The Quiet Shame of the Half-Book Reader

We've considered types of book readers before, from the hate-reader to the multi-tasking bibliophile, but it's time to analyze another sort. Some people are plagued with guilt about the books they've left undone.

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We've considered types of book readers before, from the hate-reader to the multi-tasking bibliophile, but it's time to analyze another sort. As Heidi Mitchell writes in the Wall Street Journal, some people are plagued with guilt about the books they've left undone. They either unhappily force themselves to finish once they start, or they consciously decide to move on and feel like quitters for doing so.

I have heard tell of this type of reader. This reader is not me. I am an unabashedly proud leaver of half-finished books, and even more terrible, I have books all over my apartment and office that I haven't even started. I feel worse about the books I haven't started, because inside of them there are likely to be great treasures. That's not exactly guilt, more of a fear of missing out. As for the book that simply didn't grab me by the first 100 pages — well, I consider that giving the book a chance. That's the first and maybe even the second date, the time in which I must be enticed in order to go forward. If it's just not working, you set the book aside and move on. There's not enough time in life to feel bad about a book you're reading! (I do this with TV shows, movies, and other forms of entertainment as well.) And I'm pretty guilt-free about it, oddly enough. I turn my guilt, maybe, into disappointment that I didn't like something enough to finish it.

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.