Our Reading Lives

DNF (or Don’t) if You Want To

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Jess Carbert

Staff Writer

Jess is a freelance journalist with training in the mystic arts of print, television, radio, and a dash of PR. When she’s not mowing people down in her wheelchair, she’s writing like her life depends on it, or getting willfully lost in a book. Twitter: @heyits_wheels

I didn’t finish The Night Circus. As you say, I DNF-d the book (did. not. finish). I made it to page 106, trying in vain to struggle through a novel that I should’ve loved. For one thing, everyone else loves it. Also, the cover is gorgeous. Also, the pages smell really good. Like, really good. Maybe that was just my copy? Anyway, it took me what felt like a small eternity to get through those 106 pages, and eventually I just put it down, decided enough was enough, grabbed my iPhone, and Wikipediaed the ending. For shame! But the thing was, after spoiling the ending for myself, I was so glad I hadn’t forced myself to finish it. It went to another reader who hopefully appreciated its style and pacing far more than I ever could.

When it comes to DNFing books, my list of “should-haves” is bigger than the list of ones I actually did. Recently (or maybe it’s always been there and I’m just noticing it now, because most of my free time is spent engaging in all things bookish), I’ve noticed this weird trend: a lot of readers who have a platform on the internet do not like DNFing. The way they talk about it makes it sound like it’s some shameful act to wring their hands over, and I’ll be honest, it kind of rubbed off on me when I rediscovered my love of reading. Suddenly, it felt like the desire to power through a book was stronger than the urge to actually find something I enjoyed (what kind of reader would I be if I didn’t see it through to the end? What if the ending made all this bad stuff worth it? What if people judged me? Spoiler alert: the endings were never worth it, and if people judged me for throwing a book into my donation box half-read, I never noticed it). I went through this weird phase as an adult reader. But as a teenager, I would put books down as naturally as I picked them up if something felt “off.” Whether the plot sucked, the characters annoyed me, or it just wasn’t the right time/place for me to immerse myself in the book’s content, I didn’t have a problem putting it down—whether I was 20 pages in or 20 pages away from the ending—because I wanted to, and picking up a brand new one for much the same reason.

It’s been awhile since I’ve shaken off the Don’t DNF vibes, and I honestly can’t figure out why I ever got sucked into that mindset in the first place. I mean, real question: why are you making yourself plod through a book that you resent, a book that makes you wish you were spending your time doing something (anything) else? I used to sort of get it when people said they finished a book (despite their dislike of it) because the author put so much effort into writing it, reading it seemed like the least they could do. I was definitely in that boat not too long ago, having a mini-crisis over whether or not to DNF the second book in a companion series because I typically adore the author’s work, but that particular novel was chewing at me like fleas on an alley cat. Within 24 hours of submitting that article, said book had found a new home, and I didn’t regret it. After all, I knew pretty early on that the book was ringing all the wrong bells for me, and if I finished it, I’d have nothing positive to say in the subsequent review, but I still held onto it because I simply felt that I had to.

Listen: no matter which camp you fall into (DNF or don’t), I think the big thing that gnaws at me is there’s an actual debate about it on both sides, like people are fully expecting to change your mind about whether or not you DNF a book, because the way they choose to go about their reading life is different. I don’t think there should be judgement on either side. If you want to read a book you’re not liking, more power to you, but if you want to discard a book after not liking however many number of pages (there literally is no set minimum), then you do you. There are far more important battles to fight on a daily basis.

Reading is a solitary activity in that you are left to form your own opinions about the content you read. If it’s not jiving with you, feel free to put it down (or not), just don’t be a total jerkwad about people choosing to do the opposite.