Getting Over the Guilt of Abandoning a Book

starry sky

As many books as there are stars in the sky …

As writers, we treasure words more than most. Writing is our religion and books our sacred relics. We know the long hours and piercing self-doubt that go into creating something from nothing. We understand the depth of the author’s commitment to the task of slowly putting one word after another. We have respect for the craft, the process, and the finished product.

Perhaps it is this blind devotion to all things literary and wordish that makes us more susceptible to the guilt of abandoning a book without finishing it.

Have you felt that guilt – that awful remorse that settles around your shoulders when you just can’t read another page?

I have. In fact, I recently abandoned not one, but two books in a single week. The first was a Hobbit-inspired non-fiction work that I hoped would be a charming bedside reader, but which turned out to be a bit too pedantic and preachy for my taste. The second was a unique novel (and I use the term loosely) that lured me in with fabulous print production value and an interesting story-within-a-story concept, but turned out not to have any story at all.

At first I resisted the urge to give up. Despite the fact that I was heading to my reading spot with a sense of obligation instead of joy, I continued to plug away at both books. I read ninety-eight pages (one-fifth) of the “novel” and one-hundred-six pages (one half) of the non-fiction book.

Silly, silly me.

I do not pretend to understand the psychological or cultural quirks that make some of us feel compelled to finish a book we aren’t enjoying. Sometimes, the need to read that which fails to enthrall us comes from a Puritanical sense of responsibility – a presumption that we have a duty (To what? To whom?) to finish what we started … no matter what. Other times, we delude ourselves with the false hope that the book will get better. (It rarely does.) And sometimes, though we hate to admit it, we’re driven by our ego which wants to be able to say we’ve read such-and-such.

These justifications are all traps.

There is absolutely no reason to finish a book you don’t like. No one is keeping score. This isn’t a test. You aren’t going to be sainted or knighted for reading books under duress. Continuing to turn the pages after your interest has waned is nothing but a masochistic form of literary torture. More importantly, it wastes your precious reading time.

Consider this: even if you lived to be one hundred years old and read a book a week starting at age eight, you would still only have time to read fewer than five thousand books. Only five thousand! It may sound like a lot, but do you know how many books are on Amazon? Forget Amazon. How many books are on your personal “to read” list?

Depending on which source you consult and which criteria you define (self-published vs. traditionally published, fiction vs, nonfiction, etc.) the number of books published annually in the United States alone ranges from thirty thousand to one million. The most commonly quoted number is somewhere around three-hundred thousand. Per year.

Still feel like five thousand is a lot?

I didn’t think so.

As Carl Sagan so wisely said, “The trick is to know which books to read.” You have the right to be brutally selective in your reading choices. Don’t feel guilty about abandoning a book.  Unless heaven exists and is (as I fervently hope) an enormous library, your reading time is limited. Choose wisely. Read happily.

What do you think?

  • Do you finish each and every book you start?
  • If you abandon a book, how do you decide it’s time to quit and move on?
  • Have you ever come back to a book you abandoned and wound up loving it?

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Photo Credit: `James Wheeler via Compfight cc

61 thoughts on “Getting Over the Guilt of Abandoning a Book

  1. I have no compunctions about abandoning books. Time is precious. Books are written for a purpose, which is to deliver an emotional satisfaction to the reader. All books. If it doesn’t – and it won;t, for everybody – then it becomes a chore to read. And time, once gone, can never be retrieved.

    • You’re not a terrible reader. You just haven’t found the right books!
      Reading is nearly as important as writing when it comes to becoming a storyteller. The more I read, the better I understand what makes a good story. The trick, as we’ve said, is in choosing what you read wisely.
      Good luck!

  2. There are several which I could easily put away and felt all the better for it. Never picked those back again. As you rightly say, there are so many appealing ones to go through, and life is propelling us forward every single minute.

  3. I’ve finished books I wasn’t enjoying too. Why? I think for various reasons: I’m an optimist and hope it will get better (it usually doesn’t), I want the horrible characters to kill each other horribly (they don’t), I’m stubborn. One series I read to halfway through book 5 of 7 because my sister loved the story and gave me the books. They weren’t to my taste, but well written, until they just got too dark and depressing and dragging on, although the pace had been good in the first ones. And then I found book 7 wasn’t even the end of the story but the rest haven’t been written yet and I just decided life’s too short!

