One year, I kept track of every book I read. That is, I kept track of every book I read to the end — there were a lot of titles that I started and abandoned along the way.
According to that list, I read 92 books. How many did I set down and not pick up again? I have no idea. Maybe another 92? Maybe not that many.
There once was a time when I felt obligated to finish every book I started. Back then it didn't even occur to me to stop reading a book. I'd skim, maybe, but I'd always keep going. It just seemed the right thing to do. I felt a sense of achievement — or maybe relief — when I reached the last page.
It reminds me now of something a friend with a sweet tooth once told me. Someone had given her a cheap box of chocolates, and she said, "They're so awful I have to force myself to finish them."
She meant it as a joke, of course; a joke that only a chocolate lover would understand. (Terrible chocolate is better than no chocolate.) But she had a larger point: If something is supposed to be a pleasure, then it should be a pleasure.
I know the exact moment when I realized I didn't have to finish every book I picked up. I was talking with a friend, and he mentioned sort of casually that he probably had only about 1,000 books left to read in his lifetime.
Wait, what? I said.
"Well," he said, "say you read 50 books a year. Say you live another 20 years. That means you'll read another 1,000 books before you die. I'm not going to waste my time on a book I don't want to read, or a book I've already read."
His words floored me. There's a finite number of books I can read? That number gets smaller every year? And ... I'm going to die?
After that, I briefly put too much pressure on books, jettisoning them left and right. You must be perfect! You must be deserving! I was like Elaine in "Seinfeld" hoarding her contraceptive sponges because no man was sponge-worthy.
But over time, I relaxed.
Now I read what I like, and I freely re-read. But I also abandon books without a qualm.
Sometimes the book just isn't worth it. Sometimes I know it's worthy but it's just not for me. And sometimes it's simply the wrong time — you know what I mean? You can set a book aside and then a month or a year later pick it up and suddenly you adore it, and you wonder why you didn't tear through it the first time.
I have stopped counting how many books I've read, and I've stopped thinking about how many I have left. There's no point in worrying, and there's no point in suffering. Give me the good chocolates, and give me the good books. The rest can go by the wayside.
I am curious what you think. Do you give a book a certain amount of time, or a certain number of pages, before giving up? Do you never give up? How do you decide? Write me at email@example.com and include your full name and city. It will be fun to see how you think.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. Twitter: @StribBooks.