If you’re a fan of Gilmore Girls (aren’t we all?) chances are you’ll well remember that moment when book-lover Rory Gilmore stood on the lawn of one of Harvard University’s many libraries, overwhelmed by the sudden realization that no matter how long she might live, the number of books in the world would always exceed her capacity to read them. “Thirteen million volumes?” she wails, as Lorelai reads aloud from the university guidebook. “I've read like, what, three hundred books in my entire life and I'm already 16? Do you know how long it would take me to read 13 million books?”
In fact: I do. Let’s assume the average (if zealous) book-lover reads a new book every three days. At that rate, it would take approximately 106,907 years to work one’s way through a whopping 13 million volumes. (And you KNOW you’re going to get stuck on Infinite Jest at some point.) Even at a Rory Gilmore-esque reading speed — say, a book a day — that’s still over 35,600 years of reading material. So it’s safe to say that no matter how much you might love and live for books, nobody will ever read every book ever written. Most people probably won’t even read every book they’ve ever wanted to.
Breathe, book lovers. Breathe. And know you’re not alone.
This moment: Rory despairing of the battle between the far-too-short length of the human lifetime and the number of unread books that exist in the world is essentially the space I occupy every waking second of my own life. There are so many books — more practically every day! — and I desperately want to read all (OK, most) of them. Which is why I have a love/hate relationship with my DNF pile.
For anyone not familiar with the world of fancy book-lover acronyms, DNF stands for “did not finish” — aka: the books that you started and, for one reason or another, at some point abandoned. Goodreads — social media for the book obsessed — is filled with users’ virtual DNF bookshelves. (They even have a shelf that keeps track of the most frequently DNFed books on the site.) There are various schools of DNF thought, from the never DNFers to those who DNF with abandon, and plenty of folks who fall somewhere in the tortured, book-loving middle. Librarian and former NPR host Nancy Pearl came up with a “Rule of 50” recommendation: essentially, give a book 50 pages of your time, and if you don’t like it, drop it. Book blogger Hillary Roberts once read 600 pages of a book before DNFing. Others suggest a 10% rule (read 10% of the book before deciding to discard.)
Despite all of this, I am a reluctant DNFer.
Most readers, I think, fall into this category — when you know it’s probably time to DNF a book, but you JUST. CAN’T. DO IT. After all, what if it gets better? What if everyone else loves it? What if the single line that is going to transform your entire relationship with said book is on the very next page? What if the book isn’t the problem, but rather YOU are?
Currently, I have two books in DNF limbo. On a regular basis, I will put them in my books-to-donate pile, only to take them out hours or days later and put them back on my shelves. I have proffered them to a local Little Free Library, only to sneak them out again under the cover of darkness. Sometimes I’ll re-read the first few pages. Never, will I actually see them through to the end. I have been known to place DNFs into library book returns, only to take them back out again before sliding the lid shut. (Seriously, I’ll just stand there, one hand holding the book return open, the other hand lingering mournfully on the rejected title, contemplating the mysteries of the universe and wondering whether or not they’re solved in this book, if only I would finish reading it.) I have, on not one but two occasions, purchased a second copy of a DNFed title I ended up discarding. Not once have I finished a book that spent even a moment in my DNF pile. And yet, I can’t let them go.
But I should let them go. I want to. Life is short and books are long and I should spend my time with the ones I like and love. So from one reluctant DNFer to another, here are seven struggles we all understand and how (I hope) to get over them: