I Used To Be Too Scared To Abandon Books

If you’ve read some of my past pieces for Book Riot, it is no secret that I love to expose the unconventional ways that reading was “encouraged” by the teachers I had as a child and the schools I attended. I’m not too sure how or why, but I always ended up with the teachers who excelled in pretty much everything required of a teacher except the whole encouraging-kids-to-read thing. They tried their hardest, they really did, and I will never hate or admonish them for that. I look back now as an adult at the habits I had to kick and the things I had to unlearn, and I have to laugh. I thank the teachers of the early 2000s for providing me with lessons to give and stories to tell.

Today, I’m here to tell you the story of how I spent years of my life terrified to not finish a book—DNF (did not finish) for you internet-slang-fluent book people—all thanks to one year with a teacher who really loved to read and just wanted her students to feel the same way.

I was in the 5th grade and the Accelerated Reader (AR) program was going strong. If you’ve read my piece about how it took me until age 21 to read that very popular fantasy series set at magic school that shall no longer be named, then you’re familiar with the number AR did to my reading life. If you aren’t familiar, AR is a reading program for K–12 schools that monitors the practice of reading. Students read a book, take an online test about the book, and earn points based on how well they did.

I unfortunately had teachers who implemented AR into our grades, solely based on points earned. This resulted in many books being skimmed, not finished, or not read at all. Many of my peers and I, pressured to earn a certain amount of points within a certain time-frame, had no qualms about not fully reading or enjoying a book. My 5th grade teacher took notice of this and decided she had to do something.

I remember the reprimanding my class got for how many books we were going through, how many library trips we were asking to take, and how much (or: how little) time we spent taking AR tests. All of that next to poor test scores and very few of us meeting the minimum amount of points needed, it wasn’t a good look.

photography of school room
Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

My teacher’s solution to this was to start a system of sorts that was referred to as “Abandoned Books.” The whole point was to stop the habit of skimming or not completing a book before taking an AR test. Instead, it was supposed to encourage the completion and enjoyment of reading an entire book, start to finish. Yes, it was as dramatic and intense as it sounds.

Not finishing a book, for whatever reason, was considered “abandoning” that book. You were meant to feel wrong or bad about not finishing it—hence the extreme term abandoning. If you really didn’t want to finish a book, you were essentially punished for it by having to write a letter to the teacher about why you were abandoning it. Yes, dramatic. Intense.

For a good amount of my peers, this process seemed to work. A lot of them were picking up books and reading them all the way through. And the pressure put on us to earn a certain amount of points was lessened as our teacher saw it was more important to encourage reading to read, rather than reading to earn points. However, I vividly remember the transition from stressing over earning AR points to stressing over abandoning books.

I didn’t like being told what to read (a trait I still possess) and I hated that any book I picked up and started reading, I had to finish no matter what. I was a serial book-abandoner as a kid. Combined with years of AR ruining my reading life, I also didn’t know what I liked to read, so I picked up and put down lots of books. My experience in 5th grade changed that, slowly but surely.

The letters you had to write to the teacher included what book you were reading, a summary in your own words of the book and a summary of what you read of it, and then you went into why you were abandoning it. Every student had a notebook dedicated to these letters of abandonment. After you turned in your notebook, you then waited for a response from the teacher where (and here’s the kicker) you were told whether or not you could abandon that book. Yes folks, you read that right. If you didn’t have a good enough reason, you had to continue to read that book you wanted to abandon.

I only wrote a couple of letters to my teacher for two reasons: One, we were made to feel guilty for abandoning books, so I usually didn’t. And two, I didn’t enjoy writing, or care to write, the lengthy letters required. This resulted in forcing myself to finish books I wasn’t enjoying, which then led to me not enjoying reading and trying to do as little of it as possible.

For years, it was ingrained into my mind that you should finish a book you start, no matter what. Even if you aren’t enjoying it, you have to keep going. Even if it’s a book meant for leisure, you have to force yourself to complete it. Abandoning books, moving from one to the next if you aren’t enjoying it, was wrong and you should feel guilty if you do it.

It took me years to fully realize something so simple: I don’t owe anyone any sort of reason for not finishing a book. The moment I realized I was being book-shamed, my jaw dropped. I immediately went onto Goodreads and removed every book on my currently-reading shelf that I hadn’t picked up for a while and didn’t want to pick back up any time soon.

I look back on the books I forced myself to complete as a kid and teen and I wonder how my feelings toward them might be different if I had read them at the right time instead of trudging through them. Sometimes you pick up a book and it isn’t the right time for you to be reading it. And there could never be a right time, it might just be a book you won’t like no matter what. But I find, for myself, most of the time it’s something I simply need to save for next week, next month, or next year.

I don’t abandon books anymore, but I also don’t finish them all. Sometimes I DNF them, but typically, I just save them for later.