Scott H Young

Know When to Stop Reading a Book


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Stop reading boring books.  Unless you absolutely need to finish reading a book for a class, position or job, you’re probably better off putting down books you don’t enjoy.  I’ve found good books are like good food, the more you enjoy it, the faster you want to ingest it.  Except, while eating a hamburger in five minutes probably isn’t healthy, a high-information diet will keep you sharp.

I’m a finisher.  I believe in finishing what I start, so the idea of discarding or postponing books I’m not enthralled with doesn’t sit well with me.  I have a natural tendency to need to finish books I start reading, even if they grow dull midway.

I suspect a lot of people have the same attitude, especially if they are buying their books.  These people have already sunk $20-$30 on a book, and probably several hours to give reading it a chance.  So I think it is common to want to finish the book, even if you aren’t interested in it anymore.

    Enjoyment is the Key to Productivity

If you enjoy what you’re doing, it isn’t work.  If you don’t enjoy work, it’s agony.  The same rule applies for reading.  If you’re like me, a literary glutton, and you want to read as much as possible, boring books are a big obstacle to that goal.  A boring book slows down your reading productivity so that you end up reading far less.

I think if you’re not a regular book reader, you might need to push yourself through a few books to get started.  Reading is a habit, and it can take some time to find the rhythm and book style that holds your interest.  However, if you already read frequently, I see no reason to push through a boring book just to see it completed.

Reading for Ideas

I don’t read for entertainment, I read for ideas.  Even when I read fiction, I’m usually less interested in the strict entertainment value (I prefer films or games for my entertainment dosage) than I am in the ideas.  Writing, especially in book format, is one of the best ways to gather ideas.  I’ve already written about the reasons for becoming a literary glutton.  I think consuming a lot of ideas is critical to your creative output.  If you want to be productive and come up with brilliant solutions to problems, you need to have poured through a lot of ideas beforehand.

When you don’t read strictly for entertainment, I think there is more pressure to continue books you don’t enjoy, but feel are important.  You might not like a book’s writing style, but based on recommendations from friends or media, feel you need to finish a book because the ideas are very important.

I disagree with this perspective.  I think your enjoyment of a book is a good barometer for how important the ideas are for your life.  If you find a book boring, it means you aren’t able to get a lot of connections for the ideas to things that matter to you.  I rarely read books on politics, not because they aren’t important, but because politics is relatively less important to me than other subjects.

 Sunk Costs and Bad Books

In standard economic theory, a sunk cost is any past expense that can’t be changed by future decisions, and as a result, should not be factored in when making those decisions.  For example, if you’ve already put $1000 into an investment, it doesn’t make sense to spend another $500, if you only expect to get $450 in return.  The first thousand bucks is gone, and spending $500 to get $450 is a bad deal.

Unfortunately most people don’t follow standard economic theory.  We’re irrational, and often use sunk costs when making decisions.  Reading books is another example.  If you’ve spent money on a book, you may feel obligated to read it, even when you lose interest.  If you’ve chewed out 100 pages, you may feel the need to finish the last 400, to complete what you’ve started.

The rationalist would say this is faulty thinking.  It doesn’t matter whether you bought a bad book, that can’t be changed (unless you ask for a refund).  It also doesn’t matter whether you wasted time on the first 100 pages (you can’t go back in time).  If the future ideas you can gather from the book aren’t worth the time spent reading, you should put it down.

This is easier said than done, however.  So I think there are a few steps you can take to ensure a boring book doesn’t clog your reading flow:

  •     Libraries.  You might not feel the pressure to finish if you haven’t spent any money.  Libraries can take some of the uncertainty away from buying a book.
  •     Have the next book lined up.  Buy/borrow more than one book at a time, this way you’ll always have the next book to move on to, if the first book loses appeal.
  •     Skim the book before reading.  If you aren’t reading a mystery novel, try looking through parts of the book quickly before committing to reading the book.  The introductory chapter often isn’t a great sample for the ideas in the rest of the book.

Should You Abandon Boring Projects?

I believe the same principle, leaving pursuits that don’t interest you, applies to other projects, but to a lesser degree.  I’d give a longer period of time to tolerate boring projects, because many projects have their ups and downs.  A book is also a relatively small commitment, and you can still get value from a book you don’t finish (whereas most other pursuits are all-or-nothing).

I think reading is important, but it shouldn’t be work.  If you let boring books clog your library, it will become a chore.


