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Why I always finish books

I often hear this phrase from people who have abandoned a book: ‘Life’s too short to read bad books.’ I disagree. I’m in the stubborn habit of finishing every book I start reading. Long ones, boring ones, annoying ones, offensive ones – they all get finished. Let me tell you why.

My first motivator is purely utilitarian and has to do with me working in editorial: I want to be a great editor, the kind with an unfailing sense of what works and what doesn’t, so when I encounter a book that fails to hold my attention beyond the first few pages, I like to figure out why. This is not always easy to do. When you first realise that you don’t like a book, you may only have a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Something’s off, but what? As I read along, the problems usually repeat themselves, so I eventually do pinpoint what it was that stuck in my craw.

When there’s a clearer reason for my not liking a book, like a ‘Mary Sue’ character or a plot twist that seems to come out of nowhere, I think of ways that it could have been fixed. These two exercises have made many a bad book interesting again. It’s a way of making lemon juice out of lemons, and I like to imagine that cultivating this skill in one area of life may seep over into others.

‘Reading Time’ by Adwriter on Flickr

The other reason I feel it’s important to read through is inspired by a comment made by the novelist Yann Martel. I’ve tried to find it online, but unfortunately it’s lost – I think it may have been an excerpt from his book What Is Stephen Harper Reading?: Recommended Reading for a Prime Minister and Book Lovers of All Stripes (this is the book on the US Amazon) if anybody wants to look it up. The gist of it was that if you only ever read books you like and agree with, you will inadvertently self-censor your intake of opinions and ways of looking at things.

This is a scary thought to me. When you do that – drop the books that rub you the wrong way or don’t interest you – you’re setting limits to what ideas and points of view you will accept into your head. I’m afraid of getting so good at it that eventually I’ll need only to read the first page to know that the book ‘isn’t for me’. If that ever happens, it will mean that I will have created an effective filter that only lets through things that won’t make me uncomfortable or angry or bored. I’m scared that I’ll end up safely cocooned in the thoughts that I already think, and never have reason to venture out at all. And then I’ll say, ‘life is too short to read bad books’ and silently add, ‘and having to change your mind is such a bother’.

But of course it’s good for you to be exposed to ideas you don’t like, because then there’s a chance they’ll make you re-evaluate what you do like. I think this applies to all kinds of books from beach reads to Das Kapital. Books are a representation of the author’s worldview, or particular attitude to some aspect of life. I think it would do, say, a 52-year-old male CEO marvellous good to read, say, a historical romance. I’ll bet my hat he would encounter dozens of thoughts that had not passed through his synapses ever before. It might bore him or annoy him – symptoms of fossilised thought patterns being shaken up – but for a few hours he would have been put into the shoes of someone very different from himself.

(For more on the benefits of reading and especially its ability to make you see things from someone else’s perspective, I recommend watching this 3-minute interview with Yann Martel.)

All that said, I don’t think reading should be just an exercise in self-improvement. It’s still supposed to be enjoyable, and readers naturally choose the kinds of books they know they’ve enjoyed in the past. But every now and then everyone should take a risk on something they don’t normally read, and stick with it. Life’s too short to just read the same book over and over.

What do you think? Have I changed your mind?


  1. Katy Katy 12 October 2013

    I do think this is a persuasive argument – I particularly like your thoughts about becoming a better editor through reading things you don’t like. I do do this to some extent, although with fic, rather than books – which are often too long for me to want to put in that investment, plus it’s more likely I’ll be editing someone’s fanfic in the future than that I’ll be editing someone’s novel :/

    As for the second suggestion, again – it’s persuasive, and it’s persuasive in a tricksy sort of way where the opposing viewpoint suddenly seems rather small and petty. But after struggling through 600 pages of the 800 page Count of Monte Cristo (for example) I just couldn’t continue. I don’t read enough to make it just one of a number of things I bailed out on.

    My long-term rivalry (that I only know about) with Nick Hornby started with a talk he gave to publicise his book of reviews, the Polysyllabic Spree. Hornby opined that one should read for pleasure and dump everything else – since I was trying and failing to read ‘God of Small Things’ (one of my least favourite books of all time) at the time, I found this an inspiration message. When we went to get our books signed at the end, I told him that I’d found his words a relief and would be leaving GoST behind, and he looked at me like I was a complete failure at everything. Next to him his minder from Foyles said ‘oh, I really loved that book’ and Hornby agreed.

    Fortunately, we were studying it at uni, and my lecturer spent an hour telling us what an awful thing it was and how it had (in his opinion) only won the Booker because Roy was such a figure in the community, and how she was actually a very nice woman, but a terrible writer.

    So, then I felt better. But since then I have looked at Nick Hornby with distrust. And his blog made me repeatedly quite angry…

    Massive detour aside – I think reading something you wouldn’t normally read all the way to the end (from time to time) is probably a good idea. Although I think if I were to do it, I’d want to believe it was deemed a good book in whatever genre it was in by someone I vaguely trusted…But that’s just making sure the thoughts I might be exposed to would be approved and sanitised before I got to them.

    I applaud your choice, anyway, even if I cannot make it for myself.

  2. Meri Meri 13 October 2013

    Ha! I like the comment about feeling safer reading books that are already generally acknowledged to be good. I do the same, of course, although I also have a short list of books to read just because they’re generally deemed the opposite, and I’m curious as to how bad they really are. The Dawkins Delusion is one of them…

    I think there’s still a case to be made for the life-is-too-short side, although I too think that some of the responses to Martel’s view sound almost petulant (‘but what if I don’t wanna?’). I think it remains to be seen whether it really build’s one’s character as much as I hope it will. But I do feel like this pigheaded policy has caused me to read more different kinds of books and that can only be good.

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