How Learning to Bail Changed My Reading Life

For many years, if I started a book, I finished it. No matter what. It just felt wrong to read a 100 pages only to set the book aside. I adhered to the belief that the only bad books were those that were unread. Even if I had to trudge through a book, taking weeks or months to finish, I wouldn’t read anything else until I had finished that book. I knew that if I picked up another book that grabbed my attention, I would never return to the one I set aside.

I know where this attitude originated for me. Growing up, I didn’t own many books and used the library a lot. But, when you don’t have much money and don’t have a great selection to choose from, you read what you can get your hands on. Also, in college, I had to read a number of books I didn’t enjoy, but in reading them, I learned interesting things about the world, about writing, about myself. I could appreciate the books, even if I never planned to read them again. Besides, I’m no quitter. I like to see things through.

DNFA couple of years, however, I reevaluated my reading habits. I wasn’t reading as much as I wanted, and I was trying to figure out the problem. I noticed that my reading numbers were much lower when I was reading a book I wasn’t enjoying. I made a decision that I would try setting aside books that weren’t keeping me engaged. I gave myself permission to bail and to move on.

I don’t bail on books simply because they are difficult or I find them boring. I like a challenge; I enjoy reading books that are difficult, but I must have the time and mental energy to devote to them. Rather, I have many reasons for making the decision to set aside a book. And I almost never put a book down without intending to pick it up again later (sometimes much later). I often bail on books because the format I chose  (audio, e-book, or hard copy) isn’t working for me. Or, even more often, I bail on books because they are not for me at the time. Then, there are some books that everyone raves about, and while I can appreciate the art of the thing itself, I still don’t like it. Those books, I usually don’t revisit.

In explaining the differences between the mature and immature readers, W.H Auden said that there are five possible responses:

“For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.”

When I first read Auden’s descriptions, I completely related, and it helped me to acknowledge that it’s okay for me to enjoy the things I do. And to dislike the things I do. Understanding these responses has helped me to not only understand my reactions to the books I read, but also to those I do not finish.

When I set aside a book and put it in my DNF (did not finish) stack now, I no longer feel anxious about it–though when I first began my experiment, I seriously hyperventilated the first few times. Instead, I put it in the stack with the knowledge that usually it’s just not the right book at the right time…yet.

Here are a few book that have recently found their way into my DNF stack:

  1. Doc by Mary Doria Russell: I love Russell’s writing, and I’ve wanted to read this one for a while. When I started reading earlier this year, however, I just wasn’t in the mood for it. I almost pushed myself to keep going because the characters were interesting and the writing beautiful, but I want to do justice to this book. So, I’m waiting to pick it back up when I’m in the mood for it.
  2. The Trespasser by Tana French: I really enjoy Tana French’s novels, and I’ve read almost all of them. When I saw that this one was a BOTM pick last fall, I immediately chose it. I tried over Christmas break and earlier this spring to read it. I actually have read almost 200 pages of it, but I just keep getting distracted. I honestly don’t know why. While I’m reading, I enjoy the story, but then I’m not driven to pick it back up again.
  3. The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee: This one has also been on my TBR for a while, and I have heard good things about it from readers I trust. I started it on audio this week, but I found the narrator annoying. I returned the audiobook after listening to almost an hour. I will probably try to read this one myself. Maybe. 

I never regret giving myself permission to bail on books. I read more books than ever because I am not trudging through something that feels like a chore. I also read books that, for me at least, rate higher. In the end, I’m reading better books and more of them. And that’s a win in my book.


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