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25 Responses to “Know When to Stop Reading a Book”

  1. Shanel Yang says:

    I totally agree! We waste precious time and money every time we invest in a book that we eventually end up neglecting b/c it’s just too darn boring. I’m sure I’ve wasted at least a few thousand dollars in my life so far on such well-meaning but misguided purchases. Which is why I’ve come up with a fail-proof method for “test driving” new books I’m interested in buying, which I detailed in “So Much Self Help, So Little Time!” at http://shanelyang.com/2008/05/09/so-much-self-help-so-little-time/
    So far, so good! No more wasted dollars, guilt, or unread books! ; )

  2. I’m so torn on this one. In theory, I love it. In practice, I tend to slog it out. I hated just about every word of The Moviegoer, but I finished it, because it was supposed to be great.

    I think optimism plays a role here. If a book is a classic, a Pulitzer winner, or really hyped up, I assume that there’s a payoff somewhere… and wind up on the final page asking, “Is that it? Foiled again!”

    I do like your idea of relevancy. If something’s irrelevant to my life right now, it might be a good idea to shelve it. That way, I don’t have to write the title off, but I get to move on to something that I do connect with. Good balance there.

  3. Glen Allsopp says:

    I’m reading ‘Ask and It Is Given’ as it was recommended as a great book by Steve Pavlina. It’s simply about the law of attraction and with 200 pages left I really don’t think I’m going to learn anything interesting, half the chapters could have been combined together.

    I do want to give it a chance though to see if I’m missing anything

  4. Vlad Dolezal says:

    I had the exact same realization some time ago!

    I was reading Mobby Dick (supposed to be a great book, huh?). Well after a couple dozen pages, I was like “Dude, this book’s more boring than watching paint dry!” Then I realized I didn’t have to finish it. So I just put it down, and never picked it up again.

    Ever since, I just stop reading if the book stops offering enough value for my time. (And every time I do it, I imagine myself being an evil emperor, throwing someone into a pit of alligators. And I go “MWAHAHAHAHHAHAHAAaaaa….” while putting the book away :p)

  5. […] Know When to Stop Reading a Book [Steve H. Young] Hier erscheint jeden Morgen von Montag bis Freitag ein ausgewählter Link zu […]

  6. Jeremy says:

    I am currently trying to slog through Wealth of Nations. I find the book so incredibly dull that my reading has gone right down because I don’t want to pick up the book.

    Guess it’s time to let it go and put it down permanently.

  7. Scott Young says:

    The lost opportunity cost from not putting a book down is often forgotten. When you put down a book, you aren’t just giving up the chapters you didn’t read, you’re also gaining the chapters of some other book you did read. With a world filled with thousands of books, far more than you could ever read, I think that opportunity cost needs to be taken seriously.

    Jeremy,

    I had the same experience with Wealth of Nations. I slogged it out and finished the whole book, although I wouldn’t if given the chance to do it again. Although I did gather great ideas from the book, I need to weigh that against the great ideas I didn’t gather from other books while that tome was clogging my system.

    -Scott

  8. KH says:

    I read a loot of book, on an average of 40/year. As most of you guys I like to finish a book that I have started. I feel that a loot of books can be slow, somewhat uninteresting in the first 3/4 and then suddenly everything comes together in the last 1/4 making the whole story excellent. Comparing these books to others I’ve read that were simply mediocre I think the “quality” of the writings in these initial chapters can give you a hint if it’s going to be worthwhile finishing. Books like these that I have read include “The inheritance of loss” by Kiran Desai, “The idiot” by Dostojevskij and “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson. Slow for the first 3/4 but with an incredible last 1/4!

    Anyone who agrees to this?

    P.S. A book that I have tried to read but just had to put a way is the classic “Don Quixote” by Cervantes, I just can’t stand it.

    /Kristofer

  9. Another option is to tell yourself you are going to “take a break” from that book and pick it up later. In the meantime start and complete a new book. One of two things will happen with the book you are taking a break from. Either you will find yourself wanting (or needing) to return to it at a later time to complete it, or you will find that you just don’t want to (or need to) read it all and then you can let it go.

    For me, I find that the “taking a break” option gives me more flexibility (in my mind at least) on what to do with the book in the future, and it also helps me to not worry about the sunk costs as much.

    Thanks for the article, Scott. Best wishes as you start a new semester.

  10. […] auch den Lesetipp Know When to Stop Reading a Book via […]

  11. NathanG says:

    I’m currently reading Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene, a book significantly different from my ordinary reading material, which is usually comprised of subjects such as political science, legal studies, or philosophy. While Greene’s discussion of string theory, quantum wave erasers, and conceptual time flow has been difficult to digest for me, I feel that I am expanding parts of my mind that normally do not get put to use. While I think your general rule regarding boring books is right on, Scott, I think exceptions have to be made, especially in books that are regarded as socially or historically significant. It might take perseverance to conquer a book such as Atlas Shrugged, for example, but it offers a unique insight into the minds of others and the shaping of their perspective.

