I’m in good company.

  29. Melanie says:

    As someone who grew up a committed finisher, I still remember the first book I decided not to finish: The Last of the Mohicans.

    I recently abandoned The Lilac Girls. It has such great reviews but the writing was getting on my nerves. The books that everyone else seems to love are usually the hardest for me to put aside.

    I find that if I’m avoiding reading or listening to an audiobook then it’s time to find something new.

  30. Roberta says:

    Absolutely couldn’t agree more. I have reached the age when I can abandon a book and give up on a plant. I used to feel ( good little girl in me) that there was a fault in me if I gave up. The catch is that this isn’t school; I read for enjoyment and boy do I enjoy it.
    Keep up the good work. You’re terrific!

  31. Sarah M Schneider says:

    I remember the first two books I abandoned: The Sun Also Rises, and Gone with the Wind. I still struggle with finish versus abandon. Sometimes I’ve had great experiences with books that start with a slow burn (here’s looking at you, Dumas). And occasionally I indulge in a good hate-read finish just so I can fully declare that all my reasons for dislike are justified (ahem Outlander and Goodnight Nobody). And sometimes the writing, other characters, and plot sustain me when the main character is kind of a trash person (Kristin Lavransdatter, urg). But overall my reading has been much better since I’ve allowed myself to abandon books and also to read several books at once, picking up the one that appeals to me most in the moment.

  32. I agree with this advice. Stopping or putting books aside doesn’t bother me, as some books are just not for me, or for me at that time. I’ll take a stack of books home from the library, and I have access to some great libraries, and then audition them. Sometimes they all go back!

  33. Joan Lehner says:

    Page 80. That has been my page number for years. As Frank Zappa said, so many books so little time. By page 80 I know if I want to continue reading or not.

  34. Kay says:

    It was a revelation when I started to abandon books part way through, as an avid reader from childhood I always felt compelled to finish a book no matter what I was feeling about it. When I decide that I no longer have to do this I began to enjoy reading so much more, sometimes it was just a waste of my time. The only books I will continue with that I am not happy with, are book group books as I feel I owe it the others to finish the book for discussion. However, just this week for the first time in ages I read a whole book that I did not enjoy because of respect to the author and I had loved her previous book so much. Even though it may be unpopular to say it, I loathed Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee, I was so sad that the wonderful Jem had died and that Scout had become a self righteous, self important Jean Louise! I read it all and complained bitterly all the way through, just in case it improved by the end, it didn’t. x

    • Katie W says:

      I don’t think I will ever read Go Set a Watchman because I LOVE To Kill a Mockingbird and I don’t want it to be ruined 🙁

  35. Jennifer says:

    This class sounds wonderful! While joining the MMD book club is something I really want to do, I won’t be able to until fall. Will this class be for sale separately?

  36. Christine says:

    Years ago, Nancy Pearl (award-winning Librarian extraordinaire of Seattle) gave the following guidelines to we of the guilt-filled DNF-ers):

    “If you’re 50 years old or younger, give every book about 50 pages before you decide to commit yourself to reading it, or give it up.

    If you’re over 50, which is when time gets shorter, subtract your age from 100 – the result is the number of pages you should read before deciding whether or not to quit. If you’re 100 or over you get to judge the book by its cover, despite the dangers in doing so.”

    With your reasons and Nancy’s guidelines, my list of finishes should be really long in 2019.

  37. Camille A Wilson says:

    Just finished listening to your podcast with Tiffany. Here’s an epistolary novel I just finished and it’s wonderful. Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb.

  38. Kelli A Roberts says:

    This is exactly what I needed to read today. I started listening to The End of the Affair after hearing lots of great reviews of it, and it hasn’t been drawing me in. I kept thinking “It’s (relatively) short…It’s Colin Firth…Just finish it and cross it off the list.” Today I decided to put it aside for a while and come back to it (2/3 left to go). I love you Colin, but I love Michelle Obama more right now 🙂 (and Becoming is fantastic so far!) And I can’t wait for Book School!!!

  39. Saffron Garey says:

    In addition to this, sometimes you need to know when to stop reading a series. I gave up three series last year and I felt, just a little liberated.

  40. Monica says:

    I decided years ago after I dragged myself through books I didn’t like at all to just stop reading. I usually give it 100 pages before I make my final decision. This has changed a bit now that I read most of my books on my Kindle and don’t have the page number displayed. I can’t think of a single time I’ve regretted not finishing a book. I actually had more regret when I finish a book and realize I’m never going to get that wasted time back. Why read a book I don’t like when there’s so many books to read? Never again!

  41. czai says:

    I’m really a finisher by nature so I feel bad whenever I don’t finish a book. What worked for me though is to put a book on indefinite hold until I get into the mood to read it again and if I still get bored with it by then, that’s the only time I’ll actually DNF it.
    So right now, I have so much books on my on-hold list. but I’m completely fine with that 🙂

  42. Lily-Lemon says:

    I don’t see how to join Book School. I signed up for Book Club membership but when I click to join Book School, it sends me back to sign up for membership in the Book Club. 🙁

    • Gayla Mazzuca says:

      I don’t believe that you have to sign up for “book school” separately. As long as you are a member of the MMD book club you will get the emails related to “book school”.

  43. Brandi says:

    Ok. I totally hear ya’.
    But. I. Just. Can’t.
    I am a compulsive finisher of books. When I open my kindle library and see all of my 100% completions it gives me a sense of accomplishment. I think you are correct in your thought that being a “finisher” is a personality trait. I might read more if I could quit the books that aren’t for me, but my Mama didn’t raise no quitter. 😉

  44. Britany Arnold says:

    I cannot quit…. I get your points and it all makes perfect sense but why can’t I give them up? Maybe I’ll make it a personal goal this reading year. ??

  45. Theresa says:

    I already belong to a monthly book club, but the book school course sounds just like what I’ve been looking for. I feel like two book clubs would be too much for me right now. Can I take the course without participating in the online book club?

  46. Brooke says:

    Oh my gosh, I love this article. I used to feel the same inclination towards needing to finish any book I started, as though it were somehow a cop-out if I didn’t. No more. If you arent loving it, this is ultimately a waste of your precious time. Let it go (it wasn’t all for naught, you still got something out of it for sure, even if unfinished) and find something that truly lights you up.
    I found similarly inspiring and thought provoking insights like this one in the book “Fearless Writing,” applying to both writing and life philosophies. You can read a bit about it here:
    https://brunchesandbooks.com/2019/01/08/fearless-writing-and-being/

  47. JennyOH says:

    This is so true. I track my reading on Goodreads and I’ve noticed that I finish so many more books now that I have stopped feeling like I have to finish every book I start.

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