When Not to DNF

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Blair Carpenter

Staff Writer

Trained as an opera singer, Blair Carpenter has spent her entire life entrenched in financially unstable artistic pursuits. A native of the southern US, she is now a resident of Colorado. Blair can be found watching Bob's Burgers with her dog Edith, dressing as Elsa on the weekends for children's parties, or writing the next Mediocre American Novel. She's terrified of Twitter, so find her on Instagram @blairlovesbooks

When you first dip your toe into the online book community, one of the first acronyms you learn is DNF: Did Not Finish. In the pursuit of reading more books, bibliophiles the world over recommend DNFing in order to read more books more quickly, and generally enjoy reading more. In the beginning, this is easier said than done. After years of powering through tortuous books like The Scarlet Letter in our high school English classes, we develop literary FOMO when tempted to abandon a book.

A quick search of this very website shows the guilt around DNFing. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of articles on the internet detailing why it’s okay to ditch a book. Most of them say, in essence, “life is too short to read books you hate.”

While I fervently believe this to be true, I also believe that not every book should provide you with a smooth, pleasant experience. On the one hand, an amazing book can provide a surreal and magical experience as it whisks you along thrilling narrative trails. On the other, many truly life-changing books require time to absorb, process, understand, and integrate.

At the end of the day, it’s your choice whether or not you believe a book is worthy of your precious leisure time. But if you’re struggling with whether or not to finish a book, consider these points.

It’s A Classic

This is by far the most mutable part of this list. For one thing, what even constitutes a classic? Are they only written more than 50 years ago (but then what about The Handmaid’s Tale)? What about written by an old white male writer (but then what about Toni Morrison)? Are they fully of stuffy and lofty ideas (but then what about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)? Do they have to be well-known in the western world (but then what about Romance of the Three Kingdoms)?

My own personal and unsatisfying definition of a classic: an old book many people know of. As we expand the literary canon, it’s likely you’ll never read every classic, or even identify most of them. So how do you know when to finish one?

If you’ve always been intrigued by Pride and Prejudice or The Rubaiyat, but are frustrated by your reading pace, it’s okay. You won’t be able to read even a short novel with antiquated language the way you read The Hunger Games Trilogy. It takes time to adjust. You can always listen to an audiobook if you’re struggling with the language, but determined to finish. Even if you walk away hating the book, at least you can articulate why.

Reading old-fashioned or obsolete language expands your vocabulary and enhances your analytical and critical thinking skills. Classic books “exert a peculiar influence” on our maturation and the formation of our perspective. It isn’t easy, but it is rewarding.

The Writing Is Purposefully Difficult Or Avant-Garde

Purists vehemently against writing in books have probably never read The Sound and the Fury. William Faulkner’s seminal work is one of the earliest illustrations of stream-of-consciousness writing. As a character’s mental state deteriorates, so does the structure of the writing. In one chapter, as the narrator becomes more suicidal, the punctuation gradually disappears. In this case, a pencil is your best friend.

Faulkner had many detractors, but so did Picasso and Beethoven. Pushing the boundaries of artistic traditions is never comfortable, and rarely popular. But exploring the outer limits of art will always shift your perspective in some way.

Without writers willing to push the boundaries, the form cannot evolve. Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh would not hold any acclaim if we weren’t ready to accept their breaks from accepted structure. It may take effort to read Chloe Delaume or Mark Danielewski, but these stories hold a special kind of staying power.

It’s Nonfiction (And You Don’t Usually Read Nonfiction)

I’d like like to let you in on a non-secret: historians can throw down. That doofy late-middle-aged man on the History Channel with his shirt untucked? He’s definitely been in a screaming match about the industrial revolution. It’s all part of the academic historians primary rule of behavior: always back up your claims.

Academics and journalists must carefully research and cite all aspects of their claims. Proving your point is just as crucial as making it. After all, why have thrilling conclusion if you can’t back it up? And who typically writes nonfiction books? Academics and journalists.

Most well-regarded nonfiction books are filled to the hilt with firsthand accounts, detailed statistics, and asides the author likely found fascinating. For those unused to nonfiction, all of this detail can be overwhelming. The book feels dry or overly complex. It can be difficult to parse out the exact narrative of The Radium Girls when there are so many names to keep track of.

The more you read nonfiction, the easier it is to see the forest for the trees. Wandering through a well-researched book on a subject that interests you will always prove rewarding. It may even lead to more books you love on the subject. At the very least you’ll have something good to talk about at parties.

The Book Is Known For Starting Slowly

I once coached a friend through the entirety of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Over and over, I said, “Trust me. The ending is astonishing.”

The beginning of Their Eyes Were Watching God contains a lot of important social commentary. It examines the limited social possibilities of a young black woman in the post-slavery era. It explores the challenges faced by newly-founded all-black towns face, trapped between new freedom and continued cultural oppression.

But the narrative does move slowly. It has one of the most dramatic conclusions in literature, but it takes a while to get there. The emotional pacing is an exponential curve. If you abandoned the book as far as halfway through, you’d miss the most impactful part of the novel.

Some authors simply write slow beginnings. Charlotte Brontë, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Haruki Murakami famously have this issue. If you’re not feeling a book right away, look up reviews to see if it has a slow start.

The Subject Matter Is Outside Of Your Comfort Zone

It’s difficult to say a book about Apartheid, parasites, or mass incarceration is enjoyable. Most hardcore bookworms read primarily for the comfort of escapism. Spiriting away to another time or place is one of the greatest pleasures of reading. Who hasn’t read Harry Potter, eagerly awaiting the creamy envelope delivered by owl?

Yet, as well-rounded readers with well-developed critical thinking skills, we should relish the opportunity to grow our knowledge, even if it’s painful. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance.”

Fictional accounts that tackle sensitive issues matter just as much as nonfiction. Climate fiction projects the day-to-day possibilities of climate change. Historical fiction set in challenging periods illuminate their reality and drive home their importance.

That’s not to say you should read books you know will actively trigger you. We all have subjects we simply cannot stomach. But if it’s only slightly outside your comfort zone, it’s worth reading that book.

Is that cozy mystery impossibly boring? Chuck it. Do you find the protagonist of that romantic classic agonizingly arrogant? Sayonara, sucker! Are the descriptions in that true crime novel giving you nightmares? Take some melatonin and take that book back to the library. However, if you’re struggling to read a book for one of the reasons above, maybe you should keep going. You never know what new horizons you may face.