The Forge Guide to Reading Better

It’s Okay Not to Finish the Book

And other reading rules you’re better off breaking

InIn the last week of December, it seemed like half of the book-reading public was on social media feeding hashtags like #95books and #ReadingChallenge, ignoring their families to madly skim the last 10 books that would allow them to hit their Goodreads goal. While I respect goal-setting and accountability, watching so many people apply a sense of duty to something I enjoy as much as reading made me a bit sad.

Perhaps counterintuitively, I think the reason why I end up reading so much is that I don’t keep track. Eyeing my shelves and piles and iBooks history, I think I come pretty close to a hundred a year. Quite a bit more, if I include comics — and I certainly will, because they’re a key part of my reading life, which is a hodgepodge that also includes crime novels and political biographies, nature memoirs and contemporary fiction, and anything else that appeals to me as I discover it. I try to read the way I read as a kid: without rules and under no sense of obligation to anyone but myself, reaching for the books that I will enjoy the most. Learning happens to be a side effect, but it’s rarely my motivating goal.

Too often, we treat reading like homework — an exercise for building focus and willpower in the digital age. By extension, books become an analog solution for our distractible, too-plugged-in 21st-century brains.

In one of the last books I read last year, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, the historian Leah Price challenges today’s tendency to regard books as virtuous remnants of a “monolithic printed past…with which to beat our digital present.” We’re not going to find the answer to reading ‘better’ by looking backward because, according to Price, people’s reading habits haven’t necessarily changed over time. Throughout the history of the printed word, readers have skimmed, multitasked, and adjusted to changing formats. I see this as proof that reading isn’t an activity that becomes a practical self-improvement tool when done correctly — because it can’t be done correctly.

The pressure to read “correctly,” whatever that means, can get in the way of reading at all. Unfortunately, too many of us were trained from childhood to see reading as a rigid responsibility: Pick the right books. Learn from those books. Finish those books.

But there are too many different ways to enjoy a reading life for rules and quotas to make sense. When you find yourself reading a book that you strongly, personally suspect might suck, stop.

Perseverance has its uses in reading, sure — for example, it’s a good idea to wait until the end of the chapter, or the paragraph, or at least the sentence (c’mon!) before you check your phone. But if the book you’re slogging through continually loses the battle to the AppleTV remote or Mass Effect, accept that it might be time to put it down for good.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t challenge yourself. In fact, I’m saying the opposite: Save your endurance for the books you find difficult but rewarding. Middlemarch and Beloved aren’t as easy to consume as a season of Stranger Things. But if the difficulty you’re encountering on the page comes from the richness of its language and a thrilling density of ideas, even if you’re uncomfortable with how the book is challenging your preconceptions, you’ll know you want to stick it out.

But if you’re reading a book that seemingly everyone insists is absorbing and life-changing, but you can’t bear the thought of another page, you’re indisputably right about one thing: You don’t like this book and you aren’t getting anything out of it. Put it down and move on with your life — and onto a book you actually want to read.

The same logic applies to the idea that there’s a ‘right’ format to read. You know what I mean if you’ve ever noticed someone wince when you’ve admitted that you do most of your reading by phone on your commute, or that you finally finished Moby Dick by listening to the audiobook at 3.5x speed. Believing that there’s a wrong way to read has the same effect as believing there are wrong books: If your goal is to read more, it’s a self-defeating attitude.

In his 2005 essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights,” the author Michael Chabon lamented that short fiction had become, in large part, fixated on “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story.” Horror, crime, and speculative short fiction, once part of the repertoire of literary writers such as Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Guy de Maupassant, had slowly become perceived as fluff, mere entertainment, not the province of serious readers and writers.

Chabon’s essay resonated with me and the way I cultivated a reading life of my own. I’d grown up in a household of unashamed readers who didn’t differentiate between literary and genre fiction. My parents would chase a Rushdie novel with a quick Inspector Morse or Stephen King paperback, and if they did draw a distinction, it was blurry enough that I didn’t understand how to properly feign snobbery until my undergrad years. I got through that brief phase in time to start writing my first crime novel in my mid-20s.

Not only did writing genre fiction not harm the literary stories and essays I was working on, but it helped. Writing across genres makes me a better writer, just as reading across genres makes me a better reader. I don’t think it’s coincidental that many of my favorite writers have been, to borrow a phrase from David Bowie, very tasty thieves — drawing on the vast culture of storytelling and the printed word, using their own insights and style to blend forms and create unique works. Reading for no better reason than to pursue your curiosity is how you find out what you’re truly interested in and what you think about it all — a process that’s very close to how a writer’s creativity functions.

What I’m saying is: integrate your reading life. That doesn’t just mean in terms of the genres you decide to explore, or the formats they come in. If you’re curious, fascinated by, and entertained by what a writer has to say, reading their books will never be a chore. There are so many overlapping pleasures to be found in a reading life driven by your taste, your interests, and accidental discovery.

Toronto based author of Curry: Eating, Reading and Race. Two thrillers (Your Life Is Mine / Find You In the Dark) as Nathan Ripley.

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