The DNF Manifesto

Let us start this article with a statistic. I have received 36 ARCs through Netgalley. Of these books, I have finished 6.

My name is Peat, and I finish a lot less books than I start, and I think that should be perfectly normal.

I put down books early for a lot of reasons. I put down books that I should never have started, I put down books that are wrong for my mood, I put down books that do not keep the promise of their early pages. I sometimes put down books that I’ve been enjoying greatly if they run on longer than I’m interested in the story for. I’ll recommend those books too. Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan and John le Carre’s The Night Manager both spring to mind. They’re very well written, but at some point the long drawing out of tension resulted in my thread of interest going slack, and I decided then that it was best to have a very enjoyable incomplete reading experience rather than struggle through to something less enjoyable.

Enjoyment is one of my big watchwords when it comes to reading fiction. If it’s not fun – for a given value of fun, sometimes – what’s the point? If a book isn’t fun, what’s the point of continuing to read it?

Why don’t people stop reading books they don’t enjoy? Here’s a few reasons I’ve seen

1) But what if it picks up?

It might. It often does. A reader needs to be smart at figuring out when a book isn’t fun due to something the author can and probably will change, and when it isn’t due to something the author can’t or probably won’t change. A character being tedious because the author plans to teach them a lesson can result in a good book, a character being tedious with no sign of such thing probably won’t.

However, even with the best judgment in the world, regularly DNFing books will probably result in missing out on reading experiences you’ll enjoy. It’s a fairly unprovable assertation, but it makes sense. The question is whether you’ll give yourself more enjoyable reading experiences through struggling on as opposed to putting it down and reading something else. If I put down four books after the first quarter, I’ve saved myself the time I could use to read three other books that I am excited by rather than continue with the four where I’ve lost the excitement (assuming equal reading time and length for the sake of an easy argument). For me, the odds are with trying the new books and putting down the old.

2) I dunno, it just feels wrong…

Reading is a pastime with a huge amount of ‘right way’ and ‘wrong way’ attached to it. These books have worth; these don’t. These are morally good; these aren’t. Words are important and attract a great deal of value judgments, such as due to them being important, we should read all the words put in front of us. To which I say several things:

  • As noted, time spent finishing books is time not spent on other books. You can’t read them all. What makes the words in front of you more important than the words elsewhere?
  • Not all words are equally important, and I don’t mean in a weighty real life issues vs frothy escapism way. Not all words will resonate equally with you; two authors can espouse the same idea, and one will makes the idea more alive to you because you like how they use their words better.
  • There is a feeling of it being important to judge only on the finished whole, each and every word as the author put them down. There’s a lot to be said for that. But at the same time, we judge on incomplete information and things removed from context all the time. We hit shuffle on the playlist, we watch clips from movies, we wonder what athletes robbed of their prime would have done. Why should books and words be any different?
  • If the answer is “because they are important” then, accepting that argument at face value, I would argue that reading should be about finding the most important words, because we know we can’t read all the words and not all will be equally important to us. And we already let important things slide to deal with more important things in our lives. At this point putting books and words on a pedestal where we don’t do this is simply ridiculous, and creates this exaggerated aura of sanctity that puts people off reading. And if stories and words are truly that important, then such a thing must be anathema.
  • To sum up, either books aren’t so important than it should matter, or they are and making sure people continue to access them is more important than making sure they do so in the exact right way.

It might feel wrong, but there is no objective reason for it to feel so. There is no sensible moral code under which not finishing books is a bad thing, no matter how much someone might make you feel so at times.

3) I don’t want to

Fair reason. I know people who finish every book they start and seem to have a whale of a time. Sometimes I envy them. Granted, I also know some people who say they don’t want to finish a book but give every impression of hating reading it even more, but ultimately you do you.

This manifesto is not here to get people to do things they don’t want to.

It is to promote something people maybe want to do. It’s to suggest the stigma attached to it in some quarters is a useless one. It’s to point out there are benefits to constantly trying new books without being holding yourself to having to try them. It’s nice getting to see what so many authors are doing, even if I’m not held by it. It’s nice not trawling through books that don’t really work for me. I think a lot of dedicated readers have reading as a core part of their identity and get low when they feel like their relationship with books isn’t what they want it to be, which I totally get. I think it lies behind not DNFing books for a lot of people; for me, I found DNFing books helped me avoid that low. Reading good fiction can help you feel good about yourself. Reading fiction you like less has less of an effect.

So next time you’re looking at a book in frustration and deciding if you really want to keep reading it – go right ahead and put it down if that’s what you want. What’s more likely to be the book of your life – the one frustrating you, or the next book you read?

2 thoughts on “The DNF Manifesto

  1. This is great!
    I’ll add a couple of other reasons, valid for me:
    1. This one is something related to my Yorkshire bones: “I’ve spent money on it”. I know this doesn’t apply to your Netgalley case, but it might be useful for other people. I know I’m a lot more likely to DNF library books than bought books (although that might also be because I choose which books to buy quite carefully). Gotta get my money’s worth

    2. “I’ve started, and so I’ll finish” (the Mastermind reason hehe) – I’m a completionist, I hate leaving things undone, and the idea of a partially read book makes me quite nervous. It has to be something I’m really not enjoying at all.

    I’ve just checked. I got 1,020 books in my LibraryThing account; how many with “abandoned” tag? 8, all either from the library or bought at charity shops…

    Liked by 1 person

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