We’re halfway through 2018, do you know how many books you’ve read? If you’re a devotee of the yearly reading challenge, you’re probably hyper-aware of how many more books you’ve got to get through to reach your goals. I know I am. And although I am on track to reach my goal by the end of the year, I still feel like I haven’t read quite as much as I would have liked to. And Goodreads, which hosts their own hugely popular reading challenge, seems to know exactly how I — and maybe a bunch of my fellow bibliophiles — am feeling right now. I want to make it a priority to read more often, and I would love to smash a decent chunk out of my current TBR stack this summer. So they recently published a blog post titled Hot Reading Challenge Tips from Pros Who Read More Than 100 Books a Year and there was one piece of universal advice: stop finishing books you don’t like. Is your mind totally blown? Because mine was.
OK, I know this isn’t exactly news. It’s pretty obvious that slogging through a book I’m not enjoying can be a long, tedious, and obviously boring task that is keeping me from books I will actually enjoy and would probably read much faster. So why do I, and so many other readers, insist on finishing every book they’ve started? According to experts, there are actually a few factors at play. Speaking to Heidi Mitchell in The Wall Street Journal, clinical psychologist Matthew Willhelm says that stress might play a role in our compulsion to finish every book we start. According to Wilhelm, the idea of leaving something unfinished actually goes against our human nature, which is why we don’t tend to walk out of films we’re not enjoying or step away from a board game before we’ve taken our final turn. He says, “There is a tendency for us to perceive objects as ‘finished’ or ‘whole’ even though they may not be. This motivation is very powerful and helps to explain anxiety around unfinished activities.”
Basically, we tend to feel more psychological satisfaction from finishing a book, however mind-numbingly boring we find it, than we would if we just cast it off and moved on to the next thing. I’ve definitely found that to be true for me. There is something undeniably pleasing about turning the final page of a book and marking it as ‘Read’ on Goodreads, whether it was an enjoyable experience or not. And it’s this public display of completion that actually has us suffering through more disappointing books than ever, according to Willhelm. In the same Wall Street Journal article, he says, “The more important motivator of finishing a book is social pressure, which is why book clubs are so good at getting readers to the epilogue.”
But although the whys make a lot of sense, I think it’s pretty clear that the main problem here is that so many of us are prioritizing fleeting psychological satisfaction over real, lasting, and oftentimes motivating feelings of reading pleasure. Sure, I love checking a book off the old TBR just as much as the next person. But when I get to the end of the year having read 50 books and only really, truly enjoyed 30 of them, I tend to think of the reading year as way less successful than the numbers imply. And I’m super likely to hit a reading slump when I’ve finished a book I hated, while I’m always motivated to pick up something new after I’ve turned the final page on a book I loved.
So, I’m resolving to change the narrative around “completing” books from now on. And there are a few ways I’m going to do it. One, I’m going to give myself an end goal that isn’t the final page. If, at the 50 page mark, I’m just not feeling a book, I will consider it finished and move right along. For you it might be at the halfway mark, or even after a ruthless 20 pages. Whatever feels right for you. And there is absolutely nothing stopping you from marking a DNF (or Did Not Finish) book as ‘Read’ on your yearly challenge, so you’ll get the double satisfaction of checking it off and moving on to more enjoyable books.
My second plan is to declutter my bookshelves more often. There’s no point having un-read and unloved books on my shelves or in my e-reader, taunting and tempting me with their unfinished status, especially when I’ve tried to read them multiple times and could never get past page 30. By removing these books from our lives, handing them off to friends or donating them to a bookstore or library,we can free as much mental space as physical space. Beyond that, I’ll be completely disregarding the idea of guilt when it comes to reading. Because the only real regrets I ever have when it comes to books, is not spending enough time reading the ones that make me happy. This summer, let’s make loving the books we read the only challenge that matters.