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EDGE: Closing the book on a bad read

- The Washington Times - Friday, July 24, 2009

Summer is a time for reading — and not just for students given long lists before leaving for the holiday. A certain class of books isn't called "beach reads" for nothing. Longer days and warm vacations mean many readers have the time to tackle weightier tomes, too.

No matter what you choose, though, you're bound to run into the same problem eventually: What should you do when, 20, 50 or 100 pages in, you realize you just don't like a book?

You could spend your entire summer slogging through it. Or you could take the advice of a prominent economist who simply advises: "Give up."

Tyler Cowen, a George Mason University economics professor, makes the suggestion in his book "Discover Your Inner Economist," which shows how to use economic reasoning to improve your life. Scarcity is one principle — a lack of attention and time keeps us from being as cultured as we'd like.

We should ask ourselves if reading a book we're getting little out of is the best use of scarce resources.

He takes his own advice, saying he finishes one book for every five to 10 he starts.

"People have this innate view — it comes from friendship and marriage — that commitment is good. Which I agree with," he says. That view shouldn't, he says, carry over to inanimate objects.

It's not that he's not a voracious reader — he finishes more than a book a day, not including the "partials." He just wants to make the most of his time.

"We should treat books a little more like we treat TV channels," he argues. No one has trouble flipping away from a boring series.

Books are another story. Mr. Cowen thinks our education instills the belief that books somehow are sacred. Not to him.

"If I'm reading a truly, actively bad book, I'll throw it out," he says. His wife will protest, but he points out that he's doing a public service: "If I don't throw it out, someone else might read it." If that person is one of the many committed to finishing a book once started, he's actually doing harm.

Mr. Cowen, who says he couldn't finish Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers" or John Dos Passos' "U.S.A.," offers a more direct economic rationale. He notes that many up-and-coming writers complain they can't break through in a best-seller-driven marketplace. "We're also making markets more efficient," Mr. Cowen says. "If you can sample more books, you're giving more people a chance."

Mr. Cowen isn't the only well-known reader to embrace abandonment.

"I used to feel guilty if I didn't finish a book, but it's become a lot easier for me to abandon them in midread now — if I'm not completely engrossed," says author Ron Hogan, curator of the literary blog Beatrice.com.

He's also giving up on many books before he even has started them — there's simply too much out there.

"First, there's all those canonical works that you're supposed to have read to be suitably well-rounded. Then there's all the contemporary books you're supposed to have under your belt if you want to be on top of the modern literary scene," notes Mr. Hogan, who is also senior editor of the GalleyCat blog.

He recently had to declutter his apartment and got rid of "more than a dozen boxes of books, most novels that remained unread years after I'd acquired them," he recalls.

"In all honesty, it felt great to release myself from the hundreds of promises I'd made myself to be the sort of person who read such-and-such or so-and-so," he says.

His advice? "Don't slog your way through books just so your reading list will conform with other people's ideas about what's hot or what's smart. Find the books that compel you from first page to last."

Sarah Wendell of the romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books also recently developed the habit of abandoning books. "I figured that life is too short to spend time reading books that I don't like, especially if I can determine why I'm not enjoying it," she says.

She gave up the Harry Potter series after book four. "I never read the rest of the series because I didn't like where [J.K.] Rowling was going," she explains, "and didn't want to see the things I loved about the start of the series become muddled by the end."

Ms. Wendell even reviews books she hasn't finished, designating them as such. "Sometimes it's because the plot is so ridiculous I can't enjoy it any longer — or agree to suspend my disbelief, to quote Coleridge," she says. "Other times, I'm bored and catch myself skimming. If that's the case, time to move on to something that grabs me." (Mr. Cowen is a big proponent of skimming, especially for complicated classics we might not otherwise read.)

Having an e-book reader has made Ms. Wendell more ruthless. "I'm holding 100+ books on one device. If one isn't floating my boat, I can move on to something else by pressing one button," she points out.

JoAnn, a 63-year-old who blogs at everydaymatters.typepad.com, also feels no abandonment guilt. "I just came to the realization that my time was finite and the numbers of books out there was infinite," she says. She reads about 120 books a year but abandons 100 — she gives a book 25 to 50 pages to "reel me in."

"I have some friends who will read a book to the bitter end, even though they dislike it intensely," she says. "To me, this is just a waste of time." She notes that no one continues eating food that tastes terrible — so why read books you can't stand?

She sent an amusing list of books she has abandoned and why: Kathleen McCleary's "House and Home" she pronounced "repetitive and waaaay too many words."

One of her online friends reminded her there's even an abandonment rule: The "Deduct Your Age From 100 and Read That Many Pages Before Giving Up on a Book" rule. The older you get, the less inclined you are to waste your time on something that doesn't grab you.

The former teacher muses, "I often wonder if people who are turned off by being forced to read books they do not like then become nonreaders later on."

Don't take these readers' words for it. A no less august reader than Samuel Johnson declared, as Mr. Cowen quotes in his book, "A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good."