Arbitrary: On the Joy of Not Finishing a Terrible Book

The joy of not finishing a terrible book
The older I get, the less time I have for terrible books. Why waste precious reading hours with an awful novel when there are millions of other options?

By nature, I don’t like leaving books unfinished. Yes, I’ll put them aside for a month if I’m just not feeling it right then, but I rarely start a book without finishing it. Some of it comes down to the sunk cost of buying the book, and some of it comes down to some strange psychological trick where I think I’ll be letting myself down if I don’t finish it.

Poppycock, I say. I’m gradually teaching myself to abandon the tyranny of needing to finish a book that’s terrible, or that I take no joy in reading.

The reason I’m writing this now is because I recently picked up a book that was so awful, so hackneyed, so clichéd and so ridiculous that I simply couldn’t finish it. That book was Sophie Kinsella’s I Owe You One. I had decided to grab a copy because the premise sounded fun and I’d never read any of her other books. I don’t like labeling things with terms like chick lit, and I try to read outside of my personal bubble. Better to know the world around you by reading stories with different perspectives.

Keep an open mind, they said …

What I hadn’t banked on was just how bloody tedious it would be. Even though I’ve reviewed loads of books for newspapers over the years, I found myself questioning my own judgment. Is it really as bad as I think it is, given how many people on Amazon seem to think it’s fantastic? Every time I put it down, I’d eventually pick it back up again, trying to find whatever it was that inspired the writers of online reviews to praise it like it was a book that would stand the test of time, would live on through the centuries and inspire musty academic essays by scholars in decades to come.

By the time I’d figured out I was right and that it was a few hundred pages of flaming garbage, I was already about a third of the way in. I didn’t want to keep going. I have piles – literally literary piles, towering on my desk and on the coffee table in my living room – of books that I have yet to crack open, so why waste another hour on something that clearly didn’t deserve my time.

So I put it down. I stopped reading it. And I told myself I wouldn’t be picking it back up again. I can’t describe how liberating it feels when you finally reach that decision.

Know when to fold ’em

It’s not unlike dating. Just because you don’t click with a person doesn’t mean they’re a terrible human being (usually). It just means it’s not the book for you, though maybe it’s just the kind of book someone else would love. While I’d say that Kinsella’s book is objectively awful – because holy hell, it’s bad – it may resonate with other readers who are willing to overlook the obvious flaws in writing, character development and plot because it means something more than that to them. They recognize themselves in the story, or a situation they were in, and they connect.

Of course, I could never damage or destroy it – books are sacred like that. Maybe I’ll drop it off in a donation bin somewhere, where someone in need of a read, any read, will give it a good home. Maybe it’ll strike a chord and wind up sparking another five-star review on Amazon.

All I know is that giving up on a bad book can be almost as satisfying as finishing a moderately good book. It took me an English degree and a few decades of reading to figure that out, but there you have it. If you need permission to put down an awful book, go for it. There are other fish in the sea.


  1. I was once like you and felt terrible guilt at not finishing a book. Then I came across two things that changed my mind. The first was a little article that my hairstylist had cut out and put up on her station mirror. I remember the title (in French) being something along the lines of “The charter of rights of readers” and the only entry I remember was that readers were under no obligation to finish a book. The second, more recent, was an interview with John Cleese who said that his rule of thumb for abandoning a book (no idea if he came up with it) was “100 pages minus your age”. He reasoned that the older you get, the less time you have to waste reading bad books.

    • Brilliant rule. I know some books can get off to a slow start, and that not every title will grab hold of you by the third page. But at the same time, a well written — and well edited — book will at least establish a tone and overall feeling by the time the first chapter is up. I almost feel like the rise of self-published books has shortened this runway for me. If there are many obvious typos or lazy cliches within the first dozen pages, I’ll make a conscious decision to either abandon the book or put up with it if the subject matter is unique enough to warrant the frustration.