Should we finish the books we begin? It depends.

In an article published in Friday’s Washington Times, economist Tyler Cowen makes several interesting and provocative arguments about reading and books.

  1. “What should you do when, 20, 50 or 100 pages in, you realize you just don’t like a book?” Cowen says: “Give up.”

  2. “We should treat books a little more like we treat TV channels,” (Cowen) argues. No one has trouble flipping away from a boring series.”

  3. ”(Cowen) notes that many up-and-coming writers complain they can’t break through in a best-seller-driven marketplace. ‘We’re also making markets more efficient,” Mr. Cowen says. “If you can sample more books, you’re giving more people a chance.’”

The article goes on to discuss several other readers who advocate quitting “boring” books: “One of her online friends reminded her there’s even an abandonment rule: The ‘Deduct Your Age From 100 and Read That Many Pages Before Giving Up on a Book’ rule”; and “Having an e-book reader has made Ms. Wendell more ruthless. “I’m holding 100+ books on one device. If one isn’t floating my boat, I can move on to something else by pressing one button,” she points out.”

So should we finish the books we begin? The short answer: it depends. On what? That’s more difficult, but it depends on something more than how much we are enjoying the book.

Why did you pick up the book in the first place? If you are reading for pure entertainment, it makes sense to put the book down if you aren’t feeling entertained after giving the book a fair shot. But surely most readers read for more than pure entertainment; if “entertainment” were the ultimate goal, there would be no reason to prefer an entertaining book over an equally or more entertaining movie, television show, or video game. In fact, I suspect that the widespread idea that books are primarily sources of entertainment is partially responsible for the decline of book-reading, especially among young people, in recent decades.

I choose and read books that are rewarding and that will enrich my understanding of the world, of myself, and of the human condition. If they are entertaining or exciting at the same time, so much the better, but that isn’t the primary goal. In fact, my idea of what is “entertaining” has shifted. I have conditioned myself to prefer forms of leisure - i.e., reading good books, practicing banjo and listening to music, engaging in good conversation, watching good movies - that are rewarding and educative. So even if I am reading a book that I must struggle to get through, that to me is often more entertaining than reading, say, Angels and Demons.

There are, in short, problems with considering a book’s excitement and ease the most important factors in deciding whether to read it or finish it. We build our literacy and expand our understanding by reading material that challenges us, just as a musician continually improves his or her proficiency in an instrument not by playing the same basic tunes over and over, but by constantly pushing his or her limits by tackling new, more frustrating and difficult works and techniques.

I have as much trouble as anyone with finishing books, but some books are worth finishing regardless of whether I feel like finishing them. The other week, I completed Moby-Dick after a slow, gradual, four-month effort. Moby-Dick would certainly fail the “entertainment” test for the vast majority of readers, including me. And yet it is now one of my favorite books, because Melville’s incredible use of language and his insights into religion, human nature, and life itself made Moby-Dick matter to me: I read it in the hope that it might change the way I write, think, and see the world.

Steinbeck writes in East of Eden: “You can start reading if you want and it will raise up your lid a little.” That’s as good a statement as any of what good books are for.

Ryan McCarl
Attorney | Writer | Educator