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  • Writer's pictureEmily

The Reading Life: When and why to ditch a book

When I was a kid- not just a little kid, but all through school, and probably all through college- I completed every book that I started. I thought that books were kind of magical, and I revered them, even junky little paperbacks that I can still slightly remember thirty-five years later but really didn’t have any merit, including entertainment.

I’m not sure when it was that I began to realize that if I wasn’t enjoying a book, I could just put it down. I’m pretty sure that I was out of school, but I don’t know if that had anything to do with it. I never minded reading what was assigned to me in school, and if I skipped a reading assignment, it was only because I was caught up in my own reading. I sometimes got by on class discussion instead of reading the book. (I made a project out of reading those books a few years ago.)

Anyway, at some point in my adulthood, I was able to say, "this book just isn’t for me," and put it aside. At first, it was still a pretty rare thing, but as I wrote in a post about tracking my reading, I am an avid re-reader, going back to favorites. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had enough favorites banked to hardly ever need a new book, so there was hardly ever anything to DNF. One favorite after another. Around fifteen years ago, I realized how much of my reading time was spent in going over old favorites, and it was so much that I realized that I have to read more new-to-me books. I don’t think there’s anything in the world wrong with re-reading, but there were so many books out there that I was never going to get to at that rate! I wanted the new books, too.

On a DNF roll

In the last few years, I’ve been trying to branch out even more. I’ve set myself some reading challenges, pushing myself out of ruts and into the wider world of books. More non-fiction, more picking books up that I’ve never heard of before, more getting out of genre-ruts. I’ve read more varied books, and I’m glad of it, but I also think that maybe that’s why I am DNF-ing so many books now. I'm reading more books that I don't know much about going in, I'm purposefully choosing books that don't look just like my old favorites, and I'm checking out more books all the time.

Sometimes I worry that I’m getting on a DNF roll. Like wanting to drop three books in a row. Some possible reasons:

  1. My rising stress levels of the past few years (pandemic, weather disasters, destruction of democracy, bills) is reducing my attention span.

  2. Over-use of Twitter is reducing my attention span.

  3. Maybe I’m getting too persnickety about my reading? Humor is very subjective, but I wonder if I’m too annoyed by jokes that grate on my nerves. (I’m not talking about jokes that are offensive, just not to my taste. I’ll drop offensive books, maybe even throw them out the window. That’s not a problem.) Sometimes it’s not even really jokes, but the sarcasm, or the speech patterns in the dialogue or narration. I started listening to an audiobook recently that just drove me nuts. I gave it a good chance and ditched it around 10%. It was a mystery, and it was supposed to be funny, with a wise-cracking heroine, but I wanted to smack her.

  4. Related to number three, I don’t like many genre tropes. I get that other people find them fun or comforting, and there are probably other reasons to like them; I just don’t. Am I a book snob? Ugh, I hope not. I do read some genre books. I read fantasy or sci-fi that I think of as "mainstream" books. On the borders of the genre.

What to do about it

I’m trying to come up with my reasons for ditching a book, so that I can think about it more clearly, instead of following my gut. Maybe my gut is never wrong about this, but I don’t like having to put DNF in my reading tracker so often. I want to feel that if I’m putting a book down, it was for good and thought-out reason.

Possible criteria for ditching a book:

  1. I usually read to at least 10%. If I’m not into it by 20%, that’s my limit. (I never used to think about books as percentages of pages read until I started reading e-books. Now, even with a print book, I’ve got to flip forward to see how many pages I have read so I can work out my percentage. If I’m enjoying a book, I’m surprised that I’ve already read 10% in one sitting; if I’m not into it yet, I roll my eyes at how much more there is to read.)

  2. For Really Long Books, I’m going to say 50 pages, if that’s less than 10%.

  3. If the book is a classic, I will give it 40-50% before I throw in the towel. Sometimes, these books are harder to read, especially if they’re old. (Like, 70 years before you were born.) But they really might be worth it.

  4. If the book was a recommendation from a friend, the same percentage as a classic.

  5. If the book is making me grit my teeth or roll my eyes so much that I’m worried that I’ll get a headache, I can put it down without giving it a fair shake.

  6. If I'm avoiding reading altogether or reading something else to avoid a book, then I need to let it go. I recently got down my copy of The Collected Sherlock Holmes to read before bed to avoid the non-fiction book that I was trying to read for my 2022 reading challenge. Last night, I made myself pick up the non-fic, and caught myself looking longingly at Sherlock, so I knew that I needed to let the challenge book go.

I really am worried about my attention span, but I’ve recently read two Very Long Books, so maybe that will be alright.

Putting books aside until I’m ready is a different case. If I’m in a bad place, and I’m not enjoying a book because I’m stressed or tired and can’t get into it right now, then I don’t feel bad about putting it down. Maybe I will try it again later.

This may be too much over-thinking, but I actually feel better in getting it all down. I am finishing my second Very Long Book at lunch tomorrow, and then I have three normal-sized novels to read.

I’m going to write a few more posts in The Reading Life series, and some of them will touch on being more careful about what I check out from the library in the first place. (DNF-ing doesn’t usually come into books that I own, because I’ve read most of those before I buy them.)

I’d love to hear what anyone else thinks about DNF-ing or how you make these decisions.

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