Abandoning Books Without Guilt

City of God by Augustine

The scene of my greatest book abandonment. 525 pages read, only 566 to go.

There was a time when I tried really, really hard to finish reading any book that I began. I had two motivations:

  1. It felt like a failure if I couldn’t get through to the end.
  2. I also felt an obligation to the author. After all, if I had written a book, I’d want everyone to finish the whole thing, right?

I’m not sure when, but several years ago, this guilt went away. I read a great deal, but I probably drop almost as many books as I finish. There are a few reasons why I quit reading a book.

The book loses my interest. This is most common with novels. Last month, with great sorrow, I returned to the library a novel I really, really wanted to like. A new novel by one of my favorite writers, I had even tried to pitch a review of it to couple of publications. Now, I’m glad that neither of those pitches worked out. I gave the novel a good shot, but 100 pages in, I still didn’t care one bit for the characters or their problems.

Sometimes, a book loses my interest so thoroughly that I actually forget I was reading it, set it down somewhere, and simply never pick it up again. This happened with a novel I had taken to Urbana 12 with me. A few weeks after I returned home, I looked in the backpack I had taken with me and discovered the book. Strangely enough, I had found the book enjoyable enough while I was reading it, but if it had left so little impact on my brain, I didn’t see much point in picking it up again.

I realize the book isn’t worth my time. I mentioned this thought to my wife once, and she felt it was a terribly unfair thing to say. But it’s true! There are far more books worth reading than I will ever have time to read, so why should I waste my time on books that are poorly written, poorly conceived, or flat out wrong? Of course, I do waste my time on plenty of books exactly like that. Some of them just strike me as more of a waste than others.

The flip side of this is that I get so excited about another book that it overwhelms any desire to finish the book I’m currently reading. Since I’m generally reading several books at the same time, I usually don’t realize that I’m abandoning the book. It’s more like it gets bumped from the rotation. A week or two or three goes by, the book gets returned to the shelf, and it’s quietly dropped.

It’s not the book — it’s me. The book isn’t always at fault. Sometimes, I’m not ready for the book. It might be over my head, and I need to do some preliminary reading to work up to the book’s level. Occasionally, a book goes to an emotional place that I’m not willing to follow, as with my greatest abandonment to date, Augustine’s City of God. Over 500 pages in (which was still only about halfway through), I had to put the book aside. At the time, I was struggling with mild depression, and Augustine began a long, unvarnished meditation on death that I simply couldn’t handle. So I set the book aside, hoping to return to it one day.

What are your thoughts? Do you try to finish every book you start?

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One thought on “Abandoning Books Without Guilt

  1. Went through the same “crisis” a few years back with Anna Karenina. Got through at least 3/4 of book only to realize I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters.

    “But you’re almost done!” “Don’t be a quitter!” “It’s an Important Piece Of Literature!”
    And so on.

    But I didn’t care. I felt like I was failing some sort of spiritual discipline, failing the Great Conversation, failing my 12th grade English teacher, failing myself.

    And maybe I was…but I still didn’t care. I returned Anna to the library.

    Forever.

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