This is not the case for Seattle transportation planner Michelle Ginder, even though she recently put aside John Sayles's 2011 A Moment in the Sun to instead read Game of Thrones. She felt guilty, reports Mitchell, but then she felt really, really good. Liberated! Free to read whatever she liked. According to clinical psychologist Matthew Wilhelm, whom Mitchell referred to for his opinion on unfinished-book guilt, "There is a tendency for us to perceive objects as 'finished' or 'whole' even though they may not be. This motivation is very powerful and helps to explain anxiety around unfinished activities." Once we start, we want to finish — that's the simplest accomplishment there is — and this is true for books as it is for movies, for projects, for meals, for goals and aspirations.
But reading is not about the chore of finishing a book, it's about pleasure, regardless of the type of pleasure we expect from reading (some want a challenge, some want a good story, some want to look smart). Even so, sometimes it's difficult to let ourselves go and just read for fun, and maybe it's more difficult to actively cut the cord, step away, admit that it's not going so well and your best bet is to move on.
Dr. Wilhelm thinks that Type-A personalities might be more likely to stop reading because "they tend to be motivated by reward and punishment," and nobody gets a prize for finishing a book. B-Types, he thinks, may simply not start a book if they don't think they'll finish it. As with nearly everything, social pressure plays a role. If you join a book club, you're going to finish the book — or you're going to figure out how to fake it. And if you only read books you like, you'll probably read more books. Mitchell explains that book abandoning appears to occur more with e-books, which make it easier to switch to something new if the first book you choose doesn't grab you (and no one can see you back away from one read and move to another). It's sort of like surfing the net, but in long-form. On a related note, GoodReads members have determined that "the most initiated but unfinished" book of all time, per current vote, is Joseph Heller's Catch-22. If you're interested in dabbling with the start-and-stop of a read, try that one!
Luckily, because I have left so many books undone that I'd never be able to leave the house otherwise, I don't have unfinisher's guilt. But I do have another sort of regret that plagues me in relation to books. Whenever I walk into a bookstore, I must buy a book — this is my effort to support publishing, print, indie stores, reading, you name it. This generally occurs whether I have a ton of unread books on the shelf or not. Occasionally, though, I'll convince myself I have too much to read already, or that I should wait for the paperback, or that I don't really need any of these tomes, and I'll walk out of that bookstore empty-handed. I always feel a little bit sad afterward. Shoulda bought a book.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.