Recently, British crime writer Mark Billingham caused a stir at the Cheltenham Literature Festival when he declared that he gives up on half the books he reads, because ‘life’s too short’ and ‘there are so many great books out there’. If the book doesn’t grab you by page 20, he says, then you should ‘throw it across the room angrily’ (source).
A liberating attitude, or a lack of patience and respect, and the potential to miss out on a wonderful reward?
‘DNF’, short for ‘Did Not Finish’, is a common point of discussion. There are two opposing camps:
- The Finishers do not believe in quitting. Once a book is selected and the first page read, they will persevere to the end, even if the reading is hard work. There is a belief in tenacity, in seeing a pursuit through to the end. Most of all, there is the hope that the reading will be worth the effort, that the book will turn out to be inspiring and thought-provoking.
- The DNFers believe that life is too short to spend any time reading a book with which you do not ‘click’. There are so many books to read, more than one could ever read in a lifetime; there is constant momentum to move on.
According to research by the reading website Goodreads, three types of book feature prominently in lists of abandoned reads shared by Amazon, Kobo and Goodreads:
- Classics like War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- Hyped mass market fiction like Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James and The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling
- Books with successful adaptations, like Wicked by Gregory Maguire (adapted into a musical) and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (adapted into a television series)
Goodreads has an active poll for The Most Begun ‘Read but Unfinished’ (Initiated) Book Ever. The top 20 is dominated by books that are generally regarded as important works of literature, like Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, War and Peace and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
I have read these books – to the end. But then, I have a degree in French literature, and it was instilled in me to stick with a classic text, however hard I may find the decoding. Certainly, classic literature requires staying power. But the rewards! I found these books so enriching; they made me the writer I am today. True, there is no instant gratification with such books, but for me that makes the journey more enjoyable – to slow down and really connect with the words, the characters, without making haste to the ending, and then the next book (which may be rejected, and so on).
When it comes to the classics, then, I am a Finisher. Sometimes I do find myself struggling to keep reading a recently published book. Usually, this is because the book does not live up to my expectations: it does not match the description on the back cover, or I have been led astray by buzz about the book. In that case, I will always give a book a very good go – certainly, I read past page 20. Sometimes I do not finish (and if so, I would not dream of ‘throwing the book across the room angrily’). Most often, I push through, because I feel we can learn much about writing and ourselves by reading something that is not entirely to our taste.
As Rupert Hawksley wrote in the Independent:
Reading should challenge and confound us; it should take us into the minds and lives of those we don’t like or find hard to understand. This may not always be gripping but it is often rewarding.
Perhaps you will agree with Rupert’s take on hurling a book:
We owe it to writers to give them a full hearing before passing judgement – and finishing a book is the only way to do this. To give an author just 20 pages of your time is insulting.
Photo credit: 1) Tinny Photo/Shutterstock.com.