First Monday Book Day: Quitters Finish More

I recently read a fascinating article by Austin Kleon called "How to Read More." This article is no mere list of tips--I was pleasantly surprised by just how insightful it is. Clearly, Mr. Kleon is a big reader.

I was particularly struck by the first tip, which is "Quit reading books you don't like." As a child, I was a compulsive finisher. If I began a book, I felt obligated to see it through to the end even if I wasn't enjoying it. Of course, I had a lot more free time to fill as a child than I do now...

Kleon says, "If you aren’t getting anything out of a book, put it down, and pick up another book. Every hour you spend inching through a boring book is an hour you could’ve spent plowing through a brilliant one. When it comes to books, quitters finish more."

It's true that I read faster when a book really grabs me and I suddenly find "extra" time to read it by using time when I'm usually doing something else. I still remember taking the peperoncino to the playground one summer afternoon so that he could play with trucks in the sand while I perched on the edge of the sandbox, unable to stop reading Sweetbitter.

Do you stop reading when a book isn't holding your attention? Do you have your own tips or tricks on finding time to read? Do tell!

50 thoughts on “First Monday Book Day: Quitters Finish More”

  1. Has anyone read Jeff Tweedy's autobiography? It's a fun breezy read. Doesn't pull punches. If you like Uncle Tupelo/Wilco, etc., you will enjoy.

    1. Yes. I read it last month and agree.

      Have you read Kot's book? A friend told me he liked that one better.

  2. I suppose my response is contingent on why I’m reading the book to begin with, since I think Kleon’s assuming reading for pleasure instead of reading for knowledge. I think I’d agree with him when it comes to anything read purely for pleasure, regardless of the genre. Unless the book is assigned or presents a particularly significant window onto human experience that would broaden or deepen one’s own perspective, there’s probably no need to finish a book read purely for pleasure.

    I’m less inclined to agree with Kleon when it comes to reading for knowledge. If I’m reading Matthew Desmond’s Evicted or Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, my standard is not enjoyment, but whether I’m learning something — either about the subject itself, or the author’s argument. Sometimes there is significant value to reading a boring book (and I wouldn’t put either of the above in that category; they’re just two recent examples of important nonfiction), including just the practice of reading for a purpose other than pleasure.

    I don’t think this is a blanket nonfiction thing, though. For example: I don’t put political memoirs in this category; I would be very cautious about reading those for reliable knowledge...

    1. I am definitely assuming Kleon is talking about reading for pleasure. But speaking for myself, I have read and gotten a lot out of "for pleasure" books that were not necessarily fun to read. However, I was reading them at a moment when I was able to take in the content of that book. I can't read dense nonfiction all the time, but a couple of years ago, I read The New Jim Crow and was really glad I did.

      Even if reading to learn something is not enjoyment, per se, I think the definition of reading "for pleasure" can encompass the pleasure of learning something new or encountering a new perspective or point of view.

      In contrast, in early September of 2001, I borrowed my roommate's copy of In Cold Blood. After 9/11, I was simply unable to read another page of it. And I'm not sure I'll ever pick it up again.

  3. The first three assigned book-length readings for my new gig: Harry Frankfurt’s On Truth and On Bullshit, plus Moneyball.

    My current read is Vonnegut’s Player Piano.

  4. I just quit two in the past week. I might go back to one of them.

    One was The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. It started out pretty interesting with the first chapter about the rise of statistical analysis in the NBA, but the remainder of the book about two professors of psychology that won the Nobel Prize for Economics got boring. It focused way too much on their unusual friendship.

    1. Wait, what?

      Are you talking about Daniel Kahneman? He won largely for his work with Amos Tversky on prospect theory. Tversky didn't win because he died several years earlier and you can't win and be dead.

      Kahneman and Tversky's work is really interesting. Maybe Lewis's book treatment wasn't....

      1. I agree. The work is really interesting.

        The part of the book that got old was the focus on their odd couple friendship.

        I'll probably pick it up again at some point.

