At my heart, I am a dirty completionist. It doesn’t matter the task – a massive load of dishes, a boring play or film, alphabetising my bookshelves… Once I start it, I must finish. Even though I know, logically, that there’s no sense wasting my energy, money, or time on something that isn’t bringing some kind of reward, I fall into the trap of the sunk-loss fallacy every time (which is why I will never play the stock market). This presents an interesting dilemma when it comes to books. Once I pick one up, I feel compelled to finish it, even if I’m not enjoying it. I circle around and around this question: should you DNF a book?
For the uninitiated, “DNF” stands for “did not finish”. It’s a common term in running and cycling (a race participant who “DNF”ed did not finish the course, usually due to injury), and I presume the bookish community has simply appropriated it for themselves. It’s common parlance in the Goodreads crowd, where you’ll often see it pop up in one-star reviews: “DNF at 100 pages, terrible book”.
For some people, to DNF a book is no dilemma at all. If it’s not pulling them in, they drop it and move on without a second thought. For a small minority, to DNF a book is an egregious sin, on par with dog-earring pages. For the rest of us – I count myself among them – it’s somewhere in between.
In addition to being a completionist (see above), I suppose I must also confess that I am a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to the question of whether you should DNF a book. I roundly, loudly, encourage others to do so. “If it’s not speaking to you, if it’s not serving you, you should absolutely DNF the book! Life is short! Save your eyeballs for something worthwhile!” I say to everyone else. And yet, I almost never take my own advice. In fact, I can’t remember the last book I didn’t finish. It would have been long before I started the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, years ago.
Reviewing books plays into this reluctance to DNF a book. I honestly can’t bring myself to review a book I haven’t finished reading for myself (not even to post one of those snarky one-star Goodreads reviews I mentioned earlier). It just doesn’t seem fair to the author, the publisher, or the person who reads my reviews. How could I possibly form a coherent and complete opinion, and communicate that opinion with any kind of authority, if I dropped the book half-way through? If I had given in to an inclination to DNF, I would never have published reviews of The Female Eunuch, The Call Of The Wild, The Golden Bowl, American Sniper…
I think perhaps my age and health plays into my reluctance to DNF a book as well. I’m still in my first blush of youth (and you can’t prove otherwise!). I’m yet to encounter that gnawing doubt of time “running out”. Wasting a few hours reading a shoddy book doesn’t seem like such a dreadful thing, as it might if I knew I only had a year or two of life left. My opportunity and capacity to read books – good and bad – feels (almost) limitless. I think this idea is best encapsulated in a quote I heard once, I think a librarian told me (though I can’t remember for sure):
“Subtract your age from 100. That’s the number of pages of a book you should read before deciding whether to continue with it, or abandon it.”Mystery Librarian, whoever you are (Thank you!)
By that logic, after 70-ish pages (ahem!), I should have a fair idea of whether or not I want to continue reading or DNF a book. As I get older, and my remaining reading time diminishes, I’ll invest less in reading a book before deciding. That seems fair… but I’ve never once done it.
So, should you DNF a book? You should! Absolutely! But should I DNF a book? Probably, but it might be a while before I can battle my completionist brain into submission…