What to Do About the DNF Guilt

What is it about not finishing a book that gives us so much guilt? Find out in my latest blog post!

I’ve spoken before about that awful feeling with the DNF pile in your reading list. You can check out that post here. Quick definition for those that aren’t familiar, DNF stands for “did not finish.”

I know, it’s hard to imagine not finishing a book when you really consider yourself a reader. When you identify so strongly with the label reader that it’s just a core part of who you are as a person, the sick feeling of not finishing a book feels like a betrayal somehow.

I was listening to my cousin’s podcast recently (Eclectic Readers – check them out!) and they discussed that guilty feeling with the DNF pile. That got me thinking about the association of guilt with leaving a book unread.

The word itself means a sense of remorse for some wrongdoing, like breaking a law or committing a moral offense. Lord knows there’s nothing illegal about leaving a book unfinished. There’s nothing even immoral about it. Seriously, it’s a totally neutral action, of which there are no consequences. So, why do we feel the DNF guilt?

As I began to really think about it, I’ve come to believe the feeling stems from a sense of “cutting your losses.” Sure, it’s not the same as running a business and spending millions of dollars on a project that turned out to be a lost cause. It’s probably at most a $25 + tax loss on a brand new hard cover from Barnes & Noble.

It’s still a loss though. It’s a loss of money spent to purchase the damn thing. It’s a loss of shelf space that could have gone to more worthy contenders. It’s a loss of time and energy, as you’ve already spent both on starting and getting through some portion of the book, so you might as well finish, right?

The guilt we feel from not finishing a book comes from a sense of loss, and in my experience, people sure hate to lose. For me personally, that monetary loss cuts deep. Sure, one book is at most $25, but what if I bought 10 books that I didn’t end up finishing? That’s $250! Maybe that still doesn’t sound like a lot to some people, but for those who prefer to save money wherever they can, that’s a dent in the wallet that makes them wince.

This also reveals another deeper problem: the need to stop buying so many books. It’s so easy to get caught up and swept in by the love at first sight feeling when you see that gorgeous cover on the shelf and just want to take it home. Looks can be deceiving. Even words can lead you astray. That back cover description of fascinating worlds and characters just sucks you right in and entices you with, more often than not, sweet nothings.

That’s why this year, I’m resolved to exercise restraint to reduce the DNF guilt and the feeling of having wasted money and minimize time spent on books I don’t enjoy to avoid that feeling of money, time, and energy lost. That means less trips to Barnes & Noble to browse the aisles. I often go to the cafe to write, and when I’m done with that, I think to myself, “Let me just take a quick peak.” I have to physically force myself out the door, because I know a quick peak will devolve into “just a book or two.”

I’m also going to use my library more to find books I want to read. Granted, that’s a bit harder, because many of the books I want to read are independently or self-published, which means they don’t get picked up by most libraries. My library especially can be a bit lackluster with its selections. Unless it’s The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or whatever iteration of Girl we’re on these days, the chances of finding the book I want from my local library are slim.

I will make every effort to find the books I want to read through the libary first. When that fails, I’ll look into second-hand options to try to find them for much cheaper than retail prices. Heck, I’m even making the effort to borrow books from friends more often. Buying brand new from a big-name chain bookstore is my last resort this year.

Also, I already started making the executive decision to just nix some titles off my TBR altogether. If I can’t find it for a reasonable price anywhere, I take the Marie Kondo approach. If it doesn’t spark joy, I let it go and click delete on my Goodreads “Want to Read” list.

What are your thoughts on the DNF guilt? How do you avoid the guilt altogether? Let me know in the comments!

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The DNF Doubt

First of all, I only learned what the acronym DNF (did not finish) stands for within the last year. I had to look it up because I’m at that awkward age where I’m a millennial but I don’t know all the lingo the kids are using these days. Anyway, DNF hadn’t been a part of my vocabulary not only because I didn’t know what it meant, but because I used to be the type of reader who couldn’t fathom not finishing a book (except Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood…sorry Ms. Tucker!) Ok, there were two others that fit the rare DNF category, but in my defense they were Jonathan Swift and Nathaniel Hawthorne and I was 8-years-old. My mom was a proponent of letting me pick up books she knew I wouldn’t understand and letting me figure out for myself that I was not smart enough yet to get them.

Other than those three rare occasions, I was never a DNFer. How could I possibly put down a book I’d started without giving it a chance? How could I truly judge its quality without reading all the way through? And what if even after 100 pages of nothing, I missed something truly incredible? I couldn’t not finish a book, no matter how boring or bad it was. Besides, what did it matter if it wasted my time? I had time to waste.

Alas, I am no longer the carefree student with time on my hands and a dwindling bookshelf. Now I’m a responsible adult who has to divide my time carefully between all the things I want to do, read, watch, listen to, etc. And my bookshelf? Double-stacked from top to bottom and I’ve barely made a dent in the last five years. Time can no longer be wasted. Therefore, I decided to no longer waste time on books that just don’t do it for me. I can proudly say in the past year I’ve DNFed two books! And one I stuck around with because “well I already started it and I’m more than halfway through and it’s for my reading challenge I might as well finish it.”

I did it again. I let the DNF doubt drag me down into another non-enjoyable book that I gave nothing but excuses. It’s like I’m in a bad relationship with my book boyfriend. Take my advice, readers. Don’t do this to yourselves. If a book isn’t sparking your interest, or if it’s making you mad or any other negative feeling, don’t hate read or try to give it the benefit of the doubt. Just let it go. There are so many good books out there waiting to be read, and we do not have time to waste on those that do not give us joy.

Set a standard if you have to, whether it’s determining how many pages in you can go before you decide enough’s enough, or taking notes and reviewing how it makes you feel. Just figure out a way to let yourself know it’s time to get out and move on.