How I Stopped Guilt Reading

Have you ever told someone that you never give up on a book?

Persevering through a book no matter what provides some weird kind of pride. The book didn’t even have to be bad. Maybe it’s just not your cup of tea. Maybe everybody else on the planet raved about how amazing it is. Maybe Netflix optioned it for a brand new series.

The thing is, not all books are equal, and not all books are made for every person. Just because a book has made an impact on someone else doesn’t mean it will do the same for you.

Perhaps guilt reading wouldn’t be such a problem if books didn’t take so long to consume.

According to How Long to Read This my reading speed is 232 wpm. My to-read list currently has 334 items on it, most of which are crime fiction. If the average crime fiction novel is around 90,000 words it would take me 129,569 minutes to read every book. That’s 2,159 hours or 90 days.

Now I’ve got what I feel is a realistically sized to-read list. But it also seems to grow exponentially. I add a lot more books than I remove at any rate so that number is going to keep growing. If I hated half of the books on that list but kept reading them anyway… well that’s 45 days of reading wasted.

So why do we keep reading books we don’t like?

Some of the reasons I’ve forced myself to finish a book include:

  • Being told I can’t dislike a book without having read the whole thing first
  • Someone else recommended it to me
  • It’s a best seller
  • I love the author’s other work
  • It’s won an award
  • It was an ARC
  • It was mandatory for high school or university

The most likely culprit of guilt reading is the sunk cost fallacy.

Time is money and once a person has invested any in a certain task they are much more likely to stick with it. There have been a few studies over the decades on the sunk cost fallacy. The studies show the fallacy leads us to make stupid decisions, stay in unsatisfying relationships, and keep doing things we’re not enjoying.

Books are no different. Once most people have committed time to reading a book they feel that by stopping they will have “wasted” that time. And that’s just time. The sunk cost fallacy kicks into higher gear when you think about how much you (or someone else) spent on buying it.

What we humans forget in our irrationality is that by continuing to read books we don’t like we are giving away that valuable time. If I feel like I already wasted 2 hours on a book I don’t like then why do I feel like it’s fair to waste another two?

Every minute you spend on something you aren’t enjoying is a minute that you could spend on something that might enrich your life.

Guilt reading is also a learned habit.

I don’t know of a single person who wasn’t forced to read something they didn’t want to when they were younger. Classic literature is still a staple in schooling, and, let’s face it, most kids aren’t that interested in Shakespeare. But some kids stick through the readings because their teacher (or the education system) says there’s some benefit to be had.

As adults, sometimes we know that there’s a benefit to finishing a certain book. Perhaps it’s self-help, to write a review, or maybe read all that author’s works. Sometimes I need to ask myself is this book really for me then? If I’m not enjoying it and not absorbing any of the information constructively, then am I getting the benefit? Most of the time the answer is no.

Sometimes we just don’t trust ourselves.

Books are covered in promises. A key point of selling books is the blurb and testimonials. Pretty often testimonials are provided by authors well known in the genre. I’ve definitely picked up a new crime fiction book because an author I like tells me this new author’s work is “gripping”.

If I’m reading that book and find it to not be gripping. Maybe I even find it boring, I might second guess it. If Lisa Gardner said it’s gripping then it must be, right? I continue on, thinking that I just haven’t gotten to “the good part” yet. Until I reach the end of the book and realise I’ve spent a chunk of time on a book I thought was boring the whole way through.

This lack of trust in ourselves (or too much trust in others) may also be behind forging through award-winning and recommended books. Most awards aren’t given out for no reason, so there is the assumption that the book must be good — even if you don’t like it. Which a lot of the time is probably true. That’s when you need to add up whether it’s worth it to have “experienced” that book even if you didn’t enjoy it.

Although a book might be written amazingly well, it can still have faults. There are certainly numerous well-written novels written with problematic features, and sometimes even by problematic authors, but that doesn’t mean you need to suffer through reading it.

So how have I stopped guilt reading?

Although it sure is tempting to keep giving books a chance (I’ve definitely said “I’ll read 15%, okay 20%, no maybe it will get better, I’ll keep going), I’m now finding it much easier to put books down. Even ones I’ve paid good money for.

I’m much more mindful of what I think while I’m reading. If I start wondering how much longer it’s going to take to “get through” a book, I stop and take stock of whether I’m actually enjoying it, or if I’m just waiting for the end. Am I trusting my instincts and feelings or relying on what others have said?

I also take less stock in awards and author recommendations. Just because some judges or well-regarded authors like a novel doesn’t mean that every person should. The world would be boring if everybody liked the same thing. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating a certain style of writing from afar.

Let’s celebrate the did-not-finish novels! Share any tips you have to stop guilt-reading and what your last DNF novel was below.

Freelance writer and proofreader for hire.

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