Shelf Life: Do Books Have Expiry Dates?

Category: Reading

Confession time: I am a serial non-finisher of books. It started off as an accidental thing: a series of isolated incidents, where I would just forget to read the last couple of chapters or I'd put my current book down to ‘emergency read’ something else before the film came out, but it’s turned into a guilty habit that I’m not very proud of.

I love choosing my next read; I love buying books or going to the library; I love sitting down with a book and getting into it, but then something happens and I lose interest. It’s like books have an expiry date for me; if I don’t finish them or make significant progress in a certain window of time – what I now call the ‘reading window’ - it’s unlikely I will. I forget what’s happening in the plot and book abandonment occurs. It's like they actually have a 'shelf life' and not just on the bookshelves...

So why is it so hard to finish a book?

I think it’s something we are all guilty of, although we might not admit to it. Am I reading things I don’t like? Do I have the attention span of a bumble bee? Do I not enjoy reading?

No, I really do enjoy reading. And conversely, I like many of the books I don’t finish. And I generally have a good attention span. So what’s going on?

The wrong book at the wrong time

Sometimes I just don’t have the patience for what I’ve chosen to read. It’s the wrong book at the wrong time or one of those I really should have read this by now books. The ones that come to mind are Walter Scott’s Waverley – really no excuse now seeing as I travel on the newly opened Waverley Line on a daily basis – and James Hogg’s The Private Confessions of a Justified Sinner. After years of avoidance, I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the end of these ‘should have read by nows’.

Sometimes the book you’re reading can often become tied up in the mood or place you’re in when you’re reading it and you don’t want to take your book with you. When I started a new commuting routine, I started a new book. When I moved house, I started a new book. Starting a new chapter in your life means you often want to start a new chapter with your reading.

Too much love

Sometimes it’s the books I enjoy the most that I don’t finish, I just don’t want them to end. I’m thinking particularly of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Yes, you can re-read them but it’s never the same as first discovering a book you love; sometimes I make a conscious decision to not finish a book.

The books I get to the end of tend to be the ones I’ve reasonably enjoyed - the ones that get me hooked but that I probably won’t read again. Or ones that have another motivation attached to them - like a film coming out or a recommendation from a friend. That little extra motivation can go a long way when translated into reading hours.

A little extra perseverance

Some books just can’t be finished within ‘the book window’ and need a little extra perseverance to finish. I’ve been plugging away at Game of Thrones now for months, partly because I’m really enjoying it and postponing getting to the end, but some books just require a little more time.

So how do I tackle this?

It’s not a huge problem but I do feel guilty about it. And when someone asks ‘ have you read...?’ I can only say ‘well sort of, actually I read exactly 3/4 of it.’ (I’m specifically thinking of Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar here.)

I’ve recently adopted the ‘three book’ reading strategy. It’s high risk (there’s a chance you won’t finish all three) but it’s been quite successful for me. I’m less likely to abandon a book completely if I know I can take a break from it and read something else – ideally something radically different – and return to it.

I’ve also discovered that putting less pressure on myself to read for longer periods of time helps. Now if I have a spare five minutes I’ll pick up a book – revisiting books little and often means I’m much less likely to forget what’s going on and they’re much less likely to be deserted.

I’m not convinced that I’ll ever fully give up my bad reading habits and I’m sure I’ll abandon many more books unread, but I’ll persevere to reach as many endings as I can, while trying to postpone the inevitable expiry date of the book.


Image by Calsidyrose

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