I can distinctly remember the first book I abandoned without completing it, sometime in mid-high school. Until that point, and still to this day to a lesser extent, I had refused to quit a book, regardless of how little I was enjoying it. Reading was a hobby and a joy, yes, but it was also educational, and the pressure to read that we place on many children can be an overwhelming pressure to only read the “right” things—rather than considering whether or not that leisure reading was enjoyable. There’s this stigma that exists to this day—if you’re reading, you should be reading something educational, something that will expand your worldview, etc. And look, I agree in certain circumstances. If we never read anything outside of our own enjoyment, we might never learn anything. But a hobby? An activity done for fun? I think it does much more good to read what we want to read, without the burden of stigma attached to our decisions about genre, authorship, audience… the list goes on and on.
For the record, that first book I marked as DNF (did not finish)? For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. I really, really, have always disliked Hemingway’s writing. I know, he’s an American classic, important to the literary canon, blah blah blah. And maybe it’s somewhat sacrilegious for an English major to say, but I just can’t stand his work. I’ve read his major pieces, The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and I just… hate it. Maybe now, if I tried again with the social and political knowledge I have acquired in the interim decade+ years, I would enjoy it more, but I doubt it. You see, I think you can recognize the value of something without enjoying it. It’s like how I know all the terrible early 2000s emo music I still love wouldn’t exist without the Beatles, but I’m not going to personally enjoy sitting down to listen to “Abbey Road.” (The evolution of musical genres, much like literary, is an interesting trip). Personal tastes in literature and music are varied and complex, and that’s ok! For every person like me that hates Hemmingway, I can find someone who loves him.
As a high school student, I was reading For Whom the Bell Tolls outside of a class assignment. I had been required to read The Old Man and the Sea sophomore year over Thanksgiving break and A Farewell to Arms at some point I don’t distinctly remember, so abandoning For Whom the Bell Tolls was not an academic rejection, but a personal one. I did not need to read it. I just thought maybe I’d enjoy a different book more. And when I did not, I struggled with the decision to stop reading the novel. I agonized over returning a book to the library unread. Would they know? What if they asked me if I enjoyed it? What if they quizzed me about it? (Fun fact! Librarians will not quiz you about the items you check out, don’t worry!) I felt like abandoning the book would be admitting some sort of failure. I wasn’t smart enough to read Hemingway, clearly, or I’d be able to power through.
As an adult, I can recognize those concerns as unwarranted and maybe even a bit silly. But the pressure to perform academically, to succeed educationally, to consistently improve my intelligence and my brain, I think many of us still feel that pressure subconsciously. The arguments surrounding the value of eBooks have thankfully abated in recent years, but I remember those initial arguments coming from a similar place-“it’s not reading if you’re doing it on a screen.” We hear this with other forms of reading, too, all the time: graphic novels aren’t real books, listening to an audiobook isn’t reading, Romance as a genre isn’t literature, you name it.
When I was asking my colleagues about their own reading habits, multiple people commented about the readily available backlog of books waiting to be read. Why waste time on a book we aren’t enjoying when there are so many others to be read? This has been part of my approach in recent years, as well. There are too many books to read all of them, even if you only stick to one genre. One of my favorite publishers, Tor, published 28 novels and novellas in 2021 alone. That’s a lot of books to read in a year, and that’s without taking into account a number of those titles are from within other series and would require either having already read and remembering the details of the prior books or adding them to the 28 that you attempt to read in that year. It quickly becomes an impossible task.
So, at what point should someone give up on the book they are reading? That’s going to vary, sorry to say. Sometimes, I can tell within a chapter or two that I’m not interested. Something about the writing style or tone, the character’s personality and the driving issue turned me off to the book itself. So I’ll put it down. Sometimes, I hold on longer, thinking it would be good if only one tiny thing would happen or change, or a character would just disappear somehow, and it would all be saved. I end up finishing those types more often than not. I haven’t learned a good trick for that yet.
Other books are enjoyable but difficult to read, and I find myself taking a lot longer than usual to make my way through the text. When this happens, I have found that sometimes switching over to an audio format will help my brain process. This happens most often to me when the world-building is framed on a non-European mythological system. For example, I struggled to read Marlon James’ Black Leopard Red Wolf when it was released a couple of years ago. The myth building draws heavily from myriad African lore, and Marlon James himself is a Jamaican man with an incredibly different magic and fantasy system than the ones I was raised with. I didn’t want to stop reading, but I had a hard time keeping up with everything happening. When I picked up the audio version, however, I was able to follow. I ended up loving the book, and I’m listening to the sequel right now, Moon Witch, Spider King.
The benefit of using the library to try new titles and authors comes in immediate use. If you’ve paid for a book and find yourself miserable partway through, you might return it, which penalizes the author harsher than the bookstore. You might also keep it, but now you’ve paid money for something you didn’t enjoy. If you check the book out at the library and return it immediately, it won’t penalize either the author or your wallet. In fact, that’s one of the best parts of a library: try before you buy.
What Do Our Librarians Have to Say About It?
I thought it would be interesting to see what my colleagues in the Adult and Teen Services Department (ATSD) had to say about quitting a book. There are some definite similarities between us, which makes sense given that we all ended up in similar library jobs. For instance, only one or two of us will slog through a book even if we hate it, though it seems like many people in the department used to struggle more with putting a book down. In general, reasons cited for quitting a book? “too many others on my to-read list,” “other options that would cover the same genre/topic,” and “why waste time on something you don’t enjoy if it’s not for a specific purpose?”
So, how far will we go before giving in? Some people tend to go by chapter marks, giving 2-3 chapters before closing the book. Others may make a page distinction, as chapter lengths can vary wildly. At least two people in the department mentioned switching formats first before giving up entirely, like moving from physical books to audio, audio to eBook, eBook to hardcover, etc. I’m an emotional and transient kind of person, which means I don’t have a hard and fast rule for myself. Some days I know four pages in whether or not I’m willing to tolerate the writing style. Sometimes I go nearly to the end before I give in and close the cover for good.
Closing the Cover
In general, I think about a couple of factors before I decide to DNF a book:
1. Am I reading this for fun, or is it required?
• A book read for fun has no pressure to complete. A book for an assignment? Probably should slog through
2. Would I enjoy the story if it was told a different way?
• If the story itself is compelling, swapping formats can be a way to complete the book
3. Is the book important culturally/politically/socially/etc., AND is it important to me that I read this title to achieve that goal?
• Sometimes, we read for self-improvement, but that doesn’t mean we are beholden to those titles. There’s probably a similar book from a different author that you could substitute if the topic is important enough to continue
Most of the time, I’m not thinking through this list in an exact sort of way. It’s more an assessment of my mood and general feelings, for the most part. At the end of the day, our worth is not tied to the media we are consuming. We are not beholden to finish titles, and it doesn’t make us quitters to decide to spend our valuable leisure time on something more enjoyable.
I’d be curious if you have any titles that you just couldn’t get through. And, as always, if you find yourself looking for the next thing to pick up, fill out a Personalized Recommendation Form, and we’ll get back to you in a day or two with a handful of titles.