Guilt Reading: Should You Force Yourself to Finish a Book?

In which I muse about the enormous pressures we put upon ourselves at times despite the fact that we are supposedly reading for our own enjoyment, and the pros and cons of our so doing. 


I wanted to do a discussion post today about something that has been on my mind a lot lately.

There are times when you actually absolutely have to read a certain book that you do not want to read. Maybe you’re assigned to read it for school. Maybe you’re part of a book club. Maybe someone gifted you their favourite book and you feel obligated to read it. Maybe your distant cousin wrote a novel and you’re the only one in your entire extended family who hasn’t read it because you happen to think it’s kind of crummy. Remind me, if a distant cousin of mine ever writes a novel, to come back and delete this. Because that could be really bad. 

That’s not what I’m talking about today.

What I Am Talking About

What I’m talking about is the internal pressure that we sometimes put on ourselves to read or to finish a book. There are many reasons we may do this, and those reasons vary from person to person. Here are some of mine, in order of frequency:

  1. It’s a classic.
  2. It’s a really short book, so in theory I should be able to finish it.
  3. I want to review it.
  4. The subject matter is something that I genuinely want to learn more about.
  5. I see how it could have been good.

Now I’m going to discuss a couple of these reasons in more detail.

1. It’s a Classic

Even though I have read a lot of classics, I still feel insecurity about the ones that I haven’t read.  In some of these cases—and I’m really embarrassed to say this—I tried to read them and I just don’t feel very compelled to finish them.

When I don’t connect with the characters and am not invested in the outcome, there are a couple of reasons—one somewhat valid, one frankly silly—that I might try to guilt-read it anyway. Both have to do with its classic status.

The first reason is that it was very influential. This is one of the reasons I’ve been really, really, really trying to read Huckleberry Finn. I can really appreciate, intellectually, the fact that Mark Twain attempted to capture how real people talked in his dialogue. These days, we take it for granted that that’s the way to write dialogue, and “The characters didn’t sound like real people” is a common criticism in book reviews. But that’s due in a large part to Mark Twain, because in his day, it wasn’t the standard in the way it is now.

I appreciate the importance of this contribution to literature, and actually genuinely do enjoy Huck’s distinctive voice. And yet, a little over halfway through the book, I am not at all invested in the outcome of the novel, with the result that I keep reading other things instead of finishing it.

The other reason, which is a silly reason, is that I’m embarrassed not to have read it. An example: Oliver Twist. It’s such an iconic book. I’d like to say I’ve read it. But I just couldn’t do it. To me, it felt very melodramatic and overwrought. That said, I didn’t make it even halfway through, so perhaps I’ve been too hasty, and will return to it one day. I kind of doubt it though. I’m so sorry Mr. Dickens, this is just not for me. I’m not a fan of whiny, angelic orphan boys. I’m sorry. I’m a terrible person, I know.

So, since I do think the first reason has the potential to be a valid one, I’d like your take on it: is it necessary to have finished a book in order to appreciate its influence on literature? Or can you appreciate it but acknowledge that it’s not really for you, and just read what you want to read instead?

As for the second reason, which is really a silly one, read whatever you want and don’t feel embarrassed to say, “No, I haven’t read that enormously iconic book, because it didn’t really appeal to me personally.” That being said, are there any books you feel kind of insecure about not having read?

2. It’s So Short.

I don’t have that much to say about this. I would just like to take a moment to marvel at the fact that some of the longest books I have ever read have had very skinny spines. 

What is the deal with that?!?! Why does it take me the same amount of time to read Les Miserables as it took me to read The Old Man and the Sea? Why have I been reading Huckleberry Finn off-and-on for months, whereas I can read Jane Eyre in a couple of days?

Some of my biggest guilt-reads result from the fact that the book is very short, and I should be able to finish it. But that results in enormous reading slumps, where I don’t end up reading anything because I keep guiltily looking at that short book I should have finished by now.

Am I the only one this happens to?!?!?!

3. I Want To Review It

This doesn’t happen so much anymore, because I’m not the dedicated blogger I used to be, and I have come to accept the fact that I rarely do reviews. But back when I was around more often, I felt this pressure a lot.

Which begs the question: do you have to finish the book in order to review it? Or, is “I genuinely could not even bring myself to finish this book,” a valid criticism? I mean, if you acknowledge that it was that unenjoyable for you, could that be a good indication not to pick it up for someone whose reading tastes are similar to yours? I’d love to know what you guys think.

There was one time where I did a light little round-up of some books that I didn’t finish.  But for the most part, I’ve only reviewed books if I finished them.

Should You Guilt Yourself Into Reading a Book?

My immediate answer is no, because rationally, if you’re reading as a hobby for your own personal enjoyment, you shouldn’t put pressure on yourself to read something you do not want to read.

And yet, I do it all the time.

Plus, there have been some cases where I had to force myself every step of the way, but ended up being glad I did. The most recent example is The Old Man and the Sea. It took me FOREVER to get into that book, and I could have easily put it aside. But I am so glad to have read it, so it was a good thing I stuck with it.

There’s also something to be said about self-discipline, and the fact that if you never force yourself to do anything that you do not enjoy, you will lack the skill of being able to force yourself to do something that you do not enjoy.

Does the finish-your-broccoli argument apply here? Do you think a book can be good for you even if it’s not your taste?

I just don’t know. It’s difficult to say, and I’m still undecided, and can’t wait to discuss it with you guys.

Which leaves us with an overwhelming question: Should I finish Huckleberry Finn?

