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how to read to learn

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Ever since I read How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, I’ve stopped trying to absorb everything I read. I often

ditch a book

how to ditch books

(Originally posted on

#essays #books #reading #time-management #decision-making #psychology Mentioned in how to read to learn, how to read slowly, how to narrate transparently, what I'm doing now

Starting a new book is exciting. It’s like putting on a brand new pair of shoes on a sunny morning, with no puddles in sight. Sadly, the novelty wears off. Then, there’s that uncomfortable feeling at the prospect of leaving the book unfinished. The same book that starts as an exciting little activity becomes a nagging reminder that you failed to reach a goal.

Nobody likes starting a book and failing to finish it. So much so, I suspect, that it discourages us from starting a new one, in fear of not reaching the end. After all, who signs up for a marathon that they don’t expect to finish? Even if you ran an impressive 20 miles, you wouldn’t get the exhilaration of crossing the finish line and the satisfaction of officially achieving a commendable, well-defined goal that other people recognize and admire.

But is reading a book really about reading every single page that someone put between two covers? On principle, I think people would agree reading is about getting exposed to ideas that inform and influence the way we think. Surely, then, we can be done with a book regardless of whether we read it from beginning to end. And if we’ve “finished” the book in this way, shouldn’t we walk away satisfied and guilt-free?

Break Your New Year’s Resolution

Setting a goal number of books to read can foster the habit of reading regularly, a habit we all admire and covet. However, it’s easy to get carried away with trying to make measurable progress at the expense of approaching your actual goal. If you get fixated on officially finishing a book, you might be forgetting why you wanted to read it in the first place. By ditching a book when you feel you’ve had enough of it, you’re staying true to the real reason you set that goal of reading some special number of books by Christmas time.

In Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann, the authors tell a true story about a government that offered civilians bounty for killing rats in an effort to mitigate the local rat infestation. Specifically, they offered people money for each rat tail they brought in. They figured they could reliably track progress on the pest problem without having to handle the corpses. The plan backfired completely. Crafty entrepreneurs realized that they could capture a rat, cut off its tail, and then release it, so that it would live on to reproduce: more rats, more tails, more money. The pest problem worsened significantly.

But why all the gossip about rodents and dishonest bounty hunters? Well, Weinberg and McCann’s point is that metrics can be counterproductive. In the case of reading books, if you worry too much about how many books you’ve read front-to-back, you stray from your objective of learning and growing. Maybe you should change your metric or add a new one: the number of books checked out of the library, or the number of books you read for at least one hour. Anything that helps you make real progress and not counting rat tails.

Avoid the Sunk-Cost Fallacy

Books aren’t perfect. Many of them are good. Many others are just okay. Sometimes, you benefit by leaving a book unfinished and moving on to another instead of persevering through to the end, regardless of how far you’ve made it. In that case, by quitting the book, you’re overriding a psychological flaw and making a more rational choice.

The sunk-cost fallacy, as defined in Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman is:

The decision to invest additional resources in a losing account, when better investments are available.

We fall prey to this error when we stick stubbornly with a book just because of the time we’ve already sunk into it. If this book is no longer doing it for you, move on. There are millions of other books and many of them are better than this one. If you can cut your losses and push through the unpleasantness that comes with doing so, you’ve likely made the optimal choice.

Read Other Books

If you feel guilty about not finishing a book you’re currently reading, you probably won’t start a new book. And so, if the book you’re reading loses your interest, you’ll end up losing steam and maybe reading no book at all. Unless it is important to you to finish this specific book, why not move on and keep your momentum going? By leaving a book unfinished and feeling good about it, you allow yourself to start a new book with excitement instead of guilt.

You’re Not Absorbing Much Anymore

We’ve all finished reading a paragraph only to realize that we didn’t absorb much of the information at all. It can happen when we’re having trouble focusing, but it can also happen when you’ve lost interest. That’s okay. It might be time to move on. Life is long, you can come back to this book in some weeks, months, or even years if it’s a book you think is worth reading eventually. By moving on, you are valuing results above all else.

Sacrifice Depth for Breadth

If you learn to ditch books with confidence, you’ll cover more variety of material. I think this is true not only because you start the next book sooner, but also because you avoid the reading slump you’ll inevitably hit when you’ve committed to a book that you have no interest in reading. By moving on to another book, you’re covering more ground when it isn’t worth staying put and drilling down for more.

It’s Not Worth Your Time

You might benefit a lot from a book early on, but less so in later chapters. Perhaps you’ve effectively satisfied your curiosity, or maybe the book’s value is distributed unevenly across its sections. Regardless, you’re facing diminishing returns and the book might not be worth your time anymore. By ditching the book, you’re reacting intelligently to a waning profit.


If we choose to finish a book, let’s make that choice for a good reason, and not because leaving it unfinished feels like failure. Moreover, let’s relish the opportunity to make the smart, if counterintuitive, choice of bailing on a book when it isn’t worth the time. If we overcome the mental hurdles that stop us from ditching a book even when we are justified, we’ll be free to read more widely and engage more deeply.

without finishing it because I know I’m going to forget most of it anyway. I also don’t try to read for hours in a row unless I’m engrossed. At a certain point, it just becomes information binging. Better to chew on a good morsel, digest it, and move on.

I try to read things I can contemplate and experiment with, or things I can apply immediately. I worry less about memorizing facts and instead try to encode the information into my behavior. Pick up a new habit, try a new approach. Months and years from now, I won’t recall exactly what I took from a book, even if I’m still carrying it with me.

We want to absorb knowledge, to etch it into our brains. We want a clear idea of what we’re gaining because we’re afraid it’s nothing. But there are good places to store knowledge outside the immediate reach of your conscious self. Feed the ideas directly into your work now. Why have knowledge unless you’re using it? If this knowledge lasts only for the period of its application, does that matter? Do you need it if you’re not going to apply it? What’s the point in building your potential if you’re never going to convert it into action?