I’ll probably die with a giant list of T.B.R. (To Be Read) books. I’ve mostly come to terms with this. One lifetime is simply not enough to devour all of life’s stories. In some ways, there’s even something comforting about having a Scherazade’s stockpile of tales. If you’re a reader, you’ll always have a friend. You’ll have always have new stories to look forward to. And you’ll never, ever run out of words.
The problem is…knowing when to give up.
I think we can all agree that not every book is worth finishing (and some probably not even worth starting). Reading should be enjoyable or thought-provoking. Reading should move us, allow us to step outside ourselves, grant us a new perspective, scare us, excite us or move us to tears . Books should start by posing questions we want answered. Books should have mysteries, cliff-hangers, unresolved character arcs or that certain ship that we really, really want to see get together. Reasons, in short, to keep going.
The past month or two I’ve found myself in the murky, nebulous world of D.N.F. (Did Not Finish) books.
We were taught growing up that finishing is good. No one brags about running part of a marathon for a reason. Finishing shows tenacity and perseverance (both arguably good character traits).
But sometimes a bad book is like a bad relationship. Maybe you’re dwelling on all the good times you and the author had in the past and don’t want to admit just how much that relationship has soured. Maybe you’re so far in, you feel like you can’t give up now, no matter how painful it is to continue. Or maybe, it’s not them, it’s you. Books, like people, don’t always come to us at the right time. Maybe we’re too naive or not willing to listen or grieving or detached; maybe the words don’t move us now the same way they would have ten years ago or they will ten years from now.
I think we can all agree though – reading shouldn’t feel like swimming through treacle with diving weights on. It should buoy us, transport us. Otherwise, what are we even doing? We could be marathoning a season of TV on Netflix. There are better ways to waste our time than in a bad book. Why cling to the terrible, the prosaic, the purple prose, out of some misguided sense of endurance? Why hang on to something bad, when something potentially awesome awaits us?
What do we actually get from finishing a bad book? Will it help us grow as people? Will it teach us something about strength and endurance? Will we even remember the characters a month from now, a year from now?
Logically, I know – as in toxic relationships and as in life – so it is in books. So why is so hard to let go? I’ve just spent the past two months of my life forcing myself to eat a meal I don’t like. Maybe I liked the restaurant in the past, but the new chef is terrible. Why can’t I just leave my food on my plate, pay my check and leave? Why do I keep sitting at that table? Am I a masochist? Stubborn and bull-headed? Or simply an idiot?
I’m sure there’s a myriad of psychological reasons to explain why we hang on to things even when we know they no longer serve us. So when do we draw the line? How much is too much? When should we say goodbye?
1. Go from D.N.F. (Do Not Finish) to D.N.S. (Do Not Start).
How many bad dates do we really need to go on before we decide a person just isn’t going to be our next relationship? A lot of the time, I can tell a book isn’t for me by the first sentence. It’s not necessarily a sign of a bad book. Sometimes it’s the point of view or the writing style or the content. If you’re not hooked by the first several pages, move on. It’s easier to not finish what we don’t truly start. If we don’t get invested, it’s easier to walk away.
2. Let it Go.
So you really love this author. Or the book was a hotly anticipated new release that you’ve been waiting all year for. Or everyone else you know loved it. Or the critics claimed this writer was the next [insert famous author here]. It’s really hard to let go of things we’ve been looking forward to or that we have some kind of personal stake in. But sometimes, those are the ones we most need to make a clean break with. If it doesn’t “spark joy” as Marie Kondo would say, maybe it’s time for an amicable split.
3. Take a break.
It doesn’t have to be goodbye forever, but if a book isn’t holding your attention now, maybe it’s time to part ways for a while. You can always come back later when you’re in a different frame of mind. This works particularly well when it’s a slow-paced book and you’re in the mood for a faster read or a cerebral book when you’re in the mood for something light.
4. Plow ahead.
Sometimes, the answer is to keep going. Do you care about what happens to the characters? Keep going. Do you want to have a question answered or a mystery wrapped up? Keep going. Is it part of a series you’re committed to? Keep going. Sometimes your hard work might pay off. Sometimes the book will come together in those final pages in an unexpected or surprising way. (Or sometimes, you’ll have wasted a couple hours of your time. It’s hard to say…)
Ultimately, the decision to D.N.F. or not is up to you. But if you find yourself, like me, in a dreaded cycle of D.N.F. books, try to find the courage to let go and move on before it’s too late.
There are, after all, more stories than we could ever read in a lifetime. Why settle for one you don’t want to hear?