  12. J.D. Meier says:

    It reminds me of the scenario where people eat their dessert past the point of enjoyment because they already paid for it.

  13. Glee Girl says:

    It’s spooky how relevant this post is for me right now! I’m about three quarters of the way through a book that I’m reading for information rather than entertainment and I’m struggling. And reading far, far less than I would like because I’m finding it a chore, and that bothers me.

    But I’ve always been a book finisher, dammit! Well, that is until I bought a book highly recommended by a friend but I just couldn’t warm to it. It sits on my bedside table, taunting me with its unfinishedness. I feel guilty about it! It haunts me! It’s always on my list of things to do “Finish that damn book!”.

    And I don’t want to add the latest one to the pile. One haunty-taunty book in my life is enough! So I will slog on…

    I already have a small pile of new books on my coffee table waiting to be read, but I won’t let myself start the next one until the ho-hum book is completed.

    I did join a library recently but then went out and spent $80 on books. I love the idea of the library – I love the library itself – but there’s just something about owning books and building my own library that I love more. Do you think it’s stupid to go out and buy a book that you borrowed from the library love so much you want to possess it?

  14. Brice says:

    Definitely toss a bad book and always use a library.

  15. […] to work towards. Interestingly, I read a great post last week by Scott Young that teaches us to know when to stop reading a book. I could have done with that advice a few years […]

  16. Bobby Rio says:

    You know… i read this post a couple days ago… and was after being bored through the first three chapters of Joel Comms new book… i was about to take your advice…

    luckily i didn’t… the book picked up speed and is beginning to inspire me.

    While i don’t necessarily disagree with the advice.. i just want to warn people to think twice before just dismissing a book

  17. John says:

    Great post Scott. The sunk cost principle is a very important concept that many are unaware of.

  18. Jenn says:

    Love this post! I struggle with this too, but much less since I got my Kindle last year. I love that I can download the first chapter of any book for free, check it out, and see if I feel like continuing! Often, with the fiction I read, I know what I’m getting into, so sample chapters aren’t as important. But, for all the business/idea books I pick up – those sample chapters are crucial! The first chapter is usually a good warm-up for the material ahead, and if my mind wanders in the first chapter, I take a pass. Gripping – click to download the whole thing. Works for me!

  19. […] you just have to know when to stop reading a boring book. Unless you’re reading for educational purposes or a book club, is there a need to keep […]

  20. garbarble says:

    What the hell is unhealthy about eating a hamburger in five minutes? It would get pretty cold after that. Come to think of it, it should only take about a minute to eat a crappy tiny McDonald’s bacon cheeseburger, and five if you’re talking about a huge pub burger.

  21. James says:

    I agree Scott, that there are many times that I’ve worked through a book with no payoff, and this can feel like a waste of both time and money. But the thing is, the amount of times that I’ve finished a book that has a lull in the middle, that eventually turns out to be amazing (even life changing) far outweighs this for me.
    So I agree with Bobby Rio up there. Sometimes I have downright disliked a book completely, only to find on a second (reluctant at first) reading that it has become one of my personal favourites. I’m sure you get this with music, not liking some of your favourite bands the first time you hear them, only to fall completely in love with the exact thing that turned you off, so why should it be any different with books?
    As a writer myself, if a book does end up being terrible I console myself with the fact that at least I have learnt lessons in how I wouldn’t execute it, forming ideas along the way.
    I enjoyed reading the article Scott, thanks. My only hope is that you will take my advice in that although you might regret wasting a few more hours on a bad book (that you probably wont remember in the end) when you find that acquired taste hidden gem that you eventually love, it will all be worth it.

  22. Jeannie says:

    This is the best post! You’ve just answered the most agonizing question I’ve asked myself for the past year – do I toss boring books? Now I can lay my guilt to rest. :) Thanks!!!

  23. […] billige Bestseller und Klassiker im Amazon Marketplace [Weg 16]. Ich verabschiedete mich vom Zwang, jedes Buch zu Ende lesen zu müssen [Weg 17], aber las gerne möglichst viele verschiedene Stimmen […]

  24. […] user audience with only one language, then you should be settled with this information. So you can stop reading now (or stop near Reading to enjoy this sight). However, if you live on a continent where […]

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