Reading habits

IMG_1048I don’t know about you but I think as vices go being somewhat bookish is pretty innocuous, having said that are two problems with it. The first problem is the knowledge that there will always be far more interesting books than my limited time to read them and the second is finite shelf space to store these good reads. But, there are eReaders to solve the second problem I hear you say. True, but I am not a big fan of them as a reading device.

I mention this as my book shelves are bursting and a growing proportion of the books on those shelves are unread, and with each new acquisition the earlier unread books fade into dusty obscurity. I think the number now exceeds eighty books in my unread pile, of course the simplest thing to do would be either sell or give them away and start again from scratch (I have been tempted), but I cannot bring myself to do that. I acquired those books for a reason, what treasures would I lose if I swept them all away?

So, I take a strict approach to reading books these days, I generally stop reading after a chapter or two if they do not engage me. In the past I used to show a dogmatic committment to the books I read and finished them regardless. But these days I happily abandon books. Recent casualties are Robert Lewis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae, Michael Chabon’s Manhood For Amateurs and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Still, abandoning a book is a hard thing to do for someone who has a fondness for them especially the unread ones. When they have been waiting on my shelves for years it feels like a betrayal to read only a few chapters and then give them away, like passing over a loyal friend whose time has come and is then casually spurned.

Oliver Burkeman wrote an article on this for the Guardian last year, he mentions that ‘several psychological phenomena, presumably, contribute to this post-abandonment regret, most obviously the “sunk cost bias”: once you’ve invested time and effort, it’s a wrench to walk away.’

This applies to writing projects too, in recent years I have written and put aside two manuscripts representing many hours of work and thousands of words, but as Oliver Burkeman states ‘It’s fine to abandon books or other projects but you’ve got to really abandon them, not let them fade amid vague intentions to finish them some day’ this makes it a positive act and not a defeat, I think this is an important perceptual difference.

What writing projects have you abandoned?

Do you finish the books you start?

Perhaps you choose your potential reads with more care than my scatter gun approach?

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4 thoughts on “Reading habits

  1. I see nothing wrong with setting a writing project aside. I’ve done this. And I return with sharpened skills now equipped to finished what I previously could not.

    Do I have unread books?
    Oh, yes. But I look at them as treasures. One day I may find gold.

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    • There is gold in those unread books, my post last week mentioned Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. I think it was on my shelf for at least five years and it turned out to be one of the best things I have read for a very long time.

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  2. I know what you mean, I used to go into bookshops and be overcome by that sense – both sad and inspiring – of ‘but I’ll never live long enough for all these!’. Now I look at my bookshelves and have the same feeling! It’s a relief as well as a disappointment whenever I find that, even among the ones I’ve selected, I don’t actually WANT to read them all. I still don’t like abandoning though.

    As for my own work, I have three finished novels and two novel-length unfinished novels, all now chalked up to experience. In a way I wish these were harder to abandon, but usually I’m so sick of the sight of them by the time I come to do the agent hunt thing that it’s quite easy to do. And the lure of a new idea – which always feel like ‘the one’ – is far more difficult to resist!

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    • I have one finished book and two half finished or is it half started novels. I agree with the lure of the new, although I find it hard to let go of an old project, there’s always the knowledge that a bit more tweaking would improve it. I think it’s a real skill to know when to leave / finish something, its always highly subjective!

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