Books

Why we need to stop forcing ourselves to finish books we hate

Posted by
Sarah Shaffi
Published

Guess what? Nothing bad will happen if you don’t finish a book you don’t like.

Quitting can be difficult to do, whether it be leaving your job or kicking a bad money habit.

We’ve been conditioned to think that quitting something means that we’ve failed and it’s even worse as women, given the perfection we’re expected to attain all areas of our life. The ascendance of Instagram, with its shiny selfies, has made it harder.

But I’m a firm believer that quitting can be good for our mental and physical health, as well as our careers and relationships.

While working out whether it’s time to quit your job or break off a friendship can be a minefield, there’s one area of life where quitting should be easy: books we don’t like. It should be simple to stop reading books we’re not enjoying, but most people continue struggling through even if they don’t like the characters, plot or style.

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I should know, I used to be one of those people. It didn’t matter how terrible I thought a book was, I would grit my teeth and continue to the bitter (and it was so often bitter) end.

But putting down a book you’re not enjoying is actually a good thing, which is why I’m such a big fan of the new Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell’s charter.

Cowell, who is the author of the How to Train Your Dragon and the Wizards of Once books, has set out 10 things she believes all children have the right to do when it comes to reading.

They include having the right to access new books in schools, libraries and bookshop, own their own book and be creative for at least 15 minutes a week.

And in amongst the charter are two that particularly hit home for me – the right to read for the joy of it, and the right to have a choice in what you read, including not finishing a book if you don’t like it.

The thought that I couldn’t put a book down if I didn’t like it began at school. For many people, our reading habits are shaped at school, where reading for pleasure is quickly drummed out of us in favour of reading for “work”.

Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, William Golding, Chaucer – our school days consisted of reading the work of authors from the literary canon. And while these authors did produce excellent work (and of course reading the whole of their play/book/poem was essential for passing exams), I don’t believe the way to instil a love of books into a child is to have them read the work of (mostly) dead, white men – the same books that generations before them studied at school – and then analyse it to the point of exhaustion.

I was a voracious reader outside of school, but because of the rigidity of reading at school – outside of lessons, we still had to finish the books we got out of the school library or read during individual reading – I still grew up with the idea that I should always finish a book. It meant I struggled through classics that bored me or books I didn’t really understand or novels that frightened me, but because I’d started them I had to see them through to the end or I’d have failed as a reader.

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I’m lucky that I had an active reading life outside of school, thanks to a library that was within walking distance, and parents who believed in taking me there each Saturday morning (until I was old enough to walk by myself – what a day that was).

For many young people, the reading they do at school forms a majority, if not all, of the reading they do. Access to books should be a right, but it’s actually a privilege: not everyone has well-stocked libraries or bookshops near them, and even if they do, budgets might not stretch to keeping a child in new books for years.

So we enter adulthood perhaps not reading much, and feeling when we do pick up a book, it’s our duty to read it from beginning to end. Not doing so can trigger feelings of guilt or inadequacy. “Other people finished this book, why can’t I? Everyone else loves that novel, is there something wrong with me if I don’t? If I’m struggling with this book, is it because I’m not clever enough to understand it?”

It’s tempting to say “just a few more pages and then I’m sure I’ll like it” to ourselves about a book, and if you can comfortably and enjoyably do that, you do you. 

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But guess what? Nothing bad will happen if you don’t finish a book you don’t like (provided you’re not about to take an exam or write an essay on it). Not getting to the end of a book doesn’t mean you’re not clever or emotionally intelligent. It’s not a sign of any inadequacies in you, it’s just a sign that that book is not for you.

It’s taken me decades to get to the point where I can start a book, realise I’m not liking it, and then just stop reading it. The first time I put DNF – Did Not Finish in book geek parlance – on my book spreadsheet (what? I read a lot for work and a spreadsheet is a good way to keep track), I felt relieved, freed, and a little rebellious.

Life is too short, and there are too many books to carry on reading one you’re not enjoying. Think of it less as quitting one book, and more as making room in your life for another that you could potentially love.

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Sarah Shaffi

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