  5. Awesome article, thanks for sharing.

    I definitely slog through some parts of books, but then really, really like them. For instance, The Brothers K and Winter's Tale. I think I could stand to learn how to skip the boring parts, because that's probably what I needed in those cases.

    I was on vacation last week and read the first two books of the Bobiverse series, We Are Legion and For We Are Many. These came highly recommended from a couple friends, and I'll say they were quite enjoyable. I don't think that they were objectively great, though. They remind me of a John Scalzi sort of writing, which thoroughly entertains me. Taylor seemed to be a bit more repetitious than Scalzi, however, which had me questioning things from time to time. (I'm sure its mostly just him being a less experienced writer.)

  6. I picked up Hans Ohanian's Einstein's Mistakes while thrifting with the Girl a few week ago while she was home on spring break. 85 pages in. Not much about Einstein or his mistakes so far, but a fun read on the intellectual history of relativity.

      1. Contrary, he did, and they were doozies (cosmological constant comes to mind), but he was so far out there that just to prove they were mistakes was a huge chore. Of course, far outweighed by his correct predictions, particularly lately with the gravity wave detections.

  7. I'm almost always a finisher although I do put some books down for awhile to give them space.

  8. It took me at least twenty years of reading before I ever gave up on a book- Stephen R. Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane. The main character (Thomas Covenant) being a leper is an interesting draw for me, but I'm not ashamed to admit that I couldn't handle that he's also a rapist and yet supposed to be the nominal "hero" of the series. I understand the draw of anti-heroes, and having bad guys do good, but the whole way Donaldson portrayed Covenant justifying his actions and the lack of regret and accountability made it impossible for me to enjoy. I actually haven't read anything else by Donaldson since.

    Since then, I've given up on a few more when they either really, really didn't hold my attention, or when the writing and the editing are both noticeably subpar (I'm looking at you, free books from BookBub). I go in with low expectations for quality, but somehow I'm still occasionally shocked by how puerile, banal and just flat-out bad people can be at writing and still somehow get "published", even just as an e-book.

    I've come up with a rule that if I start reading another book without finishing the one I was reading, I can usually give up on the first one with no regrets.

    1. Oh, that’s interesting. I read those books as a kid and loved them. I’ve read all of his stuff. Planned to someday reread. Now I wonder if I won’t be able to get through the reread (and subsequently use the books for kindling).

      1. I think I managed to get through the first book, but I couldn't make it through the second. I had actually read the second trilogy in high school and somewhat enjoyed it, but when I came back to the first trilogy years later thinking that it would be nice to read that and then re-read the second trilogy, it really didn't sit well with me.

        And thinking about this now, I wonder if this was the reason the first trilogy wasn't in my high school library...

        1. Ah, that’s interesting. I definitely found it in my library back then, but it was public+high school library. I actually started buying the third trilogy with intention of the reread, so ... we’ll see.

          I read his sci-fi series even more recently and I know it had much of the same - it was quite brutal at times. Rethinking life choices...

  9. Well I stopped reading Infinite Jest. I kind of feel guilty about that one, but it just wasn't working for me for some reason. I might give it a try again sometime.

    I'm usually one to power through books, though I've made plenty of exceptions. Lord Of The Rings was a series where I just couldn't make it through the second book. Either time I tried.

    I recently read a fairly awful (as in "not great writing") book - Robopocalypse -but I was glad I powered through. I was very very close to giving up.
    The writing was pretty bad throughout, but it was just enough quickly-paced plot to sustain me. It was entirely obvious, but not so much that I jumped ship. Like a literary equivalent of a CSI or Law and Order episode. Not good TV, but you'll sit down and waste an hour on it still.

    1. Which book do you think more people have started and didn't finish. Infinite Jest or Ulysses? I'd go with Ulysses just due to the decades long head start it has. Any others come close to those two?

