I’ve written extensively about the value of reading good books, especially old ones, but I’ve never written about the need to quit books. Yet while there are many good reasons to read books that have stood the test of time, there’s also something to be said for putting a book down.
As paradoxical as it may sound, giving ourselves permission to quit reading a book can help us reach that New Year’s resolution to read more.
This is because, before we embark on a reading journey, there’s usually something we wish to get from the text in question, whether that’s wisdom, knowledge, or maybe just an enjoyable adventure tale from a foreign land. The possibilities are endless. But it’s a simple fact that some texts—even if they’ve received high praise from people we respect—just don’t give us what we wanted or needed.
Consider James Joyce’s Ulysses. Some readers say that Joyce’s magnum opus is among the greatest pieces of literature in history. And based on this near-endless praise, a few years ago I decided to give the book a read. However, I didn’t find the literary diamonds so many others claimed to have discovered. Ulysses didn’t seem to do a whole lot.
And I wasn’t alone. Virginia Woolf—one of the great modernist writers and author of Mrs. Dalloway—confided in her diary about Ulysses, writing: “I … have been amused, stimulated, charmed interested by the first 2 or 3 chapters—to the end of the Cemetery scene; & then puzzled, bored, irritated, & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.”
Days later, she put down another flourish about Joyce’s novel: “Never did I read such tosh. As for the first 2 chapters we will let them pass, but the 3rd 4th 5th 6th—merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges. Of course genius may blaze out on page 652 but I have my doubts. And this is what [T.S.] Eliot worships. …”
According to Woolf’s diary entry, she made it to page 200 of Ulysses before taking a temporary break. I didn’t even make it that far. But Ulysses taught me something important about reading: It’s okay to quit a book if it’s not for you.
After all, even good books aren’t beneficial to every person at every time. (An excellent book on motherhood, for example, won’t do much for a pre-tween boy.) So, while some of us might benefit from the perseverance and loyalty displayed in Ulysses, others might find it monotonous and unhelpful.
As I’ve written previously, the most valuable currency we have access to is our time, and it’d be a pity to waste any of it by forcing ourselves to labor over a text we’re not gaining from. After all, the act of reading should be enriching—either because it entertains us or because it builds us in some way. If a book doesn’t do one of those things and we decide to put it down, we shouldn’t feel as if we’ve failed. Even the literary greats—such as Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, and F. Scott Fitzgerald—have likely put down books they didn’t find worthwhile.
Still, some people absolutely refuse to quit a book once they’ve started reading. For them, to quit a book means to concede defeat, and it doesn’t feel good to be defeated. It’s no wonder that some readers, after finishing a particularly lengthy book, proclaim that they’ve “conquered” it. But while there’s something to be said for some literary perseverance and reading difficult books, it’s worth remembering that reading something is usually better than reading nothing—even if that means abandoning one book to read something else instead.
As the New Year pushes on, remember that it’s okay to quit reading a book that we expected to be good. Our time is precious—and so is the literature we choose to read.
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