Relish the delight of closing a bad book and moving on

Are you among the ranks of those who stick with books no matter how bad they get and see them out to the bitter end? No judgment — I used to be one of you, and my life was pretty miserable as a result. That changed in 2008, when I did the book project. Longtime readers may recall that I documented every single book I read for a year, including books recommended or sent by readers. It was kind of exhausting, to be honest, but along the way I learned a lot about myself and what I read and how I read it.

I also learned something marvelous: If I didn’t like a book, I could close it and walk away.

This may not sound very earthshattering to you, in which case you are clearly a more highly evolved being than I am. I understood up until then that theoretically, one could just stop reading a disliked book, but I never actually gave myself permission to do it. I needed to push through, I told myself. I should give it a fair chance. Just 25 more pages. It’s important as an intellectual exercise. Maybe I’m feeling defensive because it’s challenging me, and my back is up because it’s forcing me to rethink assumptions, not because it’s bad. I must not be intellectual enough to get it, but I should try anyway. There was always some perfectly rational reason for plugging away.

This was complicated by the fact that I read books in serial, not parallel. I need to read a book, digest it, think about it, and then move on to another one. I can’t read a bunch of books at once, because I start getting distracted and confused and I feel like I am bouncing around without really digging in. This is not a judgment on people who do read that way, mind — I don’t think there’s an inherent right or wrong way to read and everyone engages with books differently.

The problem is that when you’re reading a book you don’t want to read and it is frustrating you and making you want to scream, it takes forever. I’m a pretty fast reader most of the time, but bad books seem to drag on endlessly, trapping me in a mire of misery, like they know I hate them and they want to punish me. Just a few pages feels like a horrible slog, and when I flip frantically through everything to the right of my bookmark, I want to cry. Bad books take longer, while good books always feel like they are over far too soon.

So one day I was reading a really terrible book and talking to a friend and she said: ‘Why are you still reading it if it’s so bad?’ I blustered for a minute with whatever the excuse was and she remained skeptical. ‘You can just stop reading bad books if you want, you know,’ she said, and I realised in a sort of giddy moment that she was right. I yanked my bookmark out, dropped the offending tome off at the library, and moved on to something else. I felt so dizzy with power that I did it to another three books in quick succession. Now, I’m confident enough in myself that if I get 25 pages in and a book is just plain bad, I return it to whence it came or toss it onto the piles of books for sale or donation that I keep by the door until they’re tottering under their own weight.

When I talk to other people about their reading habits and the question of what to do about bad books comes up, many share my newly adopted stance of just stopping. Others say they keep reading. Among those of us who quit, I notice a thread — almost all of us had to be coaxed into it the first time by a wiser reader, and then we got the hang of it quite quickly. In a way, these people act almost like reading therapists. For those of you who go to therapy, you know how sometimes it feels like you’re paying your therapist a lot of money to tell you things that you already know, but somehow hearing them from your therapist makes them more real and actionable? That’s kind of how I feel about the issue of setting books down when they’re not doing it for you: Sometimes, maybe you need someone else to tell you it’s okay.

So let me be your book therapist, gentle readers: If you’re reading a book that you are not enjoying, close it and get rid of it, or set it aside for another day. Maybe it’s just not the right book for you at this precise moment in time and that will change, or you will grow as a reader and be more into it in the future. That’s cool. Maybe it’s actually just a bad book, and your brain is telling you so, suggesting that you invest your precious resources in something more fun and rewarding, like a book that is not bad.

Yes even if someone recommended it to you. People have varying tastes and sometimes even someone with impeccable taste (like myself) recommends something that is just not your cup of tea at all. You’re not a lesser person for not digging a book that’s getting recommendations and critical acclaim. You’re just an informed reader who knows what you like. Or maybe you’re recognising something that other people aren’t noticing or are refusing to admit — like, say, heinous racism. Trust your gut!

Maybe a book is making you feel defensive and weird and uncomfortable because it’s cutting close to the bone and challenging things you think of as true and natural. For example, maybe you’re nondisabled and you’re reading a book that dismantles disablist structures and challenges nondisabled people to think about their role in them. That can feel scary. If you’re too busy feeling your hackles rise to read, you’re not getting the right things out of that book. Bookmark it. Close it. Put it down. Think about it. Come back later. I have a few books like that, ones that have forced me to really interrogate my reaction to them and think about what it was that made me so edgy, and after I had that little self-search, I came back in three months or six months and got a lot out of them (the exception to my serial reading rule).

If you do nothing else for yourself personally as a person in 2017, do this: Give yourself permission to stop reading books you are not enjoying.

Image: Un an dans les airs, T. Lilly, Flickr