        1. I've read and finished the Silmarillion twice! But yeah, that's probably up there with Infinite Jest and Ulysses.

      1. Hahaha, I've started and didn't finish both! I made it farther in IJ, though. I tried reading Ulysses on my own when I was newly out of college and living in NYC, and I just remember feeling like there were a ton of references I wasn't getting and that I would have rather been reading it with a professor to guide me through it.

        With Infinite Jest I think it was more a case of reaching a point where there were other books I really wanted to read (and which came from the library and therefore had due dates), and then once I stopped, I didn't pick it up again. (But it's still on my nightstand with bookmark in place...) So I guess it was that it just wasn't enough of a priority to me to see it through, at least not just yet.

        1. with bookmark in place...

          Same. I feel like I could just jump right back in and wouldn't have lost very much. I just don't have much desire to do so. I wasn't really enjoying it. It just seemed to move so slowly.

      2. Given the quality of the once-dominant translations, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tolstoy had two books vying for the top spot. Moby Dick might be on the shortlist, too. Gravity’s Rainbow, perhaps?

        'Spoiler' SelectShow
  10. I do still finish books the vast majority of the time. If I'm not loving a book, sometimes it becomes a kind of analytical exercise to figure out what about the book appealed to other people or what I think could have been done different/better. (I still remember the first time I read the bestselling picture book Dragons Love Tacos, I came away from it utterly baffled. But clearly lots of people love it!)

    1. Dragons Love Tacos! Neitzsche loves dragons, therefore ended up with multiple copies of this book for Christmas. I, similarly, do not get it. I think it's gotta be the title alone, since it seems to carry so much potential. The book itself though? Eh.

      1. Don't forget the sequel. The Valet thinks it's hilarious when dragons love diapers

      2. Just not spicy tacos. I can’t agree with you two, I actually enjoy reading about taco parties with Niblet.

        1. I was hoping someone who enjoys the book would chime in! I suspect it's just that the book doesn't quite mesh with my sense of humor, but there are definitely lots of fans . . . as of February 5, the book had spent 255 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

          Update: As of this week, it has spent 265 weeks on the list.

  11. Reading has been lacking what with the pace of play my work this time of year.
    My sister sent me a copy of The Dog Stars for my birthday (arrived today). She always sends me food stuff, so I will make time to read.

  12. I am a book finisher (this is probably not too surprising).

    I have tried to be more aware of when I am struggling to finish, But most of the time I can plow through.

    I set page goals per day, which usually gets me started pretty well since I mostly only read at certain times (early morning or just before bed).

    The hard part for me is checking out too many books from the library and then never starting a book before it's time to return it. (Currently that's The Milk of Paradise - due in one week, 0 pages down, 400 or so to go).

    I have to remind myself that the library will probably still have the book next time I go if I decide I really need to read it now.

  13. Started but haven't finished (yet):
    Against the Day, Pynchon, 30% in, need a cheat sheet to keep track of multiple names for same person
    Roosevelt and Churchill, Men of Secrets, Stafford, 20% in, too many secrets
    Infinite Jest, 20% in, lost my way
    Sapiens, Yuval Harari, 30% in, not looking good for the humans
    Resurrection, Tolstoy, yawn
    Notes from a Small Island, Bryson, 10% in, loved the Provence book, this one is too snarky

    Wish I could unread:
    Blindness, José Saramago
    The Road, Cormac McCarthy

    Did just finish:
    The Man Who Smiled, Henning Mankell - Scandinavian noir, bring it
    An Era of Darkness, Shashi Tharoor - good, but sober read

    Currently reading:
    The Story of the Malakand Field Force, Winston Churchill

    Plug for Ulysses:
    The last 60 pages is one sentence.

    1. RE: Against The Day. At a certain point, it got so much clearer. I don't remember exactly what that point was, but it happened. All (well, most) of the confusions melted away. And once I was done, I spent like a month playing the whole thing over in my head and grew to love it even more and more. I am convinced that the structure of the book (the confusion, the branching paths, etc.) is part of the point of the book. It truly is the most brilliant thing I've ever read.