    I think the older you get the more inclined you are to give up on a book you don’t like. I’m a bit scared by the figure of only 5000 books though! I’m sure I get through at least twice that though and ten thousand seems like nearly enough. I reckon heaven will be a huge library with infinite time to read all the books ever written and a comfy chair with cats and a bottomless mug of coffee 🙂

  4. In addition to the reasons you list, I get caught in analysing why I do not like it and (in the case of classics) why some people do, continuing the book in the hopes that I will find an example of writing craft worth the time spent.

    Also, I read at a very high speed: according to Goodreads I have read 244 books this year, which does not include books that were not on Goodreads. So, I sometimes find myself finishing books that are not great on the basis that starting a new book now is not going to be much sooner than finishing this one first.

    • Interesting that you choose to analyze. That must be a very valuable exercise – as both a reader and a writer.

      I’ve sometimes been tempted to take a speed reading course, but I’m afraid it will somehow decrease the enjoyment I get from sinking slowly into a good book. Do you find this to be the case?

      • As a writer continuing with books to see what doesn’t work for me is definitely good; I really have no idea how it affects reading.

        I don’t know if what I do is speed reading, because I have always done it. IN primary school the speed I turned pages was so much higher than normal for my age that the headmaster tested me because people thought I was pretending to read; it turned out I had better comprehension than average.

        My mother reads quickly too, so (when I consider it at all) I wonder if it is a neurological quirk rather than a trained skill.

        As reading is one of my primary pleasures, I do not think my speed harms the enjoyment – although I have no real comparison. If anything, it is the reverse: the less I enjoy a book, the less momentum I build up reading it.

  5. Sometimes I have more than one book on the go, so if one starts to get disappointing, I can switch over to the other book. The geeky book version of using your TV remote I guess.

    • I only just started doing that in recent years. I was always a “monogamous” reader … only one book at a time. Now, I usually have several going (2 print novels, an audiobook novel, several short stories, and a couple non-fiction books). It IS fun to be able to switch back and forth depending on my mood.

  6. Sometimes I catch myself avoiding reading at all. It’s because the book isn’t grabbing my attention. It feels like cheating if I don’t finish. I usually wind up going on a death march to finish it. Then I have a hard time opening the next one for fear of the same thing. I’ve gotten over it, somewhat, but it took years.

    • “Death march” – yes! That’s exactly what it feels like, right?
      Avoiding reading because you’re not enjoying your book – ugh! That’s the worst. I’m glad you’re getting over the guilt so you don’t have to miss any GOOD reading! 🙂

  7. I have abandoned a book only to pick it up again years later and discover that it had become fascinating. A supervisor recommended reading “The Fifth Discipline” for insights on leadership. I found it boring, to say the least. Ten years later (and with more leadership experience) I picked it up one day and found that it was packed with insights that really helped.

    • Sometimes, it’s all about the context. Books need to come to us in their own time, or maybe we come to them. Either way – timing is as important to a good read as to anything else in our lives. Glad you “refound” that one!

  8. Excellent column, Most of the books I abandon are “must read” books. These books are so commonly spoken about as the most influential books ever written, but they don’t reach me. I do feel guilty, as you suggest, but I also feel less intelligent. Why don’t I get books that so many others claim to be speaking some universal language? I’ve gone back numerous times to try and pound some of these books into my head, to get over some proverbial hump, and get so immersed in the story that I don’t care if it’s entertaining… It’s important, I say to myself, keep reading. I go back and reread through the pages I daydreamed through, and I eventually put the book down. If it doesn’t speak to me, it doesn’t speak to me.

    • I SO relate to this. I have also sometimes felt like I must be too stupid to “get” the brilliance that others rave about, but then I wonder if – at least in some instances – it’s not a case of the emperor’s new clothes. And, then I remind myself that a good story shouldn’t be looked down upon just because it’s in a genre that is assumed to be less literary.

      At the end of the day, I want to read books that enrich my life in some way … not books that I can check off the Important Books I Must Read list. 😉 Right?

  9. I shared that guilt in times past, but now that I’ve arrived at certain age, I realize my life is finite and it’s never a good idea to continue with a book I don’t like, just because I’ve had this RULE about never dropping a book.

    Also, I find that a book must match the moment of my experience now. So if I realize this is the not the moment for this book, it’s best to abandon sooner than later.

    Thanks for this!

    • Hearing themes in these comments – the perspective of “a certain age” and aligning books with their “right time.” Seems there’s more to reading a book than just turning the pages!

  10. the only time you should finish a book you don’t like if for college. That is the only time I’ve read to the end of a book I could not stand. After graduation, I decided I would never waste a moment on a book that did not grip me.

