To Finish or Not to Finish: The DNF Debate

“To finish or not to finish?” That is the question. It’s never the question about pizza. (Be serious.) But it is sometimes the question about books…especially books that you realize are just. Not. Working out.

Like that guy at the gym who spends more time taking selfies than actually touching a single bit of equipment.

But I digress.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who complained that she really disliked the book she was currently reading—even going so far as to detail all the reasons she disliked it—but then wrapped up her rant by saying, “But I have to finish it.”

To which my response was pretty much what you’d think it would be: “Wait, what?”

She wasn’t reading it for school. She wasn’t reading it for any professional obligation. She was reading it for fun—and yet she wasn’t having any fun at all.

Which raises the age old question of bookworms everywhere—can we quit a book partway through?

There are differing opinions on this matter in the bookish community. Some believe once you are start a book, that’s it. You’re invested. You absolutely have to finish it. Even if it gives you a headache every time you pick it up. Even if with every turn of the page, you’re rolling your eyes so hard they practically fall out of your head. Even if that book turns into a literal hot, steamy pile of excrement in your hands, you push through. You are not a quitter, goddammit.

Imagining a book turning into an actual pile of excrement…

And then there’s the opposite school of thought. The group of people who prescribe to my husband’s simple response to pretty much everything that seems remotely unappealing: “Fuck that.”

In this school of thought, once that book that you thought was going to be so fantastic turns into the aforementioned pile of excrement, you simply roll your eyes, shelve it, and move on to a new adventure with a new stack of page that will hopefully bring you more joy.

So where do I fall on this matter?

I’d say I fall somewhere in the middle. Maybe the debate between DNFing (“did not finish”, for the newly indoctrinated) and slogging through to the end isn’t as straightforward as we might imagine. Maybe it’s more of a spectrum. And I fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. In the past year alone, I have found myself pushing as hard as I can to get through a book I pretty much despised from chapter one, and I’ve also found myself tapping out just after page 100 or so of a book that nearly every book blogger, BookTuber, and bookstagrammer had assured me was so magical it would make doves fly out of my butt.

I’m paraphrasing, of course. But only a little bit.

You may wonder, how do you decide when to hate-read something in its entirety and when to call it quits? And the best answer I can really give you is just…follow your heart.

I know. The single most frustrating piece of advice in existence, right?

Some people may not be willing to admit it, but I think there is something to be said for hate-reading a book. I know I sound crazy, but hear me out. Reading a book you really dislike can at times be enjoyable in the same way watching trashy reality TV can be enjoyable. You might not go around bragging to all your friends and acquaintances that you ate up every scandalous second of Corrine and Taylor’s “emotional intelligence” fight on The Bachelor—but you still watched it.

What’s that, you say? That’s an oddly specific reference? I can’t imagine why….

There’s a reason shows like Real Housewives go on for season after season and have innumerable spin-offs: viewers eat that shit up. Hate-reading can be a somewhat similar experience. You know it’s not very intellectually stimulating. You know you’re not really getting anything out of it. But you just can’t put it down.

Or maybe a friend implored you to read it—which was my most recent hate-reading experience. A friend literally pushed a book into my hands and said, “You have to read this so that we can talk about it!” Although I hated the book almost as soon as I started it (for a plethora of reasons), I pushed through for two reasons: one—the primary one—I wanted to tell my friend that I did, indeed, finish reading it and I could talk about it with her (though she didn’t like anything I had to say about it. What can you do?) The second reason was because once I’d gotten to a certain point, I just had to keep reading so I could see what other absolutely baffling choices the author was going to make.

In my most recent experience on the other end of the spectrum, tapping out on a book I was hating—I really, really tried. I tried so hard. As I read, I remembered all the reviews, all the members of the book community who had downright raved about this particular novel, and I told myself I must be missing something. I assured myself the book would get better later. Maybe it was just a slow starter. It would redeem itself. After all, those reviewers had to have liked it for some reason, right? But as it turned out, I just had completely different tastes from all my trusted book bloggers and BookTubers, and the book just was not for me. After giving it “the old college try”, I had to be honest with myself: every time I would usually be reading, I was opting to watch TV or browse the Internet instead. Anytime I could have picked up that book, I found myself making any excuse not to. And trust me, as a lifelong reader and book lover (maybe even book obsessor), this is NOT typical behavior. So I had to finally say to myself, “Okay, self. You clearly have no intentions of reading this.” And, in spite of my best efforts, I removed my bookmark, closed the cover, and retired it to a spot on my bookshelf, where it remains to this day.

So as someone who has quit books—several books, in fact—I’m here to tell you: you don’t have to finish it. Unless you’re reading it for school, and there’s going to be a test or a you have to write a paper on it, in which case it may be in your best interest to finish a book you hate. But aside from that situation, you really do not have to. Don’t let your own guilt or your own mental pressures force you into trudging through a book you’d really rather not be reading. Because you have nothing to feel guilty about. It’s completely natural and normal to not like every book in the world. You don’t like every food in the world. You don’t like every person in the world. So why on earth would you like every book in the world? You wouldn’t. And no one expects you to.

This isn’t to say read just the first page of a thousand books and then immediately toss them all aside like they’re the crappy flavored candies in a box of chocolates.

But if you’ve given it a legitimate try, if you’ve read a decent amount of the book (whatever it is you consider a decent amount), and you realize it just isn’t for you, don’t torture yourself. You don’t have to finish it. There are millions of books in the world—go find one that will bring your heart more joy, and don’t let your guilt over a DNF eat you alive like a crazed zombie.

What are your thoughts on this matter? Do you feel guilty over not finishing books? Do you force yourself through them, even when you’d rather watch paint dry? And what’s the last thing you hate read?? Let me know in the comments! You know I’d love to talk. <3

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