You Don’t Have to Finish the Book, by Jemimah Halbert Brewster

I’ve been seeing a lot of articles and posts recently about not finishing a book once you’ve started reading it, and I feel it’s time to share my journey with this issue. There are many reasons a reader will resist giving up on a book, and for me they looked something like the following:

  1. “I can’t not finish a book. I started it and I owe it to the author to finish it.”
  2. “I’ll never know what happens in the end, and even though reading it has become a chore, I can’t not know how it ends.”
  3. “I won’t be able to tick it off on Goodreads, so I have to finish it.”
  4. “I have to read it for a class/a review/my friend or relative who wrote it.”

I used to be a non-negotiable book-finisher. I always finished the book, and if I didn’t finish it I would put it somewhere with the express intention of finishing it at a later date, after I’d read something better to get my reading mojo back. This went on for years not really being a problem, until my resolve was tested and I had to seriously question why I always finished the book. The novel that truly tested me shall remain nameless. I’ll just say that it was made into a movie starring George Clooney, and that was my sole reference for quality when I picked it up in the second hand shop for $1. Oh how young and naïve…
Anyway, I was about to move interstate and I had two months to make decisions about which books to bring, which to put into storage, and which to get rid of. A situation like this really throws your priorities into sharp relief, and I had a (HUGE) pile of books that I was very uncertain about and planned to diligently plough my way through before we left the state. This George-Clooney-movie-remake was in the pile, and when I got to it I dutifully began reading it in the only spare time I had: the afternoons when I got home from work. The plot wasn’t that interesting, but it seemed like there might be a revelation at the end. The protagonist was wishy-washy and poorly-written and generally unbelievable, but I figured that he’d have a moment of truth and improve somewhere in the climax of the story. The setting was interesting, but nothing especially new or ground-breaking. In short: a mediocre book.
About a third of the way through I began to wonder where it was all going: the heart-string-tugging crisis that began the story was annoying and un-genuine, the one teenage character was moody and rebellious, and they were all embarrassingly unaware of their privilege. But I persevered for the next third of the book, thinking that things would get better. They didn’t. At that point I seriously considered giving up because nothing was improving: the writing was still mediocre, the characters still unlike-ably cliché and boring, but I’d read this far and I wasn’t giving up. I got to the end. It ended. I still disliked everything about the book, I’d read it to the end, and I wondered why on earth anyone made a movie out of it. I looked at the books on my to-bring-interstate shelf, the ones I was excited about reading, and I looked back at the book I’d just finished, the one I’d felt lukewarm about and persevered with anyway, and I felt cheated. I would never get those hours back, there would never be a redemption for how bad that book was, and I had just wasted time when I could’ve been reading something enjoyable to help me navigate the stress of moving house.
Giving up on a book might seem like a sort of failure, or like you’re letting someone down, but let me lay something serious on you: you are only alive for a (relatively) small amount of time. There are literally millions of books out there, plus extra reading material like fanfic, articles, forums, magazines, etc. If you’re too busy reading a book you’re not enjoying (or worse, avoiding reading it and therefore reading less and watching Netflix more), you’re taking away time that you could be reading something better. Unless you need to read that book for a specific, immutable reason (see point #4), you will reach the end of that book and you will feel cheated.
Since the George-Clooney-movie-remake novel I have been much more discerning, in both buying and reading books. There are books that I never intend to read at all, not even to attempt, including classics that always appear on books-everyone-should-read lists. I watched the movie of Anna Karenina and that was enough for me. I love every adaptation of Great Expectations I’ve ever seen, but I doubt I’ll ever slog through the whole book. Fifty Shades, the sick-lit books, endless streams of vampire fiction, terrorist-thwarting thrillers. They don’t interest me, and I doubt they ever will. Now it’s become an adventure, a challenge, and incredibly satisfying when I find an amazing book or author purely by chance, or when I try something I don’t think I’ll like and it turns out to really speak to me. Life is too short, and there are too many excellent works out there.
Your reading time is precious, so choose wisely my friends.

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