      1. OK Phil - you talked me into it. Diving back in to ATD...

        Reading resumes where Willis Turnstone, freshly credentialed from the American School of Osteopathy, has decided to Go West, where he is being bushwhacked by the Jimmy Drop gang. Jimmy sees he has a gun, and calls him out.

        Jimmy: "Go on ahead, don't be shy, I'll give you ten seconds gratis, 'fore I draw. Promise."

        Willis, not experienced with a gun, raises his pistol, but doesn't fire. Jimmy goes for his gun, but freezes in an ungainly crouch.

        Jimmy: "Oh, pshaw!"

        Alfonsito (his lieutenant): "Ay! Jefe, jefe! Tell us it ain' your back again."

        Willis: "I can fix that."

        Jimmy: "Beg pardon, what in hell business of any got-damn punkinroller'd this be, again?"

        Willis: "I know how to loosen that up for you. Trust me, I'm an osteopath."

        Jimmy: "It's O.K., we're open-minded, couple boys in the outfit are Evangelicals, just watch where you're putting them lilywhites now - yaaagh - I mean, huh?"

        Willis: "Feel better?"

        Jimmy: "Holy Toledo. Why it's a miracle."

    2. Oh, I dropped Blood Meridian, which was a gift from a friend I trust. I keep meaning to pick it back up, but...

      1. Felt this way for a portion of it, but something slid into place emotionally/empathetically and then I was down the black hole ‘til the end.

    3. Wish I could unread:
      Blindness, José Saramago
      The Road, Cormac McCarthy

      I don't know that I would like to unread "The Road", but damn, that was bleak- and I like that kind of stuff. There was a couple of times I put it down and wasn't sure if I would pick it back up.

      1. I really, really liked "The Road" but I think it was due to my expectations. I already knew how bleak it was by the time I read it.

        1. I really, really liked “The Road”

          ... Dido.

          From The Dog Stars* dust jacket: “For all those who though Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the last word on the post-apocalyptic world — think again .... Make time and space for this savage, tender, brilliant book.”
          —Glen Duncan, author of The Last Werewolf

          *my current read

          1. I know I've probably said this before but I'd compare "The Road" to the movie "Life is Beautiful."

            A father in the worst possible circumstances doing everything he can for his son.

  14. On Free's recommendation I picked up American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag. It was fantastic. Admittedly, I know exceedingly little about American Philosophy, as most of my education was far more Classical/Continental (with fair bits of broader survey thrown in). Turns out, I like a lot of American Philosophy, and it has almost certainly influenced my philosophical leanings far more than I had ever realized.

    In summary form: the gist of American Philosophy, according to Kaag, is that it is practical - it rejects Descartes (and the rationalist road he sent philosophy down) as ignoring a huge piece of what it truly is to be human. This strikes me as specifically familiar to a lot of the philosophy education I got, at least indirectly, so it seems there were some similar threads on the content. American Philosophy also wrestles with the ultimate questions of human life: is it worth it, what does it mean? In my very first philosophy course my professor started off by saying "The most important philosophical question is 'what should I do today? If philosophy isn't helping us answer that question, then we need to start over.'" Somewhat ironically, that same professor loved Descartes, who was about as far from that question as could be... anyway, that really spoke to me.

    The structure of the book is fascinating. It's a history of philosophy course structured around a man's personal crises and triumphs: his father's alcoholism and death, his divorce, and his falling in love again, despite odds against it.

    I've thought plenty about the lack of mainstream philosophy, and this book hit a real sweet spot for me. Highly recommend to anyone interested in philosophy, history of thought, etc. I've already pre-ordered his next one coming out this fall (about Neitzsche! One of my favorites!)

    1. Glad you liked it. I knew you would. Also the Neitzsche book is out now, it’s 3rd in line on my bedside table. The paperback comes out in Fall.

      I may discuss further tonight.

      1. Guess I pre-ordered the paperback then... huh.

        I would love to hear more of your thoughts.

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