sunsalon1I was looking through my books earlier this week, taking inventory for my TBR list, and I noticed something: I have a number of books in my TBR pile with bookmarks in them. I typically count these as part of my TBR, because to me, the fact that I deliberately left the bookmark in place means I clearly intended to return to the book at some point in the near or distant future.

This got me thinking: is there a difference between books one didn’t finish (DNF), and books one didn’t want to finish (DNWF)? For me, at least, the answer is yes. I’ve set down books and vowed to return to them later for any number of reasons: I was too busy with other things; a book I wanted to read more became available at the library; the book was fine but not matching my my mood.

Special Topics in Calamity PhysicsFor example, I remember the first time I read (or tried to read) Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I abandoned it maybe a quarter of the way through, but I left the bookmark in place. I think a number of reviews had compared it to The Secret History, which is a favorite book of mine, so the book wasn’t matching my expectations. It sat on the shelf for about a year, bookmark in place, and then one day I thought: I want to give that book another go. I plucked it from the shelf and started reading, not from the beginning but from where I had previously stopped. I read the whole thing quickly in a few days. When I got to the end of the book, I turned back to the beginning and read it again. Today I count it among my favorites.

We Need to Talk about KevinThat story isn’t typical for me–the books I pick up again and finish don’t generally strike such a chord–but it does make me think about all those other books on my shelf that I gave up on at some point. Not everything was abandoned with the best of intentions. Sometimes I simply dislike a book but feel I should finish it because I paid for it, or because the book is relevant to bloggers or the culture in some way and I don’t feel right joining a discussion when I haven’t read the book. For me, the prime example of such a book is We Need to Talk About Kevin. I’m not offended by the subject matter; I’m not even offended by the mother, as I know a lot of people have been. It’s an award-winner (Orange Prize); it’s an Important Book about Important Issues; it’s well-written; and now it’s a movie with Tilda Swinton. But I hated it. I hated it while I was reading it. As much as I love Tilda Swinton, I’m not sure I can bring myself to see the movie. But there it sits, with the bookmark at page 136. And so the question I face is this: is this book a DNF, or is it really a DNWF?

I still haven’t decided about that particular book, to tell you the truth. But with so many books on my TBR to get through, I think I need to be honest with myself in terms of the difference between books I set aside for later and books I was really kidding myself about because I felt guilty or because I felt I “should” read them. How about you: do you distinguish between books you plan to pick up again and books you know you’ll never finish?

Happy Sunday, everyone!

13 thoughts on “TSS: DNF, or DNWF?

  1. Interesting post. I think I actually do finish a lot of books that I don’t want to finish. I push through. Some of my DNFs are books I plan to return too, and others it is kind of too early to tell. I really need books to match my mood, so I can be pretty fickle and pick up a number of things before I settle into something. As a result, I have a ton of books on my shelves that have 10 or 20 pages read.

  2. That’s an interesting distinction, but it does make sense. For myself, if I put a book aside, it’s almost never with the intention of returning to it someday. If I even have an inkling of a thought that I’ll get back to it, it’ll eat away at me. I have to decide it’s over and make a clean break–and get rid of the book if it’s one I own. However, I can imagine deciding later to give a book another try, if I realize that I’m now in a better mood for it or others tell me it improves. But that’s never something I can plan on when I stop reading.

  3. I am another reader who abandoned Special Topics in Calamity Physics–it just got too unlikable for me. I really couldn’t stand any of the characters in the book except for the narrator, and the way they treated her made me want to throw the book across the room every other page. I just couldn’t do it, but I’m glad you got a second chance to appreciate it.

  4. I think there’s a difference too. Normally I just consider the ones I haven’t finished yet as opposed to gave up on as unread, since most of the time I start again from the beginning. I guess it depends on how long it’s been since I abandoned them, though.

  5. Laura, thanks for visiting! I am definitely guilty of reading at least the first ten pages of almost every book I buy, including Kindle books (always get the samples for those). I too am finicky, but one thing I want to do this year is get better about pushing through.

