Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Should You DNF A Book?

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?

Should You DNF A Book? - Keeping Up With The Penguins

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…

11 Comments

  1. I’m slowly starting to dnf more. Love that librarian’s advice!

  2. Hahahha, I’m so sympathetic to this! I’m one of the people who feels perfectly sanguine about DNFing a book, in part because I always tell myself that I can come back to the book later. Which sometimes I do!

  3. I’m old enough to feel time’s sand trickling through that hourglass, which is why I no longer hesitate to DNF a book I’m not enjoying. But in all fairness, I don’t review those ones. It just seems decent not to publicly dis a book which I haven’t made it through. I just ignore them as if they never existed 🙂

    • ShereeKUWTP

      October 14, 2020 at 9:48 AM

      Ha! That’s perfect, Paula – I couldn’t review a book I didn’t finish either, it just doesn’t feel fair, but denying their existence is a level-up to which I aspire! 😉

  4. I always liked to finish even the most tedious of books. The answer to that is to get busier and busier. Eventually you get to the stage where you don’t finish anything but the most compelling of books. After that you find you read very little at all. It is a great master plan for people like me who wasted their time on far too much nonsense.

  5. Love your inconsistency!
    I’m absolutely not a completist, my brain is too much like a butterfly to focus on one thing at a time and with so many potentially great books on my shelves I take the view that it’s wasting my time to push on reading a book I am absolutely not enjoying, That just feels like a form of punishment for me.

    i do post comments about books I DNF but only if I feel I’ve read sufficient to have a reaction.

  6. “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”

    Well… in my mind, it’s like going to a restaurant and being served an inedible entrée. It is possible the main course could be good, it’s possible the dessert is to die for, but, I have lost my appetite. I don’t wish to patronize this restaurant any longer.
    I consider myself being fair enough by conveying my limited experience with the DNF. I couldn’t with good conscience give more than top most 2 stars to a book I couldn’t finish. After all, I always finished every book I started until some 5 10 years ago, when I realized there are more books in the world I could ever read, and I have read some pretty horrible trash. (To which I have also given 1-star reviews, however unkind it might be to the author, the publisher, and the people who like the books.)
    I don’t DNF lightly. The decision is based on a coherent and complete opinion. I don’t need to finish the meal to know I hate the entrée. Some times one spoonful is enough for me to be able to create an educated opinion about the food. I say my review and opinion on the book are based on the entrée by saying I didn’t finish the book.
    In my mind, I have given the book a fair chance by starting to read it.
    I try to read at least 100 pages, but so far no book has ever managed to overcome a beginning so bad that I don’t want to read it anymore.

    There are plenty of books with bad beginnings, slow beginnings, and not very good beginnings, that still manage to serve an acceptable main course and a wonderful dessert, but so far I haven’t read one book where the quality of the book differs that much from the beginning to the end.
    I have given a second chance to books I would have DNFd, because their fans beg me, promising it will become better, and it never has done that. So far in my life, I have never read a book that has kept that promise.
    I am 53 years old, I learned to read when I was 5, and have read at least 50 books every year since then. (When I was 5, it was mostly picture books, of course. :-D) I would say between 10 and 30 I read some 200-300 books every year. I have read thousands of books. Not one book I wanted to DNF but kept reading, surprised me. Every and each one of them was a waste of time, and I only regret having finished them, and not reading something better instead.
    Can you say you’d missed anything worthwhile after reading those books you mentioned? Would a one-star review of American Sniper after having read 100 pages be in any way less true, than after having read the whole book?

    So – why would I need to eat the whole meal, if the starter wasn’t good? Why would it be unfair to the author, the publisher, and the readers?
    Now, if I was the only reviewer, then that would make sense.
    If I received the book to review it, then I might have some obligation to give the book a better chance and consider how others might see it.
    But I am just an ordinary person giving my honest, personal, subjective opinion on something I do for my own pleasure. If I don’t find any pleasure in it, why would I continue with it, and why wouldn’t I be honest and say I didn’t like it? Isn’t that unfair to every other author, publisher, and readers?

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