Do You Know When to Stop Reading?

English novelist Nick Hornby wrote a surprisingly frank essay about how to read in which he suggests people fight the urge to stop reading something they are not enjoying. His thoughts stemmed from not wanting to continually slam unentertaining books in his reviews:

My solution was to try to choose books I knew I would like. I’m not sure this idea is as blindingly obvious as it seems. We often read books that we think we ought to read, or that we think we ought to have read, or that other people think we should read (I’m always coming across people who have a mental, sometimes even an actual, list of the books they think they should have read by the time they turn 40, 50, or die); I’m sure I’m not the only one who harrumphs his way through a highly praised novel, astonished but actually rather pleased that so many people have got it so wrong.

He argues that people feel compelled to read things they might dislike and end up associating reading with hard work and ultimately boredom. The result could be a decline in readership.

If reading books is to survive as a leisure activity – and there are statistics that show that this is by no means assured – then we have to promote the joys of reading, rather than the (dubious) benefits.

The solution?


Put the book down and read something else:

The whole purpose of books is that we read them, and if you find you can’t, it might not be your inadequacy that’s to blame. ‘Good’ books can be pretty awful sometimes.

I would never attempt to dissuade anyone from reading a book. But please, if you’re reading a book that’s killing you, put it down and read something else, just as you would reach for the remote if you weren’t enjoying a television programme.

Your failure to enjoy a highly rated novel doesn’t mean you’re dim – you may find that Graham Greene is more to your taste, or Stephen Hawking, or Iris Murdoch, or Ian Rankin. Dickens, Stephen King, whoever.

It doesn’t matter. All I know is that you can get very little from a book that is making you weep with the effort of reading it. You won’t remember it, and you’ll learn nothing from it, and you’ll be less likely to choose a book over Big Brother next time you have a choice.

I find all this interesting because I have caught myself finishing a book I did not enjoy. I submit A Scanner Darkly as evidence of this. I’m not entirely sure why I did this. As preparation for the then-upcoming movie which I now have no desire to see? Another notch on my reading belt? So I could say I read a classic?

I don’t think it’s just for the sake of finishing it. There have been plenty of books I just didn’t finish for one reason or another: Light, The Merchants’ War, Spin State, Half Past Human and Little, Big for example. I would like to go back and give Light and Little, Big another try, though because the bad reading experience was due to factors unrelated to the book itself.

3 thoughts on “Do You Know When to Stop Reading?”

  1. I hate to not finish a book, even ones I don’t like. It seems like failure somehow.

    That said there are a few books I’m part way through now and have put aside to come back to later because they’ve just lost (or never had) my interest.

    On the other hand I came to the conclusion several years ago that I shouldn’t worry about reading the “good” books, many of which it turns out I don’t enjoy at all. A lot of my favorite reads are just simple fantasy stories with no greater literary pretensions and I’m fine with that.

  2. Indeed. I live by that and have for years. If you aren’t enjoying something, then read something you’d enjoy instead. It’s not complex.

    Yes, sure there are times that it takes a while to get into a story, but if you’re 1/4 to 1/3 of the way into something and you still are not enjoying it – then stop.

    There is no nobility in reading masochism.

    Life is too short to read things you dislike. And there are plenty of things out there that you’d enjoy so go for them instead.

    Of course there’s the related problem when people feel the need to defend their readings as important, good or significant somehow. It’s silly and it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you enjoy it, you don’t have to justify what you read to anyone.

  3. I’m from the “life is short” crowd. I’ll spend one evening with a book, and if it doesn’t capture me, then I’m done. There are so many books out there. Just because a particular one is not for me doesn’t mean that it sucks – best of luck to that author, but it’s not my cup of tea.

    Of course, there are always exceptions. I won’t review anything without reading the whole thing, and I always give extra effort to a book if it comes recommended from somebody whose opinion I value.

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