The best reading advice I ever received came from my seventh grade English teacher. He said, “If you’re not into a book by page fifty, put it aside and read something else. The chances are good that if the author hasn’t captured your attention by then, he never will.” My teacher was way ahead of his time. He was a DNF advocate long before DNF (Did Not Finish, for those who don’t hang around on bookish websites) became a thing.
Of course, this didn’t apply to class assignments. We still had to slog through Great Expectations, despite being bored silly by page fifty, one hundred and, yep, two hundred. His tip was only to be used for leisure reading and woe be unto the kid who tried to use his wisdom to explain away an incomplete book report. Saying, “I wasn’t into it by page fifty so I quit,” put you in the fast lane to flunking.
Anyway, out of all the things various teachers and librarians have said to me about reading, that’s the one thing that stuck with me over the years. It’s saved me from a lot of bad books and wasted time. And I never feel guilty about putting one book aside in favor of another. I just remember the fifty page rule Mr. Atkins taught me and drop it in the library return bin.
But I know many people who feel that DNF’ing a book is somehow a personal failing, or at least something to be ashamed of. They huddle up at parties and, when talk shifts to the latest releases, look around furtively before admitting, “I didn’t finish it. I just couldn’t.” Or they try to bluff their way through the conversation, which is just stupid. Whereas I’m like, “Yeah, I tossed it aside. Whatever. But you should read what I read in its place!”
People often look at me oddly when I say this. I’m supposed to feel shame for not finishing a book. Isn’t is an admission of weakness to say that I couldn’t stick with it? Doesn’t it make me a quitter, likely to bolt from other obligations in life? No, it does not.
Quitting a book isn’t like quitting a job or walking out on a relationship. No one is counting on you to finish that book. There is no expectation that you will show up today and read that book over any other. The book doesn’t need you the way a partner or pet does. A book is just a book. It’s a consumer product like a mop, a picture frame, or a sofa. You’ll love some of them, hate others, and feel indifferent toward the rest. And, here’s the kicker: No one else cares or is impacted by your decision to DNF, just like they don’t care that you switched from Tide to Gain laundry detergent.
As with all consumer products, not every book is for everyone. And we shouldn’t act like it should be. You don’t expect someone to keep using a mattress that is horribly uncomfortable, do you? No, you’d expect them to look for another, something that fits them better. We do this with everything in our lives. We make judgements about what’s working and what’s not and we cut the “not’s” loose. But when it comes to books, people get weird.
They get oddly attached to the thing and sometimes they wrap their identity into finishing this book. “Everyone else is reading it, so I must get through it so I can talk about it!” Or, “It’s a classic, so I’m not an educated person if I don’t finish this book.” And, “This book is about an Important Topic. I must read it in order to be knowledgeable about the world and struggles around me.” And, my favorite, “This book will make me a better person so I have to finish it.”
Yeah, no. True, there are some books that will change the way you view yourself and the world. They are paper miracles. But they’re also rare and you tend to get that life-changing vibe without turning your beloved reading time into a death march. (Which sort of defeats the purpose, don’t you think?) In other words, the books that will resonate and change your life are generally so good that you know it from the get go.
As to whether or not it makes you more educated, or a better conversationalist at book club, who cares? Honestly, think about it. Does anyone care if you read Moby Dick? Do you have it on your CV? Did your employer say, “You didn’t finish Moby Dick? Sorry, but we’re only hiring those who did finish it.” Did anyone at book club threaten to throw you out when you said, “I didn’t like it so I didn’t finish it.” Probably not. They moved on, you got hired anyway, and the world kept turning, even though you DNF’d A Tale of Two Cities. For the fifth time.
To some extent I can understand this if you paid for the book. There is a feeling that you have to get your money out of it, or at least do penance for your poor decision. It’s why we live with that ugly vase we bought on vacation in Spain. It’s hideous but dammit, we spent the money on it and schlepped it home, so we have to use it!
But there’s another way to look at it. Yeah, you made a mistake in buying that book, vase, whatever. But now that you know it’s not for you, you can give it to someone who will love it. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and all that. Donate the failed book to the library or to Goodwill. Sell it at a yard sale or on Amazon. Someone will come along who will love it more than you could.
But if you’re getting books from the library or reading free ebooks, just let them go. Return it to the library so someone else can have it. I guarantee you that the book you DNF will be someone else’s favorite. It’s not like you’re tossing it in the trash can, after all. (Please, don’t do that. That is shameful behavior and I will judge you for it.) Don’t hoard the book while you struggle week after week to read it. Just give it back and get another. Sing the song, “Let it Go,” from Frozen if you have to while you do it.
If you’re not into something, move on. You don’t leave the car radio tuned to the crappy station, do you? Of course not. And you don’t feel the least bit guilty about jumping to another, do you? Treat books the same way and you’ll find there’s no shame in the DNF. In fact, it’s quite liberating. Life is too short to be reading books you don’t enjoy. Especially in a world where there are thousands of books you will love out there. Don’t waste your life on stuff that’s right for someone, just not you.
Two Exceptions to the 50 Page Rule
Over the years I’ve learned that there are two exceptions to the fifty page rule. Here they are:
Sometimes it’s the wrong time for a book.
There are times when a book fails to grab you within the first fifty pages, despite your certainty that it should. So you put it aside reluctantly, or you force yourself onward in the belief that it will get better only it never does.
The problem may not be the book, it may simply be that it’s not the right time for that book.
You may be dealing with stuff in your life that makes comedy or tragedy unappealing. You may be too distracted to focus on a deep book you’d otherwise love. Books have their time and place and sometimes you aren’t ready or receptive. That’s fine. Here’s what I do in those cases.
I DNF it and give it back to the library. But… I make a note of it in my reading journal and revisit it some time later. Sometimes I still don’t like it, but at least then I feel like I gave it a fair shot. Other times, I really do love it and I realize it just wasn’t the right book for that earlier time in my life.
The most obvious example of this for me is the In Death series by J.D. Robb (the pen name for Nora Roberts). The first time I tried to read the first book in the series, I couldn’t get into it. The near-future setting was too weird and I didn’t like the characters. But I love most of Nora Robert’s work, so I couldn’t believe I didn’t like this series. I put it aside, but made a note. A year or so later I saw the book in the library and said, “Sure, I’ll try again.” This time I loved it and I’ve read every one since.
I’m still not sure why it didn’t resonate the first time. Maybe I was coming off some other sci-fi and this seemed odd by comparison, or I wasn’t in the mood for mystery at the time. Whatever, I didn’t force it at the time but came back to it later. No shame, no blame, and it all worked out in the end.
Longer books may deserve extra time.
It’s a truth that a longer than average book may need more than fifty pages to hit its groove. Fantasy and sci-fi with lots of world building, generational sagas, and historical fiction are three genres that typically run long. Books may be well over 300 pages, with some clocking in near 500-plus. A book like that rarely gets off the ground in fifty pages. For these outliers, I’ll give them at least a hundred pages. Sometimes more if it’s a really long book and I can see the promise. But if I’m close to 1/3 of the way through and it’s not clicking? DNF and back it goes. Yep. I have no shame.
(Photo courtesy of Oldiefan)