Should You Finish Every Single Book? Why It's OK To Leave Some Things Half-Read
Here's a secret about myself: I often don't finish books. I know — I write about books! I love books! I live books! I breathe books! Yet, my bookshelf is stocked with books I picked up but wasn't able to finish. And I'm here to tell you that it's OK not to finish books.
First of all, if you tend to not finish books, you are certainly not alone. For instance, a 2014 study by the e-reader company Kobo found that The Goldfinch, while the 37th bestselling ebook of the year, was finished by just 44.4 percent of British readers.
Additionally, Mathematician Jordan Ellenberg has even developed a system called "The Hawking Index" which uses Amazon's popular highlights feature to determine how far into a book readers tend to stop. Ellenberg found that most readers did not make it very far into the biggest bestsellers. For instance, only two percent of readers finished Hillary Clinton's Hard Choices, and just 19 percent finished the The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, a Man Booker Prize winner.
I don't think this index should be used as a way to measure how "good" a book is. For me, my ability to finish a book has nothing to do with how good the book is. It's all about circumstance: How much time I had that week, what kind of mood I was in, and how many other books I had sitting on my to-be-read stack.
Psychoanalyst and University of Paris literature professor Pierre Bayard actually argues in his book How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read that not finishing books is, in itself, an important thing to do. He writes: “Non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught."
Don't get me wrong, I do actually love finishing books. But, I agree with Bayard. My habit of not-finishing books hasn't held me back at all. In fact, it's meant that I've gotten to taste a lot of different styles, authors, and genres over the years. If I waited to finish every book I read before I picked up another book, I wouldn't have read nearly as much or as widely.
I'm admitting all this to you because I think there's a problem with the way we collectively think of readers — you know, as being Very Serious People with thick-rimmed glasses and a bookshelf filled with musty volumes, all of which they've read and can quote from. But in my opinion, everyone is entitled to reading in the way that suits them. Maybe you only read one book a year. Maybe you only read children's books. Maybe you only read while you're upside-down. It shouldn't matter. Everyone gets joy out of reading in different ways, and no one method is better than another.
In a 2016 study, the PEW Research Center reported that 26 percent of adults surveyed had not read (or partially read) a book that year. If we want to decrease this number, we need to make sure that the literary world is open and available to everyone, in whichever way suits them.
So, maybe my bookshelf is filled with books I've half-read, stories that are waiting for me to finish them. It works for me, and I'm not going to spend one more second feeling guilty about it. And, whatever your reading "vice" is, you shouldn't either.