Finishing Books

How important is it to read books to the end?

I’ve been reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace over the past few weeks, and according to my Kindle, I’m still only around 22% complete.  I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, as it’s been widely praised, and I am finding it very impressive; but, not delightful.  It’s very long, and has a great deal of obscure vocabulary, and end notes (all of which make the Kindle a great way to read it without these things interfering with the flow or convenience much).  Perhaps if I were more interested in drugs, or tennis, or Boston I’d feel more engaged with it. I know that there’s a lot more to it in the remainder of the book (a lot of insight about media, for example) but I think I already have a good sense of what the book is like and I’ve been wondering if I should stop where I am and move on to one of the many other unread books I’ve accumulated on my Kindle that I’d like to read.

I typically read books to the end.  Part of me thinks of books as precious and valuable works, and that it would be disrespectful toward the author, and books in general, to abandon a book without finishing it.  It’s part of my identity as a “good” reader.

But, my reading time is limited (and, I’m not a fast reader), and the less emotional part of my mind thinks I would be better off if I quit reading a book when my best judgement is that my reading time would be better served reading something else.  I heard Tyler Cowen (a brilliant thinker and voracious reader), as a guest on a podcast years ago, discuss why he abandons unfinished books, and it makes a lot of sense.

I want to do what makes sense, but I also don’t want to do something that makes me feel bad.  I think I’ve already decided to abandon the book (at least, for now).

I decided to write this post mostly to help steel my resolve to quit by making my thinking more explicit, and perhaps to make it easier to make this choice next time.

2 thoughts on “Finishing Books

  1. I have more or less the same view — I think I would have a better reading experience if I didn’t insist on finishing books, but I still finish them because of my “identity as a ‘good’ reader”.

    (Not that abandoning books would make a huge difference in my case: I rarely pick up books that I actively dislike, and many of my books are nonfiction that I want or need to read for professional reasons. But if I read a lot of contemporary fiction, it would probably be a bigger issue. Most of what I’m saying here, though, also goes for movies or TV series, where my philosophy would probably make a greater difference.)

    I think this has the same flavor as a number of related ideas: that an educated person should own a lot of books; that it’s a good activity to go to bookstores and buy books; or that you need to respect the book and not write in it, dog-ear it, etc.

    Once upon a time, books were more expensive, and it makes sense to respect the physical copy that looks handsome, that you’re going to pass on to someone else, etc. That was a long time ago. Now you can get most books (especially fiction that isn’t brand-new) super-cheap. It makes sense to treat your book as subservient to your own goals: have a small, cheap copy that fits in your pocket; highlight it and mark the hell out of it if that improves the value you get out of it; rip it in half if it’s easier for you to carry around a chapter at a time. Respecting your books values your book in itself, whereas it’s just the contents that matter: it’s like objecting to flag-burning.

    This is even more relevant with e-books: forget about having lots of books in your house as a general matter; of course, having books is fine if it’s particular books that you love, that are meaningful to you (in themselves or in particular copies that you’ve had good experiences with), that you want your kids to be exposed to, etc. But when you can have all the books you like on your Kindle, all the books do is signal the type of person you are to yourself or to your guests — which can be fine, as long as you know it’s just signaling. The signaling to yourself might be you reminding yourself that you’re an educated, cultured person, which might be valuable if you’re the sort of person who might forget to read. That’s not really a risk in my case, so it’s just an old habit that dies hard.

    That last point is an important behavioral point: you can have books as a self-commitment device, to shame you into reading (or remind you to read) if you otherwise wouldn’t. Similarly, forcing yourself to finish books can be a good heuristic if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t have a lot of perseverance, so you adopt this heuristic to fight your natural inclinations to drop things too easily. This isn’t book-specific: it’s the same “anti-quitter” idea that makes people stay in jobs, relationships, degree programs, etc., even when they don’t like it, and that idea can be valuable if you’re too likely to quit when you encounter momentary difficulties. But that idea becomes counterproductive if you’re already O.K. on that front, so it makes you irrationally persevere when you shouldn’t.

    Anyway, so I have an anti-quitting (or “completist”) norm, which probably relates to my own fear that I’ll be too much of a quitter otherwise because of my own boredom or competing commitments. Maybe that works for me, or maybe it’s counterproductive. I can’t say for sure which. Maybe I just like to have an identity as someone who perseveres, and who does things that other people would drop because they would find it boring. Maybe I would be better off if I dropped that identity, but I’m too close to myself to say for sure. So instead, I just accept it as part of my identity, and that pretty much works for me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sasha, we’re very much alike in this respect.

      My norms about books and reading are probably not appropriate anymore, and another part of my identity (besides being a good reader) is someone who has a lot of self-control, and can persevere when things get difficult.

      So, when things are close, I’ll probably still try to finish a book that I might be better off abandoning. But, I don’t want to be a damn fool about it. 🙂



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