So many books . . . so little time.

Some people feel obligated to finish reading every book they start. Once they pick up a book, even if it’s hundreds of pages long and makes them want to scream with boredom, they will reach that last page if it kills them.

I am not one of those people. It’s not that I don’t love books. One reason I work in a public library is so I can read any book I want. If it’s not in our collection, it can be ordered from outside the system.

I make use of this service so often that the reference librarian in charge of ordering hard-to-find books from other libraries has joked that she wants to hide under her desk whenever she sees me coming. But even after she’s moved heaven and earth to locate a book in some itty-bitty library in Nowhere, Pennsylvania, and it has made the long journey across the state and into my hands, if it doesn’t grab me by chapter 2, I’m sending it back.

I never feel compelled to finish a book. In fact, I rarely even feel INCLINED to finish a book. I will keep reading only if a book is so great that I CAN’T put it down.

A library patron recently told me that I absolutely had to read The Poisonwood Bible.

“I tried to read it,“ I said.  “I gave up after two chapters.“

“It took me 50 pages to get into it,” she admitted. “You have to give it a chance.”

I did. I gave it 20 minutes of my life. That’s all it’s going to get.

When I do fall for a book, I fall hard. I read it and reread it and recommend it endlessly. I’m the best friend a book could ever have, because I will bring that book scads of new readers. If there’s one question you’re asked when you work in a library, it’s “Can you recommend a good read?“

I’m convinced that I’m personally responsible for several extra print runs of both Straight Man and Bel Canto.

Book clubs are particularly pernicious for the reader who feels compelled to plough through books she can’t stand out of a sense of obligation.

A patron recently confided, “I have to read Moby-Dick for my book club, but it’s making me seasick.”

“Don’t worry,“ I told her. “I can help you jump ship.“

I printed out some insightful online reviews and she left the library smiling, prepared to discuss the Great White Whale but intending to go right home and curl up with the new Paretsky.

All I want is a book that will keep me up till 2 in the morning turning pages. I refuse to settle for less.  The way I look at it, people who suffer to the end of a novel are like people who stay in bad marriages. But if the thrill is gone, I want out! Years ago, my ex and I pulled the plug on a 20-year relationship. Now I’m with a guy who is consistently thrilling, and my ex is happily remarried to the true love of his life.  I call that a happy ending.

Some people disapprove of my ability to jettison a book so quickly. “Once I start reading, I have to finish,“ they say proudly. I’m guessing that these are the same people whose parents made them clean their plates when they were kids. They probably had to choke down every last pea, even if they hated peas, before they could enjoy dessert.

But you’re a grown-up now! You can make (and break!) your own rules. If you aren’t enjoying your peas, feed them to the dog and try some spinach instead. Even better, toss them in the trash and go right to dessert!  Who cares that you’ve read only five chapters of War and Peace? The Sylvia Chronicles is calling to you! Kick Tolstoy under the couch and go with the book you really want. Life is too short (and War and Peace is too damn long) to do anything else.


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  • Amy Smith March 27, 2014 at 8:26 pm

    Roz – You already know my perspective on this. I have to finish every book I start! Unless Tom “accidentally” sells or donates it for me.

  • Andy Johnson March 7, 2012 at 6:37 pm

    “too many enjoyable books” “too many good books” Really? I wish that were true. I don’t see that. I see so many awful books, its hard to find the few worth reading.

  • Liza March 7, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Nice! I only just began to allow myself NOT to finish books. What took me so long?!

  • Jody Gillen-Worden March 6, 2012 at 10:23 am

    I’m with you, Roz. My mother in law always said “you should never pay twice.” If I don’t like it, no one can make me read it. Even if I bought it with my own hard earned money.

  • Isy March 6, 2012 at 9:28 am

    Gave up on “Let the Great World Spin” after the first 60 page segment. It was really well written, but so compellingly sad, I just couldn’t take it. My book group is very understanding.

  • Wendy March 5, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    I never feel guilty giving up on a book I don’t like. There are too many good books to read and so little time! So you had me on your side… until you said you didn’t like the Poisonwood Bible. THAT book, you should have been more patient with- it was brilliantly written in multiple voices. I’ve been disappointed with- and given up on – books that others just adore. So maybe we should both be more patient and give books at least 100-150 pages before we jettison it.

  • Nancy Bea Miller March 5, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    Love this piece! I feel the same, life is too short and there are too many enjoyable books to make yourself choke down something that you don’t love. I do one other thing though before I give up on a book that is failing to entrance me…I flip to the end and read it. If I am stunned or intrigued by the ending sometimes that gives me the incentive to go back and plow through. But only rarely!

  • Kelly March 5, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    this is awesome! why read a book that doesn’t interest you? there are so many out there you might as well stop wasting time finishing a bad book and go find the books that you love!

  • Tamara March 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    I could never get past the opening party scene in War and Peace, but I’ve read Moby Dick three times. Some things I’m willing to wait for them to take their hold, others not at all. I did love Poisonwood Bible, and Bel Canto (another that took me a while), but haven’t gotten through the first three pages of Nicole Krauss’s A History of Love, even though some of my most trusted friends have sworn up and down it was great.

    I agree Roz–it’s your life, you’re an adult now. Nobody’s watching, nor cares, what you read.

  • LInda H March 5, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    I don’t feel obligated to finish a book either, but the total length often influences how many ages I will give it before I quit. Several of my favorite, read them over and over books took fifty pages or more before I was hooked. One of them I started several times and only got past the first fifty because it was the only thing available to me on a cross-country flight. I’m not sure what the signs are that a book might be worth hanging on for awhile, but some certainly are

  • kate March 5, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Thank you Roz. This is very liberating. While I never felt obligated to finish a truly loathsome book (at least once I threw a really bad one on the floor and stamped on it – and I was only half way through), I’ve been plagued for years by a vague, nagging, guilty feeling when I abandon a well-written book just because I just can’t stay focused on say, how pleats came to be used instead of gathers in the tunics worn during the 100 Years’ War.

  • Mark Lowe March 5, 2012 at 11:32 am

    Perfectly lovely!

  • Ruth Nathan March 5, 2012 at 11:16 am

    I knew by its title this essay’s topic. I’ve never thought I needed to finish any book. Actually, I don’t even worry if I EVER read the bookS I buy. As I pay whomever, I think to myself how happy I am to be supporting a writer.

  • Leslie Beatus March 5, 2012 at 8:33 am

    Poisonwood Bible top five books I ever read. and I read!