I always used to force myself to finish books I was reading even if I wasn’t really enjoying them. Then a few years ago, a librarian friend of mine told me that she has no problem abandoning books if they aren’t captivating her. She swept her arm out in front of her and motioned to the overflowing library shelves. “There’s just so many amazing books out there, why waste your time on one that you don’t absolutely love?”

It was the permission I didn’t know I needed. If a professional book slinger said it’s OK to abandon a book I don’t love, even if it’s a national bestseller or on Oprah’s booklist or was recommended by a close friend, I could close it and never open it again.

This has been a helpful practice my reading journey, but lately, I have wondered if I’ve been a little too quick to DNF books (did-not-finish). I have high standards these days, if they don’t pull me in by page 40 then I’m out.

While I have abandoned a lot of books over the last several years, it has allowed me to find some books that I really loved and enjoyed from cover to cover. Here are the current books on my Goodreads Favorites List. A sampling of them:

  1. The Girl In His Shadow by Audrey Blake
  2. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
  3. The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting by Brene Brown
  4. On Living by Kerry Egan
  5. Verity by Colleen Hoover
  6. The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
  7. The Introvert Advantage by Marti Olsen Laney
  8. The New One: Painfully True Stories from a Reluctant Dad by Mike Birbiglia
  9. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
  10. When You Finish Saving the World by Jesse Eisenberg
  11. Euphoria by Lily King
  12. The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd
  13. Brave New Mama by Vicki Rivard
  14. Untamed by Glennon Doyle
  15. Letters from an Astrophysicist by Neil deGrasse Tyson
  16. The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer
  17. Maybe You Should talk To Someone by Lori Gottileb
  18. The Man on the Mountaintop by Susan Trott
  19. Circe by Madeline Miller
  20. Your Brain at Work by David Rock
  21. Becoming by Michelle Obama
  22. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
  23. Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley
  24. Her Name in the Sky by Kelly Quindlen
  25. Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
  26. 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea by Jonathan Franklin
  27. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

There’s more, but I’ll pause there.

What’s your take on abandoning books? Do you only finish the ones you love, or do you find value in finishing books even if you aren’t wholly and totally consumed by them?

I started reading using a Kindle when I was pregnant (reading in weird positions and all throughout the night when pregnancy insomnia hit) became a lot easier with a Kindle, even though I was really resistant to using one. I love my Kindle now even though I do think it makes it easier to abandon books. It doesn’t feel as personal. I’m not holding the weight of the words in my hands, I’m not feeling with my fingertips how much I’ve already invested in the book which probably helps in the motivation to continue. I see this as a good and bad thing.

But one thing I do love about the Kindle is the ability to highlight passages. I had fun going back through some of my highlights from the last few books I’ve read. Here are some favorites from The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green:

To fall in love with the world isn’t to ignore or overlook suffering, both human and otherwise. For me anyway, to fall in love with the world is to look up at the night sky and feel your mind swim before the beauty and the distance of the stars. It is to hold your children while they cry, to watch as the sycamore trees leaf out in June. When my breastbone starts to hurt, and my throat tightens, and tears well in my eyes, I want to look away from feeling. I want to deflect with irony, or anything else that will keep me from feeling directly. We all know how loving ends. But I want to fall in love with the world anyway, to let it crack me open. I want to feel what there is to feel while I am here. Sendak ended that interview with the last words he ever said in public: “Live your life. Live your life. Live your life.”

I’m reminded of something my religion professor Donald Rogan told me once: “Never predict the end of the world. You’re almost certain to be wrong, and if you’re right, no one will be around to congratulate you.”

When people we love are suffering, we want to make it better. But sometimes—often, in fact—you can’t make it better. I’m reminded of something my supervisor said to me when I was a student chaplain: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.”

I love Lewis’s book Space Struck for many reasons, but especially because the poems give voice and form to the anxiety that dominates so much of my life, the panic of threatening clouds and scornful groundhogs. In one poem, Lewis writes of a narrator who feels as if I’m on the moon listening to the air hiss out of my spacesuit, and I can’t find the hole. I’m the vice president of panic, and the president is missing.

It was one of those days where you realize that “sky” is just another human construct, that the sky starts wherever the ground ends. Sky isn’t just something way up out there, but also something that your head is swimming in all the time.

The keyboard is my path to having thoughts, and also my path to sharing them. I can’t play an instrument, but I can bang on this literary piano, and when it’s going well, a certain percussive rhythm develops. Sometimes—not every day, certainly, but sometimes—knowing where the letters are allows me to feel like I know where the words are. 

We are so small, and so frail, so gloriously and terrifyingly temporary.


5 thoughts on “DNF

  1. I read a ton as a kid with my mom, and still read some up until I was about 16, but since then my mind is just too chaotic and fidgety to read books.

    I actually laughed when I saw the title of this post, because being a big racing fan, “DNF” is something I hear a lot, it’s the worst acronym there is for a driver, so it weirdly helps me relate, lol.

    • Do you find certain books are easier to read than others? I normally can only read with full attention if I put all my electronics on a different floor of the house. Sad that’s what it takes to be able to focus on a book, sigh. Working on it! And that’s funny about the DNF racing thing!

      • Oh yeah, sports books mostly, which doesn’t really count as “reading”. I *can* read other stuff sometimes, but I have to be in the right frame of mind.

        Most of my reading is online articles, which aren’t too long, so it doesn’t feel like work.

        And thanks 🙂

  2. Courtney, this commentary is just beautiful – and very thought provoking (as your blogs usually are). I give myself permission to leave one book for another with the promise that I will return when the time is right. It’s sort of like divorce without having to pay alimony.
    Knowing you as I do, I will recommend a book that you are sure to love. And, if you don’t I’ll buy the book from you. Susan Cain (author of Quiet) has recently published Bittersweet. It continues the study of introverts where Quiet leaves off. In fact, she brings out a facet of introversion that I have experienced since childhood and could not have identified/described it until reading her book. If you want an idea of what it’s about, she has done an interview on the Rich Roll Podcast, August 22nd, #699, title: Susan Cain on the greatest ache that binds us.
    I do need to clarify that the “bittersweet” characteristic is not unique to introverts. There are some extroverts who have it also.
    I look forward to hearing your comments if you decide to follow up.

    • Ken, I always love your comments and responses! The divorce without alimony, hah! A really good analogy.

      I actually have Bittwersweet on my “to read” shelf after hearing Susan give an interview on a different podcast! I’ll have to listen to her on Rich Roll though– his interview style is always so thorough and captivating. I’ll read Bittersweet soon, especially with your endorsement. Will definitely send you some reflections. One of the books you recommended I read, Introvert Advantage, definitely made my “favorites” list.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

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