“I never thought, when I used to read books, what work it was to write them.” [She said.]
“It’s work enough to read them sometimes,” I returned.David Copperfield
I’ve been slowly coming to terms with the fact that I will not be able to read every book in the world (along with Jesse the Reader, per his latest video: Popular Books I’ll Never Read). I don’t have the time to read them, the money to own them, or the space to shelve them. It’s been a tough year, honestly, detaching myself slowly–one reality-check at a time–from my long-time book collecting addiction. But enough about that. So much have I progressed, that, upon starting my summer reading, I discovered the urgent need for a minimum percentage to give a book before deciding whether or not to DNF it. Flat rate is what I was thinking: like the twenty-minute rule for watching a movie you don’t know if you’ll like. A friend and I started doing it when we surf Netflix together with no particular movie in mind: pick something interesting, give it twenty minutes, and either keep watching or find something else.
Now, I have a really hard time giving up on a book (even on a movie, let’s be honest–we made the twenty minute rule a rule for a reason), because I always want to give the story and author a chance to come out of it honorably. I used to never not finish reading books, actually, which led to a lot of wasted time and unnecessary resentment towards books that weren’t for me in the first place. One that falls into this category most memorably is A Plunder of Souls by D.B. Jackson which I read in 2017. I wrote a basic review of it on Goodreads, which articulates my thoughts on it: “I realised I wasn’t going to like this book by the time I got a quarter of the way through. However, I couldn’t leave it unfinished, so I’m irrationally bitter about this book occupying my time, though that’s my own fault. My dislike for it boils down to it not being my preferred form of literature.” But did I take this as a lesson learned, and stop reading the books I knew I wasn’t going to like once I’d sampled them? No.
Because–hear me out–there were also books I’d read that I wasn’t too thrilled about until about closer to halfway through and then they gripped me and blew me away at the end. What if I’d DNF’d those at 1/4 through? Something like this happened to me recently with The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, which I talked about in this recent post about time-travel. To be honest, ol’ Harry didn’t seem very compelling at the beginning. Music-arts-student-me took issue with the use of the popularized rivalry/comparison of Mozart with Salieri in one of the opening chapters, and it speaks to the complete mediocrity of the beginning of the book that I nearly took the slight irksomeness of a misrepresentation of music history as the last straw to chuck the book into DNF’d ignominy. Am I ever glad I didn’t! I took my time piecing through the beginning of the book, and by the time I’d gotten about a third of the way through, I realised I was reading for longer and longer chunks at a time, and I was flying through the story. The intensity amped way up in the last third of the book and the ending was really well executed, fitting well with the build-up as a satisfying and rewarding conclusion for both the character and the reader. I’ve actually read reviews of it on Goodreads that complained about the pace of this book (which I agree with about the beginning), but if you find it in your heart to give it chance, it has the potential to blow you away in the home stretch.
All this to say, I became apprised of the need for a hard and fast rule about how much I would read of a book before deciding if I would finish it. The twenty-minute rule works for movies because it’s roughly the same percentage of any given movie, give or take, and because movies are such a comparatively short commitment of time, less time is needed to decide about whether it’s worth it. If you give a movie much more than that, even half an hour, you might as well finish it because it’s only another hour and a half. At least that’s how I think. So what’s a good point for books? It can’t be a set page count because they vary so much. What’s a good percentage? I decided to look back at my prominent experiences: when I knew I didn’t like A Plunder of Souls (25%), and when I realised I had started to like The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August (33.3%). From there I imposed the generous, experimental standard of 30% on any given book for the point at which I decide whether or not I will finish it.
I don’t go into books calculating what page number is 30%. But if I read the first couple chapters and don’t really care for it, I’ll crunch those numbers, put a sticky note or bookmark at the spot, ploughing on through till I hit it and can with clear conscience decide whether or not to keep reading. I’ve DNF’d two books since July. Shocking, I know. I’m actually currently reading past the 30% cut-off in a book I’m still torn about but probably will finish just because I didn’t get out while the getting was good. This dubious honour goes to The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The narrative is really fascinating and amusing, but the story and characters themselves aren’t as much to my liking. Probably because they feel too much like the grim reality of my life right now–selfish, pretentious, unmotivated twenty-somethings in an oppulent society with no soul. My part-time-working, arts-undergrad-pursuing-self feels personally attacked. But, really, aren’t we all just looking for an easy way through life to indulge our wants and wishes? Well, here I am making my life easier by slashing the amount of books I read. Because I want to. It’s my wish. There.