Reading Habits

You don’t have to finish every book you start

We’ve all been there. Maybe you’re attracted by the beautiful cover, the summary on the back of a paperback, or the way a book is discussed on Twitter. You read a great review; your favorite author raves about a book; your group chat won’t shut up over a twist. So you start the book. And you know, whether immediately or after reading 50 pages, this book is not for you.

Some book prescriptives will think you have to read this book. “Giving only 20 pages to an author is an insult,” Rupert Hawksley wrote in The Independent. Most authors seem indifferent to Hawksley’s defense of his honor. (John Scalzi: “Haha, no.”) But the idea remains, the idea that once you pick up a book, you’re locked in, never give up, never surrender!

please. Please put the book down.

There’s a very simple reason why you shouldn’t force yourself to finish reading: life is short. Do you want to count how many books you can read in your lifetime? Personally, I don’t. Some things should be a mystery. But if you’re wondering, here’s a diagram.

There’s another simple but effective reason: there are plenty of other books to read. In a review of Mark McGurl’s Less of Everything: Fiction in the Age of the Amazon (a book I will almost certainly never read), Parul Sehgal writes: “In 2018, it was reported that about 1.6 million books Self-published – all on top. Tens of thousands of titles from traditional publishing houses.”

And that doesn’t take into account all the fan fiction one might read, all the book reviews one might read in lieu of reading a certain book, and how many other things could be substituted: page after page of comics, essays, magazines, liners Notes, letters, emails, newsletters, the classic “back of the cereal box”. I save Sehgal’s review to Instapaper to read when I have the time to pay attention – if I didn’t read it this morning, it might linger indefinitely, unlike the Battlestar Galactica I’ve been saving for a decade Plus an extremely in-depth commentary commons for episodes. forward. I still believe that one day I will read these.

I also believe I will read the hundreds of unread books on my shelf, and the hundreds of books I will buy over the next ten years and the decade after that. Being a reader means always being hopeful – you’ll have time for everything; every book you pick up will delight, surprise and challenge you; stories will always find a new way to tell you Strange and familiar lives, worlds that are close at hand.

Last month, I read Oliver Berkman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, which is as harrowing as it is hopeful and practical. Four thousand weeks is the average length of life. That said, it doesn’t sound like much. It makes me want to both count how many weeks I’ve used it and run away screaming. It made me want to quit social media, give up watching all but my favorite TV shows and spend all my time reading and writing instead. Four thousand weeks is not enough. It’s never enough. There are many things to do.

Berkman has a lot to say about the brevity of time available to each of us, and how we use it—how we choose to use it. “It is a fact of life that, as a finite human being, you will always make hard choices,” he wrote. But making a choice is not failure, or rejection of something you didn’t choose. “It’s an active commitment to spend a certain amount of time doing this and not that — actually, rather than a zillion other ‘thats’ — because, you’ve decided, that’s the most important thing right now.”

Books that don’t work for you are the ones you can ditch in favor of something else to spend your extremely limited time reading. Books take hours to read. They require focus and attention—things that are in short supply and hard to supply these days. They need commitment. And you don’t need to commit to every book that passes the initial sniff test at all. There is a lot to read. There are so many things to try and then put aside. Do you watch every TV show you stumble across while flipping through cable TV, and every episode that starts autoplaying while flipping through Netflix? No. Why should books be any different?

I have given up on books for a number of reasons. The book has been described as a writing skills book and more of a memoir, so it wasn’t what I was looking for. This sweet and endearing novel was too sentimental for my heart at the time. The fourth book in the tarnished series.

The reason is almost never that a book is too challenging. This is an argument that the book brigade often hangs out: if people can drop books at will, they’ll never read anything that challenges them! They will only stick to simple and familiar things.

To me, the opposite seems to be the case. If there were some rule that insisted that every reader finish every book they started, wouldn’t every reader be more likely to stick with their tried and true, knowing there was no escape once they’d turned the first page?

And: I think readers know the difference. We know when we put a book down because the timing wasn’t right or we weren’t the right reader, and we put a book down because it was formally challenging or the content was emotionally exhausting or we wanted to. We have to do more critical thinking than we expect. Sometimes you still put aside those clever, difficult, necessary books. Not everyone is always in the right position to handle heavy and difficult things. But these are also books we remember, and perhaps look back on.

I keep a list of unread books together with a list of books I read in a given year. I knew which books I couldn’t read at the time, but still wanted to find my way in. Don’t we all have these? I desperately want to read Helen Macdonald’s “H is for Hawk” but trying to read it in November – a month always overshadowed by the death of my stepfather years ago – — is a serious mistake. However, I will do it. one day.

No book is right for all readers. The only “should” of reading is that we should read widely, variedly, and passionately. Beyond that, to quote Berkman again: “Whenever possible, choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable shrinkage.”

There is so much to read, learn, understand. But as Ursula Vernon said, “There’s a lot between people and books…just…life.”

Let life come. Books will still be there.

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