Have a lovely day!

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14 thoughts on “Guilt Reading: Should You Force Yourself to Finish a Book?

  1. I SO relate to a lot of this! When I first started book blogging, I’d see a review for something I’d usually never try, and go, “Oh, that sounds so good!” Then I’d rush to the library and take out a dozen recent releases that I’d read gushing reviews of…and thought they were terrible. Later I found out that many ARC reviewers (unfortunately) always give a good review of the ARCs they receive so that they will simply continue to get free books. Once I was more well-informed, I began reading several reviews of varying ratings on the same title before I’ll give it a go.
    I also had major issues about not finishing books because I often thought, “What if someone decided not to finish one of MY novels?” But then I realized that if my writing simply didn’t appeal to them for whatever reason, as long as they weren’t unnecessarily nasty about it, I didn’t think I could really hold it against them. So now I have no problems at all about not finishing a book. Also, if I think there are inherent problems in it (definitely prejudiced/detrimental, etc.) then I am brave enough to say something in a review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did not know that about some ARC reviewers; that’s very good to know. I always like to read a few very positive reviews, a few very negative ones, and then some ambivalent ones to really get a full picture if I’m not sure about a book.

      I never thought about that before, and I guess I agree with you that if my novel wasn’t someone’s cup of tea, I honestly wouldn’t mind. I don’t expect to appeal to every reader, that’s just unrealistic.

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      1. Yeah, when I was seeing a whole lot of one-sided reviews for certain titles (and knowing that simply not everyone is going to have the same opinion), I did a little looking into it, and found a few discussions on the subject floating around the blogisphere. I’ve decided that I’m not going to request many ARCs, anyway, but I also want to try to be as honest as possible (though of course tactful). Some other reader out there will thank me for it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, also — I just read the Tolkien trilogy for the first time. I had given up on The Hobbit over & over, and finally made myself JUST DO IT. I hadn’t been able to finish because I assumed I’d hate it, and also it was a tad long. Well, it became one of the best stories I ever read. Sometimes it’s worth it to finish. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s so true; so many of my favourite books were ones that I initially did not want to read. I wasn’t even initially that excited about my much-beloved-and-frequently-mentioned-on-this-blog favourite novel Les Miserables. So yes, it definitely can be worth it, even if you have to claw your way through.

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  3. I so agree on Oliver Twist! That one was a beast to finish! I finished it though, & you know what? That was seven years ago and it has stayed with me ever since. I prefer David Copperfield though. ❤

    Also, I haven't been able to finish Huck Finn either. Everyone tells me Twain is brilliant, & my own mother says to finish it, yet…

    I'm thinking audio.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Argh, maybe I will finish it one day then! Having a lasting impact is always good… I’ll definitely try. And I also need to get around to David Copperfield one of these days. I did enjoy A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, Great Expectations, and Hard Times, but those are the only works of Dickens that I have made it through so far.

      I love Mark Twain quotes and I watched an extremely, EXTREMELY long documentary about him once, and objectively I think he’s brilliant, I just haven’t been able to get into Huck Finn…I think it’s because it’s so episodic that I can put it aside without feeling like I absolutely have to find out what happens next. For some reason it never occurred to me, but I think the audiobook format would be perfect for this one! I’ll have to try that! Thank you for a great idea!

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      1. My advice is to read David Copperfield first. It’s far superior, in my humble opinion. 🙂 And I think it was Dickens’s own favorite of his novels. I LOVE A Tale of Two Cities! I still need to read Bleak House and Great Expectations.

        You’re welcome on Huck! I hope it works. There’s an Elijah Wood edition out there somewhere, but I can’t seem to find it at my library. I think that one would be adorable. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for the advice, I’ll pick up a copy and make it a priority to read it! Definitely recommend Bleak House! It really vies with A Tale of Two Cities as my favourite Dickens novel. And it features spontaneous human combustion. So there’s that. Great Expectations is great too; very memorable characters.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Human combustion, ha! Someone else told me that. I think that’s a hilarious way to be rid of a character. 😀 I’ll make Bleak House a priority too! I’ve read that incredible opening about the fog in London over & over.

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  4. I finish most, thought not all of the books I start, for some of the reasons you list above. For things like YA, yeah, most of them are fast reads even if not technically “short,” so I figure I can spare another hour and a half to finish it, get a full sense of the book, and write a review. I also finish a lot of classics I’m not immediately into because I do want to see what they’re all about. And I agree with you that’s there’s something to be said for finishing things and focusing and not giving up on a book the first time I yawn.

    On the other hand, I totally get people who have the philosophy that they only have so much time to read, so they’d prefer to read something they really love.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love what you said about not giving up on a book at the first yawn, because I think that’s so important, especially with classics. It’s essential to understand that they were written at a time when readers were a lot more patient, so to get to the good stuff, you need to be patient and wait it out through what might seem like a slow build up. Because the reward is so often worth it, and you’ll never get there if you give up.

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  5. Oh, I do this all. of. the. time. And I have no idea why! It’s usually because I somehow view it as failure or weakness not to finish it, which is one million percent ridiculous. In the last few years, I’m slowly getting better at dumping books that make me swim upstream to finish it- I keep reminding myself, why am I slogging through this when I could be reading another book I might love??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s definitely an argument to be made to not waste time you could spend reading a book you love. I mean, you can only read so many books, right? It’s good that you’re getting better at not putting ridiculous pressure on yourself. It’s definitely a struggle!

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