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Giving Up on Books: When ‘to be read’ Becomes ‘did not finish’

Jen Sherman

Staff Writer

Jen is an urban and cultural geographer who did a PhD on public libraries and reading. As a researcher, her interests are focused on libraries, reading, book retailing and the book industry more broadly. As a reader, she reads a lot of crime fiction, non-fiction, and chicklit. And board books. All the board books. You can also find her writing about books for children and babies at Instagram: shittyhousewife / babylibrarians Twitter: @jennnigan

Maud Casey once wrote, “I was born with a reading list I will never finish.” I’m sure many of you will understand this sentiment, and I don’t think I’m alone in having a stupidly long TBR list (books to be read). I add books to my TBR list as I read reviews, browse in bookshops and libraries, scroll through Twitter, chat to fellow readers, and sometimes even just open up my email.

Sometimes I actually read the books on that list. I will buy or borrow the book in question, sit down, and the book will be read, cover to cover. Sometimes, books stay on the list for years, long enough that I’ll eventually forget I ever wanted to read it. Sometimes, I buy or borrow the book and it will sit on my shelf, gathering dust until it eventually gets returned to the library.

And then there’s that in-between bit. Where I acquire the book, start reading it, enjoy it, but then put it down and never pick it up again. I started reading a biography of Hitler’s mistress back in 2007, read four chapters, and haven’t picked it up since. Is that book still on my TBR list, or has it migrated to my DNF (did not finish) list? I have always intended on finishing that book. I enjoyed it, but felt that I needed to be in a particular mood to read it. And I guess I haven’t really found the right mood in the past decade.

So when does a TBR become a DNF? Is it when you make the conscious decision to not finish a book because it wasn’t your cup of tea? Is a book you started ten years earlier and haven’t touched since a DNF? What if you live with the optimistic hope that one day you’ll really be in the mood to read about Hitler’s mistress and finally finish the thing? Is it still a DNF then?

I asked my fellow Rioters this question, and this is what they said:

Jess Pryde: Honestly, a TBR can become a DNF 10 pages in for me, or less. Sometimes, I will let a DNF become a TBR again, if I’m really interested but just not in the mood, and find I’m not making reading progress.

There are books that have been sitting on my coffee table with bookmarks in them for months, but if I hit a year, I pull the bookmark out and put it back on the TBR shelf. Or the sell shelf, depending on how determined I am to finish it.

Tracy Shapley: When I remove it from my “currently reading” shelf on Goodreads. Usually I only cull that list when we’re coming up on a new year and I’m coming up with some stats. So by the time December comes along, I can have A LOT of “currently reading” books.

Shiri Sondheimer: I used to always finish. Now I have multiple jobs, two kids, and supposed adulting. Books get 50 pages. Anytime after that, DNF though I have occasionally been known to give something a second chance.  But I am fine with putting books down which weird guilt and OCD made impossible before about 5 years ago.

Margaret Kingsbury: I typically give 50-100 pages before I DNF, unless something is too terrible to even give that much.

Jamie Canaves: When my mood isn’t the reason that I keep feeling like I’m being forced to pick it up and read it (I usually give it at least 3 tries) or when it’s problematic/casual racism/misogynistic to the point I wouldn’t recommend it because of…

And the answer I most identify with:

Rachel Smalter Hall: The hard one for me is when I read like 50 pages of a book (or listen to an hour) and I genuinely LIKE it, but I don’t LOVE it and meanwhile I’ve picked up something else I like even more, and I just never seem to get back to the other book. Those are the ones that haunt my “currently reading” list forever. I think I usually give those 2-3 months of official “currently reading” status on Goodreads (or in my head) before I quietly move them over to DNF.

So what about you? When do you admit defeat and give up on a book? Do you have half-read books that have been languishing on a TBR pile for years? When does a TBR become a DNF for you?