On Book Guilt

September 27, 2010

We need to talk about something. It’s quite serious. It affects a lot of people. And I genuinely believe it costs the book industry millions of dollarpounds every year, in addition to incalculable personal misery. We need to talk about book guilt.

When I created bkkeepr, it had (still does) three commands: start, finish and bookmark. I assumed a happy, linear model of reading. You start a book; you finish a book. Simple, right?

But almost immediately I started getting feature requests: with one, overwhelmingly popular one: abandon.

The problem was that when you started a book, and until you officially finished it, that book stayed on your “unfinished books” list. And some of these books were not unfinished but abandoned, and people were unhappy with marking their books “finished” just to get them off the list…

This is one kind of book guilt. Book guilt seems to affect a huge number of people, presenting in a number of different ways. The most common form, and perhaps the most damaging, is the unfinished book.

When someone with a bad case fails to finish a book, they don’t start a new one; they go into a holding pattern, crippled by guilt over their failure and unable to let go and start over. All reading stops. People have confessed to me that it’s been months since they last picked up a book, because they still haven’t finished the last one.

Attitudes to the unfinished book take many forms. Multiple book readers—those comfortable having more than one book on the stack at the same time—are less susceptible; the single book reader tends to fall into one of three categories: those who happily chuck and move on, those who grind joylessly through to the bitter end, and those who agonise and go nowhere. All three tend towards the absolutist in their behaviour, unless something happens to break the cycle; the latter two are undoubtedly damaging.

I frequently have several books on the go at the same time, and until recently I’ve suffered pretty heavy pangs of book guilt. The practice, no doubt common, of stacking the un- and partly-read next to the bed doesn’t help. It’s taken a long hard look at myself to be able to say: “you’re not enjoying this book. Move on. Read something else. It’s OK. You’re allowed. You don’t have to finish it.

I don’t think the publishing industry realises how much money it’s losing to book guilt. Guilty readers don’t buy new books. This is a serious issue. It requires evangelism. Customers need to be unstuck.

The stack, the physical object, plays a big part in this paralysis. I don’t think we’ll ever entirely lose our propensity for book guilt, this Protestant reading ethic. But perhaps the ebook may change its effects slightly.

It’s easy to forget you’re supposed to be reading something when it’s buried in a device. This can be bad, but it might also help. I want help assuaging my guilt. Most ereaders allow you to “archive” a book at the touch of a button. Perhaps they should just fade away the longer they remain unopened. I want other, quick options to move on when this one isn’t working. I want helpful pokes to get on with my life, and ebook readers that allow me to forget as well as to remember.

I want to read more books that I actually enjoy. I want everyone to. Let’s start by saying it all together: “I don’t have to finish this book.


  1. Perhaps we could turn the tables and blame the book? The book is really the guilty party. Or, more properly, the author. So we go from book guilt to author resentment.

    I think this re-description might be a good thing as we move on from resentment, a lesser form of anger, more quickly than guilt. It takes more effort.

    But to do this requires some critical confidence. If everyone has sufficient no-one will feel guilty about not finishing a book.

    Comment by Gareth — September 27, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

  2. I certainly do share this guilt, although it never occurred to me that i should not buy another book while i still have another one unfinished. but i understand where it is coming from.

    If you’r like me, you simply need to go to a bookstore once in a while & browse the books and if something catches your eye, it’s really unlikely to leave there empty handed, & just because your have unread books back in your shelfs.

    Comment by Hormoz — September 27, 2010 @ 5:42 pm

  3. I try to avoid stacks in general since I always have multiple realities to venture to at any given time and it tends to get messy. I stack books, articles, video games (I tend to start too many of these before I finish some of the earlier ones) or even tabs in my browser (to be read later, of course). The only solution is discipline, I think and it works for me to some extent although in this cursed age of plentiful, uber-cheap cultural works it is more and more complicated.

    Comment by The Rust Belt — September 27, 2010 @ 6:25 pm

  4. i have had the fortune of never suffering from book guilt. i went from always reading entire volumes to not feeling any remorse in setting something aside. i love piles of books stacking and re-organizing themselves next to my bed. i love buying books in the airport and holding them in my lap on the plane. i love books for both their content and their physical presence.
    your entry reminds me of listening to the story of jumanji as a child, my mother would read us from the chris van allsburg, beautifully illustrated, hardcover, relating the moral and consequences of the unfinished, of abandon. i recall the relief in the final roll of the dice and completion of the game after pages of anxiety.
    thank you for the post and for conjuring this memory.

    Comment by chelsea — September 30, 2010 @ 2:41 pm

Comments are closed. Feel free to email if you have something to say, or leave a trackback from your own site.