  11. I have just this year stopped reading 2 fiction books for the first time ever, and I had a hard time of it. They both were written in a style I could not get into. On my kindle, I was maybe 6% in on one and about 40% on the other. I have decided to give myself permission to discontinue and then write a review about why. Sorry I did not do that for these two so I could share who they were.
    I love your articles/blog Jamie. I look for them everyday. You have a writing style that inspires me and I wish I could be more specific. I think it is more about who you are as a person, very upbeat. 🙂 Thank you for your time and your generous sharing of information. Happy Holidays

    • Congratulations on abandoning those two books and making time for other books that are a better fit. Yay!

      And, thank you so much for your kind words. You’ve just made my day. Truly. 🙂 SO happy to have the opportunity to share with such a wonderful group of fellow writers (and readers!).

  12. I’ve had that abandoner’s remorse before for a few books. One so happened to be to Chronicles of Narnia. I made it through the first three or four in the series before I gave up. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I wasn’t interested and the more I tried to push on, the more it felt like a chore. Then there are the books I picked up with intent to read only to barely get past page one before giving up on it and the author. I still feel bad for it but I know I’m not going back.

  13. I once shelved a short story that could’ve developed into a novella when I figured the public just wasn’t ready for ‘Captain Smegma and the Tranny from the Sewer of Sorrows’, about a failed superhero whose tight foreskin collected toxic smegma, lured into detective work… A mix of genres with definite potential, but I have to be frugal with my time, so I concentrate on my Amsterdam Assassin Series suspense fiction…

  14. I don’t understand, either, the psychological or cultural quirks’ that compel me to keep reading, but, and I’m sure others do it too, I will skip to the last page and break the compulsion. I won’t leave the theatre, though, if a play is awful. There are human beings on the stage doing their darndest to interest me, It’s hard work and I think leaving (usually during interval) is bad manners.

    • Great tip … just read the end and skip the middle. Love it!
      And I agree – I wouldn’t leave a live performance (theatrical or a reading) unless it was offensive. If it was just bad, I’d suffer through it to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.

    • Although … there are reasons to do that, too. Sometimes, we start on a journey, but realize part way to nowhere that we need to change course. That’s actually ok … as long as we don’t abandon writing all together!

  15. I visited smashwords recently and grabbed a heap of free books. As an experiment to gauge quality. Most I finished and kept on the Kindle. One I thought was great and one I bailed on half way through. It featured scientists who seemed so amateurish and out of their depth it was just unrealistic. And there were nearly as many ellipses as there were sentences. No qualms about abandoning that one. But usually I give a book a fair and perhaps over generous chance at finishing.
    It’s funny, I wrote a post about not abandoning a book but going on the whole journey the author takes us on. I likened it to travelling with a friend of mine who cycled from London to Christchurch. Yes, UK to NZ! Female. Solo.

    • Wow! That’s one hell of a bike ride!
      I haven’t explored Smashwords … I’ll have to give it a try. The free, self-published books can be tricky territory, but sometimes you luck out and find a gem. Somehow, the element of discovery makes the read that much more enjoyable. 🙂

  16. I am one of those who feels very guilty abandoning a book I’m reading. Especially if I’m supposed to review it. I refuse to give a bad review–rather, I’d prefer to just not write the review or focus more on the author, their inspiration and process. I have much respect for anyone who dedicated the time, effort, energy, blood, sweat and tears to put words on paper and see the project all the way through, so it’s hard for me to just say no. There have been a few books that were really bad in the first 100 pages, but when the stories finally got their footing, they were actually good. I don’t quite know how to tell a writer that he/she could cut the first 100 pages and have a great story!

    Funny, two books that come to mind that failed to hook me early, and were hard to get me motivated to sit and read, were debut novels by authors who both decided to tell me just how to review their books: “Use this word instead of that,” and “Can’t you say this about it?” and my favorite, “Why can’t you write a review like this example?” Huh? I though the review was my interpretation of what the story is, etc. That last one told me I missed the boat and what my perception of the story was, was indeed not what the story was. This first-time author, published by a major house, actually wrote some nasty emails to me, insisting that I write about book the way he/she wanted. Did I rush to post that review? Nope. Did I rush out when he/she came to town for a reading? Uh-uh. Time to move on.

