The Books We Never Finish

Words of comfort from Henry Miller on all those books we never finish


In reading the various lists of books people have read and recommended for 2016, I thought about what would be on my list. And as much as I was able to enjoy the process of revisiting what I had read and what had moved me, I also felt guilt. There were so many books I started and never finished or bought but never even started. This second list, my graveyard of unfinished books, was fairly long and I was surprised by what was on it. There were books by favorite authors, books that from what I had read so far I really liked, books that were the primary sources for some of my favorite quotes, even books I had recommended to others. So why hadn’t I finished them? And should I finish them?

There are many reasons we may want to finish what we’re started – For books that are bought, there is the dollar value of the book that shouldn’t be squandered, if the book seems uninteresting – well maybe it’ll get better in a few chapters, and for the educational/informative book, the thought – even if I’m not enjoying this book, perhaps it’s good for me. And today, when I don’t finish books, I feel all these pressures. The books nag at me, like unvacuumed floors or dry-cleaning waiting to be picked up,  egging me on from my bedside table and their prolonged stay on my “Currently Reading” Goodreads list.

So what stops me from finishing books? My initial list of reasons, looking at the books that remain unfinished this year, reads like this: 1) The book is repetitive and I feel like I’ve already gotten “the point” (applies typically to nonfiction), 2) I want to start reading something else, 3) The book isn’t interesting (anymore) , 4) I get busy, 5) Who knows? I forgot.

What I think it comes down to though is: I stop reading a book because I want to use my time differently, whether I want to start reading something else or perhaps not read at all. The quality of the book and how I connect with the book ultimately impacts this feeling/decision, but not entirely. As alluded to before, I really like and admire many of the books I’ve stopped reading. Some of my favorite quotes come from Angle of Repose (from the portion of the book I actually read) and based on what I’ve read so far of Studs Terkel’s The Good War: An Oral History of World War II, I’ve recommended it to a few friends.

Is the excuse “I want to stop reading this book so I can spend my time doing something else” good enough? Does it depend perhaps on what the “something else” is? What if it’s reading, but just a different book? That sounds like an apples to apples, zero loss/zero gain transaction.

I want to put this thought on pause for a moment and draw upon Henry Miller’s thoughts on reading. In his book, The Books In My Life, he describes the primary reasons for reading,

We read now, as I see it, primarily for these reasons:

one, to get away from ourselves;
two, to arm ourselves against real or imaginary dangers;
three, to “keep up” with our neighbors, or to impress them, one and the same thing ;
four, to know what is going on in the world;
five, to enjoy ourselves, which means to be stimulated to greater, higher activity and richer being.

Other reasons might be added, but these five appear to me to be the principal ones—and I have given them in the order of their current importance, if I know my fellow man. It does not take much reflection to conclude that, if one were right with himself and all was well with the world, only the last reason, the one which holds least sway at present, would be valid. The others would fade away, because there would be no reason for their existence.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? Reasons one to four don’t really matter – or they shouldn’t (although Miller thinks we presently act as if the first four reasons matter more). And if the fifth reason Miller lists is truly the “correct” reason to read, that we should read “to enjoy ourselves, which means to be stimulated to greater,  higher activity and richer being” – then perhaps it’s a question of measuring the activity of reading the particular book in question (the one we’re considering abandoning) versus the competing activity (whether it’s a different book or something else) against the standard of this question. Which of these activities would bring greater enjoyment/stimulation? If we’re going to enjoy the other book or other activity more, then perhaps it’s okay to stop reading whatever it is we’re currently reading.

Of course, this forces us to ignore quite a few influences that may exist – namely some of the first four reasons for reading: the parents, teacher or friend or Oprah that told us to read such and such book as well as that nagging part of the mind that says we’ll be a better person if we just finish this book on how to persuade others. But Miller is saying that reading should be about enjoyment and enjoyment in the purest sense, what we ourselves find enjoyable, without pressures from elsewhere. And so if midway through a book, another book or activity seems to be more enjoyable – shouldn’t we be entitled to leave a book unfinished? Whether it’s a pause for a day, a week, years…or forever, I would say yes. Perhaps we’ll return to it, perhaps we won’t.

And if we are abandoning a book not for another book, but to spend that same time doing something…else? Returning to Henry Miller,

One of the results of this self-examination—for that is what the writing of this book amounts to—is the confirmed belief that one should read less and less, not more and more. As a glance at the Appendix will reveal, I have not read nearly as much as the scholar, the bookworm, or even the ” well-educated ” man—yet I have undoubtedly read a hundred times more than I should have read for my own good. Only one out of five in America, it is said, are readers of”books.” But even this small number read far too much. Scarcely any one lives wisely or fully.


Here an irrepressible impulse seizes me to offer a piece of gratuitous advice. It is this : read as little as possible, not as much as possible! Oh, do not doubt that I have envied those who drowned themselves in books. I, too, would secretly like to wade through all those books I have so long toyed with in my mind. But I know it is not important. I know now that I did not need to read even a tenth of what I have read. The most difficult thing in life is to learn to do only what is strictly advantageous to one’s welfare, strictly vital.

as well as

If it be knowledge or wisdom one is seeking, then one had better go direct to the source. And the source is not the scholar or philosopher, not the master, saint, or teacher, but life itself—direct experience of life.

So there you go. Perhaps you really should stop reading that book then.