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My Dysfunctional Loyalty to Books and a Resolution to be Ruthless

I have a problem.

I’ve been aware of it for a while, and have tried to correct it on my own to no avail.

I’m hoping a public confession will help.

My piles of books tend to get out of control. I recently whittled the number of books on my nightstand from 17 to seven.

That’s not the confession. I’m a writer. Not only am I entitled to decorate my home with piles of books, it’s practically in the job description.

No, it’s something else. The other night I sat on the edge of my bed and realized something. Of the seven books piled on my nightstand, I’m not particularly interested in reading any of them. It’s possible I’m just not in the mood for those exact books at this exact moment. That does happen.

But there’s something else going on.

I bought every single book on reputation alone. I purchased The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaman without cracking the cover. Ditto for Cutting for Stone and A Prayer for Owen Meany.

I bought them because they sounded interesting, but also because so many people loved them. I figured I would love them too. But it’s more than that. So many people have read these books, I felt out of the loop. Like, I was being ignorant about something important.

You would think I’d know better, but that’s the honest truth.

I’ve stalled half way through each of these three books, but can’t seem to fully abandon them. (I haven’t started the others yet.)

So here’s the problem. I absolutely HATE to abandon a book once I’ve started it. I’ll avoid it, sure. I’ll let it sit on my nightstand for months before I finally force feed myself the rest of the story, or pick up another book “temporarily,” promising myself I’ll finish the other book eventually.

It’s not for the first time that I have partially-read books piled on my nightstand as monuments to my obstinacy, carrying all the requisite weight of an obligation.

Some of these started-but-did-not-finish books have migrated to the shelves in our library, where they haunt me from a new location.

It’s times like this I feel like a high school kid, instead of a mature something-year-old woman. (Must I say how old? Isn’t it enough that I said “mature”?)

I know people abandon books all the time. I see their “Did not finish” shelves on Goodreads, bulging with an impressive number of books they tossed aside guilt free.

I admire those shelves and those readers.

Why do I find it so hard to similarly stock my own “thank you but no thank you” shelf of books?

The truth is, for one reason or another, I’m reading these books because I think I’m supposed to. If I don’t like them, well, something must be wrong with me. Or I’m being impatient and need to hang on to see if it will get better. Or it starts out awesome and then takes a nose dive (I’m talking to you, Cutting for Stone). Or the author wrote another book I loved and I feel I have to like this one (even though I don’t). Or it’s written by a local author I want to support.

Or, or, or.

Or, I’m just a dysfunctional lunatic.

That is always an option.

It’s this sort of dysfunctional thinking that so frustratingly hangs on from my younger years. Why do I care what I’m “supposed” to read? Where am I getting this notion to start with? Is anyone but me keeping track of what I read and measuring it against some invisible literary yardstick?

No. Of course not.

Aside from just being a stupid sort of thing to put myself through, this behavior also severely hampers the number of books I’m able to read in my very limited free time. That bothers me as much as anything else. I know how quickly I can read a book when everything clicks. (A few days instead of a few months.)

How many more books could I read each year if I read only the books that grab me??

Why is it so hard for me to let go of the books I really don’t want to read?

I’m reminded of the pressure I felt to write “literary” and “important” things when I was in college. There was no room for genre work. Least of all fantasy, I can promise you that.

It took me years to gather the courage to say, “I’ll write what I like, thank you very much, and I don’t give a rat’s @$$ what my professors would have to say about it.”

It’s been pretty awesome too.

So, I feel I need to gather a similar kind of courage now. To read what I want. ONLY what I want. To be ruthless about abandoning books that just aren’t cutting it for me.


That’s not a word that describes me very often. (Which may be part of my problem.) But, sometimes, being ruthless is exactly what’s called for.

(I realize some people will scratch their heads that I’m using the word “ruthless” to describe the simple act of abandoning a book. I can only ask you to be patient with my little quirks.)

So, today I am here to publicly declare some new rules for myself. Let’s call them…

My Ruthless Rules of Reading.

1. Date before marrying.
Read the first several pages of a book before buying it. Only buy if I’m captivated.

2. Be the executioner.
If I’m thinking about abandoning a book, that means something. I never had such scandalous thoughts about the books on my shelf of honor.

3. Get over yourself.
No one on earth gives a crap what I’m reading. If I don’t like what I’m reading, what’s the point?

I just went to my library and removed every book I’ve started but did not finish. There’s really only a couple I still want to read. One is O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. I remember liking it, but I think I had several books going at that time and just didn’t finish it. I’ll pick that one up again.

