- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

Know When to Stop Reading a Book

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. [1]  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:

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.