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When (and Why) to Stop Reading a Book

Man relaxing on a couch, reading a book.
VGstockstudio/Shutterstock

Not finishing a book gets a bad rap but, sometimes, it’s the best decision you can make. Here’s how to know when it’s time to stop.

People read for lots of reasons: to get better at something, to learn, because it’s required professionally, and so on. However, the best reason of all to read is for fun! There’s nothing better than getting caught up in a good book.

If you read for pleasure, it’s obvious you should enjoy the book you’re reading. If you’re dreading every page, coming up with excuses not to read, or just constantly distracted by your phone, then something is wrong. Let’s consider when you should stop reading a book.

Reasons You Should Stop Reading a Book

Most of the time, you don’t have to read a book. You’re not obliged to finish, but this can be hard for avid readers to grasp. Some people slog their way through, regardless, and that’s not the best idea.

If you’re not reading something for work or due to a social obligation—for example, it’s the book your mother wrote or your friends’ absolute favorite novel—then you’re reading it for yourself. And, if you’re reading something for yourself, you can stop at any time.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you should put down any book you find a tad boring or difficult. Some of the best books are slow starters or tricky to get into. There are plenty of times you should push through an awkward beginning, but there are also some times when you should stop.

You Hate It

The first clue that you should put down a book is when you hate something about it. I’m not talking about mild dislike or finding the pacing off. I’m talking about full-on objecting to a character’s existence or the moral direction the book is taking. If a character makes your blood boil or the language is so offensive you feel the need to go to confession, you should step away.

A big caveat here, though, is that great books often make you uncomfortable. Catch 22 and 1984 aren’t meant to leave you joyous. You can always put down a book, but be careful about doing so just because you’re thinking thoughts or feeling feelings you don’t like. That’s usually when you know you should push on.

You Can’t Read It

There are some books I just can’t read—On the Road, for one. There’s something about it that knocks me out faster than a Valium. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t read more than a few pages. These types of books are hard to predict. Based on the description on the back of the book, I should adore On the Road.

If there’s a book that puts you to sleep or sits on your shelf ignored for months on end, it might be time to accept you’re just not going to read it. Pull the plug and decide it’s not for you.

It’s Not Right, Right Now

Woman looking out a window, taking a break from reading her book.
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Almost all avid readers have a book (or books) they read at just the right moment. These books define specific periods of our lives or inspire us to do things. These are some of the most important books we will ever read—and sometimes, they come along at the wrong time.

I tried to read The Great Gatsby as a teenager, and it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t get it. I thought it was overrated. I tried it again last year and adored it, devouring the whole thing on a single red-eye flight and messing up my sleeping schedule for weeks. While nothing had changed about Gatsby, everything had changed about me.

Sometimes, you get the sense that, while a book is good, it’s not the one you need right now. Maybe you just went through a breakup and don’t want to read a harrowing love story. Perhaps you don’t want to read something about orphans just after your son is born. Whatever the reason, if you feel a book isn’t right for you right now, set it aside.

I put down Terry Pratchett’s final novel, The Shepherd’s Crown, after just a few pages. Pratchett is my all-time favorite author, but the book wasn’t for me right then. I wasn’t ready to have read everything he’d ever written and say goodbye. I’ll read it one day, but not today.

When to Push Through

There are two kinds of fun: Type One and Type Two. Type One Fun is things that are just fun, like rollercoasters and hanging out with your friends. Type Two Fun is stuff that’s fun in hindsight, like a tough hike or CrossFit. There are Type One and Type Two books, too.

Some books are wonderful to read, and some books are wonderful to have read. It’s important not to give up on the latter too soon.

Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite speculative fiction writers. The Baroque Cycle, his magnum opus, is an eight-book, one-million-word, multi-thousand-page epic. There are hundreds of characters, and the books span decades. As a big Stephenson fan, I knew I had to read it, but I’m not going to lie and say it was fun. Each volume was huge. The whole project took months. There were long periods in the books where not a lot happened but, in the end, it was worth it because I love that I read them.

If a book is really important to you—either because of what it’s about or who wrote it—then it’s worth pushing through, even if it’s not much fun at first. You’ll get great pleasure out of having read it.

This can be true of the classics. Books like 1984 and Animal Farm are so relevant to modern conversation that even if you’re not a huge fan, it’s probably worth finishing them just to know what people are talking about when they mention “Big Brother.”

I’ve already mentioned that feeling uncomfortable is not a good reason to put down a book. If it’s making you consider things you hadn’t before, that’s often one of the best reasons to keep reading.

How Much Is Enough?

The hardest part of quitting a book is knowing when to do it. At what point do you know that a book isn’t worth pushing through?

Once you get in the habit of throwing in the towel on books, it can be easy to start doing it too soon. One chapter is often not enough to get a feel for a book. I try for about 20%. So, if a book is 300 pages, I’ll read at least the first 60. By that point, the plot should be getting into gear, and I should have a good sense of the characters. I give longer books more leeway because they’re often slower to get started.

Whatever your approach, though, don’t feel guilty if you decide to put down a book and move on. Life is too short to slog through books you don’t enjoy.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »

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