Why I finish books

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Living with ebooks, as I have been since I bought my first iPad a few years back, has changed my reading. It’s also given me more ways of understanding how I read and how I want to read.

Let’s get the nostalgia out of the way first. I miss paper books. I still read paper books, occasionally, but usually for specific, diminishing reasons. The first reason is that I can’t get a Kindle version of a book, or I already own the paper version. Both of these reasons are diminishing: the former because more and more books, even ones that were out of print are becoming available electronically; the latter is less of an issue as time passes because, due to the convenience of ebooks for note-taking, portability etc., I will sometimes buy ebook versions of the paper ones I own – if I’m using them for reference on a project, for instance, or in a couple of cases of fiction, because I love them so much and I want to have them with me when I’m travelling or just not at home.

At least that’s the case for non-fiction – sometimes, I love to read on paper. I think of it as hi-fidelity reading though – it’s a luxury, a treat – about time and place as much of the medium.

I’ve always read several books at the same time. Different books for different reasons and different times of day – some for projects, some for things I’m studying, some instructional, some fiction. With ebooks this habit has continued but with the number of books expanding even further. I’ll read some in bursts and then put them aside for a few days, weeks or months, and then pick them up again.

The other habit that has continued from reading paper books to ebooks – and been similarly exaggerated in the transition – is not finishing them.

Business or popular science books that lose their hold on my attention halfway through, get left behind, put on the virtual shelf.

I used to feel bad about not finishing books, but this was some kind of a vestigial puritan instinct, something about not letting things go to waste, finishing what you’ve started. Really, it’s a healthy habit – not all books deserve to be finished, not all need to be finished. There are other things you could be doing.

Rather than asking myself “why don’t I finish books?”, as if I had some kind of reading disorder, or lacked moral fibre, it is much more interesting to ask: “why do I finish books?” and then to wonder what that tells me about good writing.

Not finishing books is mostly a non-fiction phenomenon. Fiction books pull me through to the end with plot, with their beginnings, middles and ends. Non-fiction books rarely pull that trick off and very often fail to cohere past the first third.

A good many non-fiction books would benefit from being either shorter or serialised – Kindle singles hold some promise in this area, thought I’m not sure how well that format is doing. Not every non-fiction work needs to be 60,000 words plus (the minimum length for most paperbacks). A great example of an author showing restraint is Paul Adams’s Grouped, which is exactly the right length for what he has to say about social networks – about 45,000 words/170 pages.

To hold our attention and to be useful, books should be useful in every chapter – I’m not sure that this is the case. I think they get padded – stretched to fit the format. Chunking things up in to 10,000 word segments would suit readers and save authors a lot of time too.

Whether new lengths and formats catch on for ebooks is something I’m watching closely. Especially as I definitely have another book in me right now – I just need to decide how it should come out, as it were.

  • http://twitter.com/neilperkin neilperkin

    I had that same thought about Kindle singles and business books. So many of them pad out middle chapters with case studies and repetitive points so a shorter, punchier format (I think its around 18,000 words isn’t it?) would be excellent. Kind of like what Seth Godin is doing with his imprint I suppose

  • amayfield

    Absolutely – reading more books in parallel about a particular subject is interesting. I’ve been reading psychology/neurology books a lot over the last couple of months. Some books – Thinking Fast & Slow, Your Brain At Work – are compelling and packed with usefulness from beginning to end. Others are kind of Gladwell-lite collections of anecdotes appended to a strong premise or idea…