When is the right time to give up on a book?

Author Ted Dawe reading his banned book Into the River.

Author Ted Dawe reading his banned book Into the River.


If you have read The Luminaries then you will know that it's a substantial book. Indeed, one of the reviewers on Radio New Zealand National joked that it's a book that "gets better after page 400".

Regardless of what this says about the merits of The Luminaries, it raises an interesting general question about when it is okay to abandon a book you have started reading. After all, if you give up too soon then you might miss an amazing plot twist that transforms your experience. But if you plough on regardless, you'll lose those precious hours you could have used doing (or reading) something better.

Clearly this is not a recent problem. Mark Twain once famously said that a "classic" book is one that "everybody wants to have read but nobody wants to read". A quick search of the internet demonstrates that little has changed since Twain's day, with any number of sites listing books that people pretend they have read. Amazon will even sell you a book to help with the pretence (Anne Taute's Bluff Your Way in Literature).

You probably won't be surprised to hear that social scientists have something to say about our reading behaviour, but you may be surprised about what that is. In short, the view from the social sciences is that we should all learn to ditch unsatisfying books sooner.

The first part of this argument arises from what is known as "the sunk cost trap". This describes the tendency to stay with an activity simply because of the time (or money) we have already spent on it. It's also known as "throwing good money after bad".

But we all fall for it to a lesser or greater extent because overcoming sunk costs first means accepting that we have made a bad choice. Our reluctance to make this admission explains why people finish movies or meals they aren't enjoying; hold on to investments that are underperforming; and keep clothes in their closet that they've rarely worn.

The second part of the argument focuses on what is known as "loss aversion". This shows that we feel the pain of losing much more acutely than we do the pleasure from winning. The fear of losing may be what motivates the All Blacks to their great heights of performance but it often inhibits the rest of us. This is because when it comes to making a decision, we are always confronted with the possibility that we'll make the wrong one.

Given this possibility, sticking with the status quo can often seem safer. And I don't mean a little bit safer – the evidence from the psychology lab suggests that losses are felt about twice as powerfully as similar gains.

Finally, social scientists point to what is known as "the Zeigarnik Effect". This describes how we remember incomplete tasks much more readily (and vividly) than we do complete ones. This effect has been shown in a number of studies but it began when Zeigarnik's professor noted how a waiter in a local restaurant could recall unpaid orders but not those that had been paid. The subsequent research demonstrated that the things we start and don't finish weight much more heavily on our minds than tasks we finish.

Taken together, "the sunk cost trap", "loss aversion", and "the Zeigarnik Effect" mean we are predisposed to staying with tasks long after we should have given up on them; are intrinsically biased towards the status quo; and much more likely to remember our failures than successes.

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But while the psychologists have much to say about why it's so hard to give up on a book you have started to read, they provide little guidance about when we should stop. For this, we need the no-nonsense wisdom of aviation.

Mark Vanhoenacker is a 747 pilot and the author of Skyfaring. In his book, he notes that on the final approach to an airport there is a point where the pilot in command has to make a "decide call".

To make sure this happens, when the plane reaches the decision-altitude, the light computer says "DECIDE" out loud and unmistakably. Vanhoenacker talks about how this has become a tool that he uses in his own life when he finds himself procrastinating.

I like the idea of readers creating their own "decide" calls for books. This decision point might occur after you have read the first 60 pages, the first three chapters, or after spending one whole morning reading. But an idea I like even better is to deduct your age from 100 and reading that many pages before giving up. After all, the older we get the less time we have to spend on bad books.

And we really do need to know when to walk away and when to run.

Carl Davidson is the head of insight at Research First

 - The Press


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