    Teresa, I do think that makes the library handy–if you want to check a book out again later, then you know you can, and you haven’t spent money. I’m bad about hanging on to books and thinking I’ll read them, and that’s exactly why I was taking inventory and looking at each one and thinking, “Do I really want to read this?”

    Beth, sounds like Special Topics was a DNWF for you. I have books like that myself, obviously. Although I realize I didn’t actually list any, did I? Another post, perhaps…

    Ana, I tend to count things I haven’t finished as unread as well, but I am trying to be a bit tougher on myself. Time is definitely a factor, although I realize a lot of my own books get pushed down the list by things I get from the library, I think because I feel a greater sense of urgency to read those.

  6. I agree. I have books I haven’t finished, not because I don’t want to, but because for one reason or another they have been pushed aside by something else. Many of these I will return to, reading slowly over several months. Moby Dick was a good recent example – it took me about 8 months to finally reach the end and I technically abandoned it several times, but every few weeks it called to me and I picked it up again. Some of these slow reads turn into my favourites too. They can’t compete with the pace and engagement of faster books, but they can worm their way into your brain in smaller installments.

  7. Great post! I definitely have put down books with the intention of returning to them at a later date because I realize that they are just not working for me at that time. I have written about how I’m an intuitive reader, one who specifically seeks out particular books based on my mood, and sometimes I pick up a book expecting it to be one thing only to find out it’s something out and I’m just not in the right mental space to appreciate it. Other times a find a book is just too challenging (right now my brain is fried, so anything that is quiet/slowly-paced is going to be a fail) and I think I’ll need some time to work up to it.

    But of course, there are certainly some occasions where I put down a book because I am really not enjoying it and I know the chances are slim that I ever will. If I find a book poorly written or just extremely underwhelming, I will often give it a fair chance to improve, but if it doesn’t, I will put it in my bag of books to take to the used bookstore! I will admit that there have been some books that I initially nixed only to randomly try them again in the future and I really enjoyed them (Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell comes to mind), so my system isn’t perfect, but what one is?!?

    (P.S. Interesting to read your experience with Calamity Physics. I borrowed it from the library and tried to read it years ago and it just did nothing for me. I put it on my list of books that likely weren’t for me, but now you have me thinking that 5 years later, maybe it’s time to try it again?)

  8. I don’t particularly distinguish between books I don’t finish and books I don’t want to finish — I feel guilty not finishing books, so even if I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a book, I still pretend to myself that I’m going to finish it one day. And when I do that, I sometimes do end up going back to it, if someone whose taste I trust recommends it highly to me. So I guess it’s not really pretending.

  9. Jackie, that makes sense. Sometimes I can keep a book “on the back burner” while I read other books, but most of the time I focus on one. I’ve been reading Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls in between other books, and I’m (quite happily) surprised that I can pick it up again and keep reading as though I’d just put it down the day before.

  10. Steph, so true that no system is perfect. I have some books I abandoned so long ago that now I don’t really remember why I set them aside: Was I not enjoying the writing? Was work too busy? Was I enticed by something else? That’s one nice thing about having a blog, because I keep better records, even in terms of personal notes I might not share on the blog.

  11. Jenny, I think guilt definitely plays a part, especially if it’s a book I think I should be enjoying (say, by an author I really like) even if I am not really enjoying it.

  12. I haven’t before – although I do have a book on my desk right now that I started and put down part way through because I had a deadline on an ARC – six books later it’s still sitting there. Usually I class a DNF as a book I give up part way through because I hate it and I don’t want to waste any more hours of my life, but I think I’m just indifferent to this one and don’t really care if I finish it or not. I have so many books to read that I think in 2012 I’m going to make a new pledge, and that is if a book doesn’t grab me by the collar and make be obsessive about reading it then I’m going to abandon it and move onto the next one.

  13. Clare, I like the way you think. I am trying to get there–right now I go about halfway. I set the book down, but I generally promise myself I’ll return to it later, usually out of guilt. I’m much better about letting library books go, I think because I don’t feel as committed.

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