I thought I was book quitter until I checked the stats

I thought this was going to be a piece in which I gleefully recount my exploits as a book quitter. Except I haven’t actually quit on many books this year.I thought this was going to be a piece in which I gleefully recount my exploits as a book quitter. I say “gleefully” because I heartily advocate reading the books we want to read.

Outside the context of school or work requirements, reading isn’t a responsibility to anyone but oneself. So no one is obligated to finish a book or provide an explanation for why they didn’t. By all means, feel badly if you quit on hope and humanity. Feel badly for being hateful or impatient or selfish (to the extent that feeling badly inspires you to do better). But feeling badly about not finishing a book (or about what you read)? No. Full stop.

So there I was, all fired up, marching up and down my imaginary battlefield, brandishing my imaginary spear and, for whatever reason, imagining myself clothed in chain mail and a metal helmet. And then … a funny thing happened: I looked over my reading data and realized, Oh. I haven’t actually quit on many books this year. How inconvenient it is when empirical evidence contradicts what we want to believe. Ahem.

I stand by my message. It’s just that my lack of quitting has come as a surprise. At times this year, it has felt as if I was abandoning books with, well, abandon.

I’ve written before about not finishing books, commonly referred to as DNF. For me, DNFing doesn’t necessarily mean I didn’t like or appreciate a book. For example, I acknowledge that it’s highly unlikely I will read Infinite Jest cover to cover. This even though the first chapter’s artistry impressed me no end, and my eyes were glued to the page as I read. I’m just not down for 1000+ pages of it.

Not finishing a book isn’t, for me, the same as quitting a book. I read the first chapter of Infinite Jest as an experiment. I read it knowing perfectly well that I didn’t intend to read the whole thing. So I can’t rightly say I “quit” on the novel. Not finishing and quitting are not qualitative equivalents.

It comes down to intention. When I start a book fully intending to read it to the last page but do not (will not! cannot!), that’s when I call it being a book quitter. So far this year, I encountered several books I’ve had to push myself to finish, as I’ve noted in some of my reading roundups. But even the ones I didn’t exactly enjoy reading, I couldn’t bear to quit.

In the end, even though I strenuously defend being a book quitter, I admit, more often than not, I choose not to quit. Mostly, this is because assessing a book accurately and fully is impossible without reading it from one end to the other. I may skim or speed read to get to the end as quickly as possible. But quitting … for me, it’s almost harder than just pushing to the end.

5 books I’ve started but not finished this year:

Traveling with Herodotus by Kyszard Kapuscinski

A memoir about ancient literature that is gorgeously written … so why did I stop reading? It’s a paperback with tiny font. As you may have noticed, the title doesn’t link to anything. This is because it’s sadly no longer available, which means I can’t get it on my Nook. So it’s paperback or bust for me and this book.

London: The Novel by Edward Rutherford

I adore the concept of this novel. It tells the story of London from 54 B.C. to the 20th century through the lens of six families. I read and enjoyed the first chapter but wasn’t ready to commit to a 1000+ page novel. I will get back to it.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

I know the ending, and it’s messing with my head. Still, I can feel myself mildly craving some nice, hearty Dickens, and I can’t stand the idea of not finishing this novel. It’ll happen when the time is right.

The Genius of Dickens. Michael Slater by Michael Slater

I predict I will finish this in tandem with The Old Curiosity Shop. As you might imagine, it’s much more interesting to read while also reading Dickens.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Of all the books I started but didn’t finish so far this year, this is the one to which I’m least likely to return. I can’t say why, exactly, since I enjoyed the first two chapters. It was my book club’s pick, so it could be that, with the meeting long gone, I’ve mentally put this book in the rearview mirror.

How about you? Are you an unapologetic book quitter, or do you have to finish books you start?

8 Replies to “I thought I was book quitter until I checked the stats”

  1. I was just saying to myself the other day “I have to finish this book, even though I thought it was done midway.” The novel should have ended 50 pages earlier….
    However, even though I finished reading the last page, mentally I am a book quitter because the desire to turn to the next page was gone. So I think you can be a book quitter even though you can finish a book.

    1. Ooooh, very interesting take. Thank you for sharing! And I hear what you’re saying. When I’m skimming/speed reading to finish a book that I’ve already decided doesn’t work for me, I’ve already quit on it, even though I power through to the end.

  2. This is really interesting – first and foremost because I always think of you as my inspiration for NOT quitting a book, even though I’ve known for a long time that you think it’s totally okay to do so, of course, if we’re just reading for pleasure.

    I also think it’s interesting how you list books you’ve given up on, but there’s still hope or just basically the concrete plan to finish them one day.

    Weirdly enough, I agree with you about “London”, although not for the same reasons. I generally have really loved Rutherfurd’s way of tackling a city’s history (which is why I haven’t finished his latest, “Paris”, because in this one, he veers from the chronological family history format and jumbles it all up for some reason and it’s kind of like, Meh.), and don’t mind the length. But I couldn’t get into “London” for some reason, as opposed to “Sarum” (the history of Salisbury Plain) and “New York” (and that despite the Anglicisms that all too often found their way into the mouths of what were supposed to be contemporary New Yorkers). So all that to say, maybe you haven’t found the perfect Rutherfurd book?

    I also feel ya on “Infinite Jest”, though my equivalent is Thomas Pynchon’s “Mason & Dixon,” one of the most brilliant, electric books I’ve ever read….about a hundred pages of. It’s just too overwhelmingly good, I guess.

    Thanks for yet another post that has me thinking about all sorts of things, among them why we give up on books, and if at least in some cases, we ever really do. Good stuff to contemplate on a lazy Sunday afternoon!

    1. Your comment – that I have provided inspiration for you to finish books – is what got me thinking about this in the first place, so thank you! I love what you say about Pynchon: “overwhelmingly good.” I did feel that way about David Foster Wallace, like it was exhausting to read it. I’ve felt that way about Gabriel Garcia Marquez at times too (though in translation). I can only read a limited number of pages before my brain kind of explodes.

        1. I’m honored, and grateful for, your thoughtful comments, Alysa! You’re always inspiring me to think more and deeper. 🙂

  3. Yes to all of this! I come home with cartons of books every week. If I forced myself to finish the ones I’m not enjoying, I wouldn’t have any time to read the ones I’ll love! I’ll die having only read the books I thought I should instead of those I want…. so not cool. Life is too short for obligation reading!

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