I have a theory that readers tend to lean towards one of two tendencies—
Either they feel the need to push through and finish a book (even if they don’t like the book at all),
They grow restless if a book doesn’t pick up fast enough or if it slows down too much in the middle, and so they recklessly leave heaps of books abandoned.
I definitely fall into the first camp.
My problem with just abandoning books I don’t like started all the way back in elementary school: I had picked up a copy of Jacob Have I Loved from the classroom library and started reading it, when I was questioned by my teacher as to how I was enjoying it so far.
“Um, I don’t really know,” I admitted. “It’s kind of slow. I kind of don’t want to finish it.”
My teacher knelt down by my desk and imparted then the words that have perhaps doomed me for life:
“You know, I believe that you should always read to at least page 40 of a book before deciding whether or not it’s for you. If you’re still not interested by page 40, you can abandon it. But a lot of times, you’ll find that it just takes that long to get into a good story.”
Her theory seemed sound, so I decided right then and there to adopt it as my own (at the tender age of 9).
The only problem?
Once I was 40 pages into a book, I felt like I’d already invested too much time to just drop it all entirely, so thus began my problem with simply trudging through books I hated until the bitter end (see The Course of Love, Go Set a Watchman, and The Signature of All Things).
With a series, this problem became especially thorny since once I’d finished the first book, I felt obligated to just ride the whole thing out (the one exception to this being the first book in the Mistborn series that I read when I lost a bet to my husband, which remains the only book I’ve read in that series).
It is for this reason that I trudged through most of the YA series that became so popular—Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent—even though I didn’t especially like them. (It wasn’t until recently, actually, when I got into the Lunar Chronicles series, that I found a YA series that I liked in its entirety since Harry Potter.)
This behavioral phenomenon actually has been widely studied in psychology and has a very specific name–it’s called the Sunk Cost Fallacy, and it basically means that once an investment of time, energy, and/or money has been made, it makes it harder to get out of the endeavor, even if little benefit or reward is coming from it.
However, I AM slowly trying to break myself of this distressing tendency, as I am realizing more and more each year the truthfulness of the common saying: “So many books, so little time.”
And I’ve actually discovered a few things that have really helped.
Surprisingly, one of the greatest helps has been that I’ve started checking out books (with great regularity) from the library again. For so many years, I insisted on buying any book that I wanted to read, which meant that I REALLY felt like I had to read it all the way through when I finally got around to it (because now I’d invested money in addition to time on it!).
Now, if a book is due back to the library and I can’t renew it (and it’s not good enough to want to breeze through in the days I have left until its due date), I simply return it without intending to borrow it back again. (This is what happened with the book Simplicity Parenting, which I’d mentioned in a post awhile back. Although the book made some terrific points in the 65 or so pages I’d read, the tone of the book bugged me just enough that it made me not want to pick up the book regularly at night in my usual reading time).
Another thing that has helped me to be better at abandoning books is letting go of reads that have triggers in them that are particularly disturbing or distressful to my (rather sensitive) psyche. Since having Raven, I have become VERY sensitive to anything involving child abuse (which is why I abandoned Justin Cronin’s The Passage about 45 pages in), and I also have a really hard time with needless violence and hate crimes (which is why I abandoned Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things, because one of the characters made me physically ill as I read about him). While I know that terrible things happen in the world, sensitive subject matter has to be treated in just such a way that I can handle it, and it has to have a significant reason for being included (like in Homegoing, which I struggled getting through due to the cruelty, but that I pushed through because I saw the purpose in it being included).
The hardest books for me to abandon (by far) are books that I both own and that are considered classics. Since most classics are rather slow to start (and some are slow all the way through), I still appreciate that most are classics for a good reason, so I’m often willing to push through there when I sometimes wouldn’t otherwise. This can be a good thing (as was the case with Great Expectations and A Passage to India, both of which took me two or three tries to make it through all the way), or it can be something I almost regret doing (as in the case of Love in the Time of Cholera or Heart of Darkness).
Because of this tendency to push through classics and books on recommended reading lists NO MATTER WHAT, it also really helped when I decided to stop exclusively reading off of such lists and just read whatever the heck I wanted. For years, I felt guilty “sneaking” other books that weren’t on those lists, which meant that I would often go awhile without reading much because I wasn’t motivated by my current choices.
Now, because I’ve finally let myself just read whatever sounds interesting (whether it’s on a recommended reading list or not), I’m getting much better at recognizing what books speak to me and which are worth pushing through on and which are better off being abandoned.
I know it might seem like an odd thing to be proud of, but I’ve been able to successfully abandon around 8 or 10 books over the past year (some of which I was over 100 pages into!), which is a far cry from the 9-year-old girl who set out to read 40 pages and ended up always, ALWAYS finishing.
Do you have trouble abandoning books? Or do you have trouble sticking with them long enough to see if they’re worth your time in the end?
You might also be interested in:
The Re-Reading Conundrum
Books: To Borrow or to Buy?
Why I Can’t Buy Any More Books for at Least 8 Years