    I recently abandoned a book I was to review. I began reading it once before, and it was a book that was so “rich” in language, it was actually hard to read. Each sentence was so carefully crafted and loaded with words many of us might never string together. I told my husband it was a book of “heavy prose,” too which he shook his head. I put it down because I just didn’t have the time–it was so “heavy” it took 45 minutes to read 30 pages! After getting the guilt trip from the PR rep about not posting a review, I decided to give it one more try. Honestly, I couldn’t remember anything about this story, so I started over. It took about as long as it did the first time to read. Now I understand every book isn’t going to be a fast read, and well, James Joyce books are not beach reads after all, this book was one that I absolutely dreaded. The best way I can describe it is that it exhausts me just to read it. It’s taking way too long to get to the story, which actually sounded interesting. Yet I feel so horrible for not plowing through. I haven’t gotten up the nerve–or found the words–to tell the PR rep and author I can’t review the book. Why do I let it upset me so much?!

    Now, someone else here mentioned the guilt of abandoning of WRITING one’s own book. Oh, I’ve got that too! Two books wait in the wings, as I have dealt with health issues of my own, my parents, and one of my children. Each day, I think, “Will this be the day I dust one of them off?” And then it isn’t. And I feel awful–like I’ve let a friend down.

    All this guilt…I have to learn to let it go! Thanks for listening!

    • I used to review children’s books for BabyCenter (Johnson & Johnson’s parenting blog), and it was always very painful when I couldn’t find anything good to say about a particular book. I was often surprised at what made it past the editorial desks at major publishing houses.

      I’m sorry you got guilted into spending so much time on a book you didn’t enjoy, but I hope that’s behind you now and you’ve moved on to something you love.

      Good luck dusting off your projects. 🙂

  17. For me , there was never a time when I left a book in the middle of my reading habit. It was a matter of obligation that I seem to have towards the authors who tirelessly give in their thoughts to select the perfect words in describing a situation. For me, that is something I have begun to realize lately :selecting the right word. Nonetheless, the book which I felt boring after reading a few chapters but ended up liking it is Ruth Rendell’s The Gunner’s Daughter..

    • I understand the compulsion to read to the end. It’s kind of like we writers are brothers in arms, but sometimes you need to fight your own battles (and that doesn’t include reading a book you aren’t enjoying). Still, as you say, sometimes you can come back to something and find it’s suddenly a good fit for you. I suppose that’s why second chances are so important. 🙂

  18. I think we also grow out of books. Try going back to something you really enjoyed 30 years ago (when you’re old enough, tee hee!) and maybe you’ll agree. And this even applies to the classics. Then again, something I’d enjoy reading on the beach (or in hospital) might not work for me during the week. And vice versa. Horses for courses?

    • I am totally old enough to return to things I read 30 years ago. 😉

      I have found that some of the books I loved in my youth are still treasured favorites worth a re-read, while others have become faded ghosts of what I once thought they were. I have an old, paperback copy of a book called The Phantom Tollbooth. I remember loving it as a kid, but when I took a look recently (thinking my daughter might like it), I couldn’t get into it.

      We do change, and so do our writing tastes … over the years, and – as you point out – depending on our moods. Thank goodness there’s a book for every occasion!

  19. I’ve recently put away two high-praised ones. One of them was quite big, but yes, I found it “preachy” as you say (thanks for the new english word!). The other one resulted in no story at all. I tend to save the energy of my one-sighted reading machinery.

  20. I abandon books all the time, but I usually go back to them eventually, unless I find them truly noxious. Actually, even then – perhaps I’m a touch compulsive, but the idea of the unfinished book gets under my skin!

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  22. A long time ago, I always “finished” books – although galloping through them hardly counted as “reading”. Some deserved it. Now I do abandon books if bored with them – or irritated by their poor grammar/mechanics. Just so much time and so many books!

    • The way you describe your relationship with a book (“… bored with them – or irritated…”) made me smile because it felt like you were talking about an acquaintance. That’s really quite an apt metaphor because we do end up spending a lot of time with a book (more time, I’d wager, than we spend with any given casual acquaintance over the course of a week or two). And – just as we need to do with our relationships – we must cut out the ones that don’t feed our souls to make room for the ones that do.

  23. Yes! I know exactly what you mean. And I like you’re reasons. Esp the feeling we have to finish what we started and it might get better. I’d add to that the fact that I don’t like wasting money.

    Interestingly, for me the guilt really only lasts while I’m making the hard choice to abandon. Once I’ve stopped reading, I usually get over it immediately.

    • Hi, Glenn – good point about not wasting money. I think I worry about that, too. (Been loving my local library for that reason.)

      I’ve also experienced that temporary guilt you mention. Once I’ve made the decision, it’s much easier to let it go … kind of like with a human relationship. 😉

      TKS for coming by!

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