Posted by: Sally Ingraham | January 4, 2011

Unfinished Reading

Inspired by Amateur Reader’s recent post – a list of new year’s resolutions – I began a list of my own tonight. Let me respectfully and blatantly steal a paragraph from his post to help me explain:

3. Finish fewer books. Dr. Johnson, who read more than anyone, was pressed about a new book. Had he read it through? “No, Sir, do YOU read books through?”* Johnson was correct. You are perhaps thinking of all of the marvelous books that it would be a crying shame not to enjoy from beginning to end and then back to the beginning. Yes, yes. But what about all of the other books?

When I read this I felt a thrill. I’ve always been one for sticking it out to the bitter end, and only in the last few years have I determined not to finish a book if I am hating it. I’m adjusting to this concept slowly. Greater freedom in book abandonment is desired. I can certainly resolve to finish fewer books that are just not appealing to me. Another idea came to me while reading Amateur Reader’s words though – the thought of all of the other books. If I could loose myself from the bonds of finishing the books I started (and thus beginning only as many books as I thought I could finish), how many more books would I be able to start?! All those tempting and tantalizing books on the library shelves with their fascinating topics (I’m thinking mostly of non-fiction here) that I wish I had the time to read. I could at least start them, leaf through them, dive into a chapter or two, jot down a note, and then calmly not finish them if fancy or time caused me to pause. I resolve to finish fewer books!

Because I am a habitual list keeper, I feel compelled to make a list of such endeavors. To kick off my new found sense of freedom, I recorded the abandonment of two books that I was enjoying quite a bit but not making much progress in – books that have been on loan from distant libraries for many, many weeks and must be returned. I noted down that I would like to delve into both again in the future (although I did not claim that I meant to finish them!), and without further ado I removed their bookmarks and set them on the counter by the door. I do not feel regret! I feel only optimism.

I’m rather excited about this. Of course I have no intention of throwing all caution to the wind and starting a dozen books at once, nor am I opposed to finishing something if it particularly grabs me. I’m just eager to embrace a greater guilt-free state of reading, and adopt a way of thinking that allows me to read more by reading less. Brilliant.

* James Boswell, Life of Johnson, somewhere in April 1773.‘ – also filched from Amateur Reader’s post


  1. It’s incredibly liberating to do this. I started a couple years back and have found that overall, I finish more books, because struggling with a book slowed down my reading and kept me from moving to new books. I’m sure along the way I’ve missed out on a gem or two, but still–I get to the best books faster this way.

    • It’s encouraging to hear that you actually finish more books, while letting yourself abandon some. I hoping that I’ll find more of those hidden gems because I’ll hopefully be picking up more books – with the pressure of finishing every book I pick up gone, I’m likely to blast through something gripping that I would have otherwise never even brought home.

  2. Haha, congratulations on your newfound freedom! I’ve been leaving many books unfinished lately, but they’ve been travel books consulted for research purposes – not quite the same thing as leaving novels unfinished, which I hardly ever do, mostly (I think) because I usually read 25 pages or so in the bookstore before purchase, so I’m usually pretty sure I’m interested enough to finish. Nonfiction & poetry, though – I can definitely see the point. Awesome that this has you excited!

    • I still pick my novels carefully, (although perhaps not so carefully as you! 25 pages? Wow) and I intend to finish the majority of the novels I start. My aim is more along the lines of what Amateur reader said in his comment below – reading a story or two out of a collection, a poem or two, getting the gist of an author’s topic. It will make my trips to the library infinitely more fun. I used to go home with huge stacks of books – it is time to do that again.

  3. Presumably, though, Emily, there are the 25-pages-in-the-bookstore books you do not buy, and therefore do not finish?

    Not finishing novels, that would show true fortitude. I’m not ready for that. But just sampling a Collected Stories or Selected Poems or A New History of Whatever, then putting it back in the library drop slot, that’s a good start.

    • Exactly, the sampling – the buffet at the library. I’m eager to fill my plate with a smattering of stories and poems and topics. Not every night, a full meal with courses and candles is called for most evenings, but now and then the buffet will be fun.

  4. a marvelous idea.. and one I think I should adopt… though I am coming round nicely to abandoning the particularly dull ones. a list for “finish another time” will be added to the stack of lists. thanks for sharing!


    • Yes, the stack of lists. So much fun. Glad to share!

  5. […] more female authors, more of the classics, maybe something really, really old…!” I resolved to finish fewer books in […]

  6. […] more female authors, more of the classics, maybe something really, really old…!” I resolved to finish fewer books in […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: