science of us

Why It’s So Hard to Stop Reading Books You Don’t Even Like

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Recently, after a harrowing two-week attempt, I quit reading Bad Blood. I mean no disrespect to the author, who is a good writer, and probably doesn’t need me to tell him that, because he’s a national best seller with a literally perfect five-star Amazon rating and many other rave reviews. Many journalists I know and respect loved the book, so I bought it assuming I’d love it too. But it put me to sleep every other page, and there were about a thousand too many guys named Gary or Tim in it for me to keep track of. And, when it comes down to it, I don’t care about Silicon Valley. I really tried! But I just don’t.

And yet, for one hundred and 20 pages, I persisted. I waited and waited to be “chilled,” as the New York Times Book Review led me to believe I would be. At 20 pages in I assumed I was getting close, and closer still at 50. It was only around one hundred pages (almost a third of the book!) that my hope started to wane. I knew five pages in that I wasn’t particularly interested in reading this book, but I kept going, because I am a person who has a very difficult time abandoning books — up until a few years ago, in fact, I never did.

According to Gale Lucas, a researcher at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, this may be because I’m “gritty,” a buzzy social science catchall term for someone with a can-do attitude and a whole lot of perseverance. Whereas most people, “gritty” or not, are able to finish projects they truly enjoy, only the former are likely to finish even those they don’t, says Lucas. “When something is difficult, like maybe the book is 150 pages longer than you thought it was, or maybe it’s a really dry, boring book, and you’re getting tired, you might start seeing people that are gritty not being able to put it down, whereas someone who’s less gritty could be done with it and throw the book aside,” she says.

However, this may only be the case when the subject (or the author) is something the reader is passionate about. There is some research (currently under peer review) which Lucas says suggests that even the most tenacious among us might quit projects we don’t feel passionately about just as frequently as those who are less so. This principle may also extend to one’s passion for reading broadly — when I tell Lucas I wasn’t particularly passionate about the subject of Bad Blood, but that I do count the number of books I read each year, and work hard to meet a certain goal, she agrees that counts as a kind of passion (if not a very cool one). I may not care about Silicon Valley, but I care about being well-read, so I kept going, for as long as I could.

But I did quit, eventually, and it’s that that leads me to wonder whether I’m really so gritty after all. Lucas says the factor which leads individuals to keep reading books they aren’t enjoying is optimism — their belief that the book will get better, and/or that they’ll be able to finish it quickly. That may be true for some people, but I wouldn’t call myself a particularly optimistic reader. I don’t know that I’ve ever ended up loving a book I started out disliking; I’ve merely worn myself into acceptance.

For me, I think, not quitting books has more to do with guilt than grit. I have always felt that I owe it to books (my longest and greatest love) to hear them out, especially when it’s one recommended by someone whose opinion I value. I also feel that if I don’t finish a book, I will somehow get in trouble (?) with someone (??). I’m competitive with myself, and if I read 62 books last year, I want to read at least 63 this year. My approach can likely be traced back to my childhood library’s summer reading program, for which we were given a sheet of paper with an entire summer’s worth of 24-hour clocks printed on it, and asked to color in the amount of time we spent reading. The more time you spent reading, the better the prize you won. (If I recall correctly, the prize was: more books.) Every summer, I told myself, I had to read more than the last.

Now that I track my success by total books read over time spent reading, I hate the idea of wasting time on a book I won’t finish. The research shows that “sunk costs” like these are hard to let go of for most of us (even mice): when we put time into something, we want to see it through. However, research also shows that we get better at letting those sunk costs go as we get older. Now, in my 30s (practically dead), I am all too aware of how many books there are left to read, and how little time I have for them. And while I may wish I hadn’t read 120 pages of a book I didn’t enjoy, I can take comfort in knowing I didn’t read all 352 of them.

Why It’s So Hard to Stop Reading Books You Don’t Even Like