I bought I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak at his recent signing. I started reading it in the line and just haven’t been back to it.

The rest are not calling to me. Even though Kate DiCamillo is one of my favorite authors and I could probably finish Flora and Ulysses in a couple hours, it’s really not geared for adults and I’m not interested.

There, I said it.

Nancy Turner wrote one of my favorite books ever, These Is My Words. The memory of meeting her still makes me all giddy. But the opening chapter of My Name is Resolute was a disappointing mess. I may read one more chapter to be sure, but if it doesn’t grab me, I’m done.

I felt obligated to like Walden, and read quite a bit of it, but I really can’t read one more word of that self-absorbed book. Can’t. Do. It.

I won’t go on. You probably don’t care about my reasons for abandoning these various books. *I* barely care.

But this is what I will do….

I just went to my Goodreads account. Turns out I do have an “abandoned” shelf. Who knew? I forgot all about it. It only had 3 books. Now it has 16. Boo-yeah.

Most of those books are now in a box sitting in the basement.

I feel awesome. Ruthless.

Next up? Tackling the books I’ve purchased but haven’t even started yet…

I’d love to hear any reading-related confessions you’d like to share.

Thanks for listening…

6 thoughts on “My Dysfunctional Loyalty to Books and a Resolution to be Ruthless

  1. Meg

    Donna, you’re writing is so clever. The eagle arts commission is hosting a literary festival October 10 @ the Saturday Market. Please say you’ll join us!

  2. M. K. Wiseman

    Confession: a while back, I was reading a series (to be fair, I shall not name it). Grabby title, grabby covers, grabby topic. Then found I wasn’t all that interested. I plugged along, thinking it’d get better. All of a sudden I was facing the last third of the last book and found I did not want to finish. (A strange strange twist of plot made me almost want to throw the book down then and there.)
    I was torn– after all, I had read almost the entire series at this point. I was getting gypped if I didn’t get to the end, right?
    Reader, I skimmed.
    I read snatches of each and every page so I could find out what happened. But I didn’t read it.
    #amIaTerribleReader ?

    1. DonnaCookDonnaCook Post author

      I’ve done that! I’ve also plodded on through a series just because I’d invested so much, and didn’t feel any better about that course of action. Now when people ask me if I’ve read that entire, horrible series I have to confess I did! LOL. (I must admit, I’m dying to know what series you’re talking about, but I’ll not press you.) Your comment makes me think about skimming in general. Like abandoning books, I think some people resort to this with much more ease than others. As a writer, sometimes I’ll come across the advice “cut the parts that people skim.” Since I rarely skim, this advice isn’t helpful for me. While wondering about the daring antics of that species of skimmers, I change the advice to “cut the boring parts” and move on.

      Perhaps it’s innate optimism that causes us to plod along, hoping the book full of promise will, in fact fulfill its promise. :)

      1. M. K. Wiseman

        Yeah, I’m going to refrain from naming the series since it doesn’t seem fair to — but a word on my skimming: Thinking back now, I’ve done this a lot in order to not ‘abandon’ a book.
        (I am okay with this practice because I am also a terrrrrrrible “skip ahead because I can’t wait” type of a reader. (Okay, that confession might get me banned from all libraries and bookstores as a Reader Terrorist.) Don’t worry–when I read ahead, I generally go back to read the whole thing, I’m just peeking to make sure so-and-so doesn’t die or ends up with the right person…..)
        I am aware that when I resort to skimming to avoid abandonment I am missing out on a lot of what makes a book great, but then if I’ve already made the call to abandon or skim, the author is already getting more out of me than if I dropped it altogether, perhaps even a last ditch effort to grab my eye. *Yes, I have started to skim and then been re-enchanted by a book and then gone back to read the whole thing knowing that it does get better. (Wow, I just realized what complicated creatures we readers are! Scary stuff!)

        1. DonnaCookDonnaCook Post author

          LOL! All hail the Scary Reader Terrorists! I love how you said, “the author is already getting more out of me…” How true that is. As an author, I have no problem understanding that nobody “owes” me a read, not even friends. (It always surprises me when new authors get offended because someone who knows them hasn’t read their book yet.) Remembering this concept when I have my reader hat on should help me with my Resolution to be Ruthless. I don’t owe the author anything. It’s the author’s job to convince me, not the other way around.


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