06/04/2013 05:58 pm ET | Updated Aug 04, 2013

(Don't) Finish What You Started: In Defense of Not Reading Cover to Cover

When is it OK to give up on a novel? With summer reading season nearly upon us, the self-induced pressure to finish every new novel you buy can become intense. In fact, I hear this sentiment fairly frequently throughout the year, not only from students but also from fellow readers of fiction.

For my students, the answer is easy: if I assigned the book, it's not alright to quit partway through. (And please don't just watch the movie instead of reading the book; it can be productive to compare different versions of the same narrative, but one is never a substitute for the other.) For those of us who read professionally, sometimes having to finish a book can be a blessing in disguise. Samuel Richardson's 1,500-page epistolary novel (i.e. novel in letters), Clarissa: or The History of a Young Lady (1747), is probably the all-time great example of a book that, today, most readers only finish -- or, for that matter, even start -- because they have to. But in Richardson's own day, Clarissa was enormously successful.

Were readers simply more patient back then? Quite likely; lacking indoor electricity, not to mention wi-fi, they simply did not have our cornucopia of contemporary media entertainment from which to choose. Reading novels -- even or perhaps especially long ones -- was also a way of gaining social status (what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls cultural capital). Traditions of reading aloud that were still active in the 18th century also meant that novel-reading was not the solitary activity it normally is today. Instead, it was integrated into middle-class family life and sometimes even served as a wider community-building vehicle, alongside the sharing of newspapers and other texts in public places like coffee houses.

Early novel readers also used a variety of strategies to navigate texts that they did not find fully accessible or gripping. In the 18th century, readers frequently recorded their thoughts about the books they were reading in journals, letters, marginalia, and commonplace books, in which they recorded choice passages. Especially after changes in copyright laws allowed publishers more freedom, such practices eventually led to the creation of anthologies, in which readers could peruse only "the best" passages of their favorite novelists and poets while skipping the boring bits.

But even before the rise of such time-saving reading "technologies," readers knew that not every book published was worth reading in full. Samuel Johnson, who compiled the first major dictionary of the English language, freely admitted to not liking many books he encountered. Of Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), for example, he famously quipped that "None ever wished it longer than it is"; on the subject of reading more generally, he asserted that "A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good." A generation later, with novels proliferating faster than ever, Jane Austen found herself faced with the opposite problem: not wanting to approve of a rival author's productions. Seeing right through his veil of anonymity, she wrote that "Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones . . . I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley [Scott' first novel] if I can help it -- but I fear I must."

Today, it can be tempting to conclude that people don't read as much as they used to, rendering moot the question of whether to put aside a novel. But although we may read fewer traditional books than in the past, recent research suggests that the proliferation of new media platforms and vehicles for texts means that reading has migrated to new places, not disappeared altogether. If we expand the definition of reading to include online reading, for example, the National Endowment for the Arts reports that people who frequently read online newspapers and blogs are also highly likely to read more traditional books. Of course, online reading is also associated with multitasking -- jumping from link to link, skimming and scrolling -- which means we are now perhaps even less likely to finish what we start. But I suspect that, had our new technologies been available to them, Johnson and Austen would have embraced iPads, e-readers, and blogs as complements, if not substitutes, to more traditional literary vehicles.

So where does all this leave us with regard to when it's OK to give up on a book? My general rule when I'm reading for pleasure is to give a novel around 50 pages to engage me in some way with its tightly constructed plot, intriguing characters, well-conceived setting, thoughtful writing, or preferably all of the above. If after 50 pages I find my mind wandering to other things I could be doing, especially other books I could be reading, I usually tell myself it's alright to put this one aside. Sometimes I have come back to a book I initially put aside and found that it suddenly made more sense to me than it did the first time. The book itself, of course, had not changed, but perhaps I had -- not infrequently, moreover, thanks to something else I had read in the interim. And sometimes, to quote Robert Frost slightly out of context, "that has made all the difference."