Why do we abandon books halfway through?

Guilt may push us to finish a book – while e-readers make it only too easy to quit. 

Joseph Heller and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's titles are two of the books most often abandoned by readers, according to Goodreads.

When it comes to finishing books, there are two camps of readers – those who push themselves to complete even the most trying of tomes, and those who think life is “too short for bad books.”

Still, for most readers, there is an almost inexplicable guilt associated with abandoning a book halfway, an intriguing phenomenon explored in a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled “Why Leaving a Book Half-Read is So Hard.”

"[C]hoosing to terminate a relationship with a book prematurely remains strangely agonizing, a decision fraught with guilt,” writes the WSJ’s Heidi Mitchell.

What’s behind that guilt?

Finishing tasks – or books, or even meals – is a virtue ingrained in us from a young age. As children, we weren’t allowed to leave the table without finishing the food on our plate. And as young adults, we were instructed to finish the literature we were assigned in 9th-grade English, regardless of how dull or difficult we found it.

“It goes against how we're built,” Matthew Wilhelm, a clinical psychologist with Kaiser Permanente in Union City, Calif., told the Journal. “There is a tendency for us to perceive objects as 'finished' or 'whole' even though they may not be. This motivation is very powerful and helps to explain anxiety around unfinished activities.”

And while there may, in fact, be some benefits to sticking a task through to the end, research suggests that those who abandon books may actually be able to read more by freeing up time and mental energy. 

So why do we abandon books?

Besides obvious reasons like boredom, distraction, or frustration with a writer’s technique, e-readers have enabled us to drop books more quickly and easily.

“In the age of the e-reader, dropping a book has never been easier,” writes the Journal.

Rather than closing and re-shelving a book, a more public act that signals a certain amount of finality, readers using e-readers and tablets simply close one book and pull up another in seconds.

(If you’re interested, there are also reasons we don’t abandon books. One big one: book clubs, where the social pressure gets many more of us to the last page.)

According to Goodreads, about 20 percent of books read by the website’s members are abandoned. Here’s a list of Goodreads’ top ten most unfinished books: 

"Catch-22," by Joseph Heller

"One Hundred Years of Solitude," by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

"Anna Karenina," by Leo Tolstoy

"A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)," by George R.R. Martin

"Life of Pi," by Yann Martel

"Fifty Shades of Grey," by E.L. James

"Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," by Susanna Clarke

"Eat, Pray, Love," by Elizabeth Gilbert

"The Casual Vacancy," by J.K. Rowling

"The Book Thief," by Markus Zusak

It's an interesting and eclectic list and it serves to make an additional point about diversity in reading styles: One man's must-read is another's why-bother.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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