You’re deep in a nonfiction book when one of these realizations strikes you.

  1. “This book isn’t very good.”
  2. “This book may be good, but I am not enjoying it.”
  3. “The author’s point has been fully made, but there’s a lot of book left.”

Do you finish the book?

I recently read about a third of The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. The author is a public intellectual and a skilled writer, but I misunderstood the book’s aim and wasn’t deriving value from it. I decided to bail.

Man, was it hard! Why do we feel so guilty putting a book down?

You don’t owe a book your attention

It’s noble to honor our commitments, and it can feel like starting a book is also a commitment to finish it. But like the outdated social convention of “cleaning your [dinner] plate,” trying to finish every book we start is actually counterproductive. Reading time is precious, and we’re best off using that time to read something that will benefit us. The author will never know, and the book itself doesn’t care.

It’s not that hard to put down a bad book or a boring book, but when a good book seems to have run out of steam, it can be hard to quit. Here’s a tactic from Seth Godin that may help.

Stop reading when you get the joke

Seth Godin likes to say that he stops reading a book once he “gets the joke.”

I read widely, and I stop reading all the time—I try to understand the point of what someone is writing, and once I get the joke I put it down unless the actual wording is so beautiful that I’m really, really enjoying myself.

This mindset is commonplace among serious readers (which I’ll define as people who read daily for an hour or more). My wife is in this category, and she has no qualms about kicking a book to the curb. Meanwhile, I guiltily slog through nearly everything I start and wonder why I find it so hard to read more.

There are far more books out there than we can read in a lifetime, and I’m going to work on quitting more of them. You should feel free to join me!