Proudly DNF

The last three books I’ve started to read have been DNFs—Did Not Finish. I don’t need to tell you what they were: other people liked them just fine, and I prefer to talk about books that I love instead of those that didn’t catch me. But I can tell you why they didn’t catch me: I didn’t want to spend time with the characters. There was nobody there who was both intelligent and good-natured. If I went to a party where there was nobody intelligent and good-natured, I’d go home from that, too.

It used to be that I would have kept those books. I would have either bulled my way through them, determined to cross some irrelevant finish line, or I would have left them on my nightstand with a bookmark in them, nagging at me to fulfill my responsibility and gathering dust. Now, I don’t feel bad for even a minute; I set them into a pile for a friend who runs a used bookstore and would be happy to sell a nearly-new copy of some otherwise well-regarded book. Maybe I’ll get a couple of bucks from her if they sell, and maybe those books will land with a reader who appreciates them in a way that I couldn’t.

Back when I was a runner, a DNF was a sign of defeat or disaster. I dropped out of my first marathon at mile 23, from hypothermia on a gray and drizzly Northern California March day. But for more elite runners, a DNF can be a strategic decision. If you’re having a bad day, there’s no reason to finish 26 miles just as a poorly-framed training run. Let it go, plan for your next race, and don’t hurt yourself. I later finished two other marathons, under better conditions.

I think of DNF’s with books the same way. I don’t need to prove to myself or anyone else that I have the gumption to finish a whole book: I’ve done that thousands and thousands of times already. I’m an elite reader, I don’t need to finish a bad novel just for the training. I can drop it and get myself ready for the next one.

A couple of days ago, a friend asked Nora and I for recommendations for novels she should read during this moment of isolation. And the ones on that list were the happy ones, the ones where finishing them was never in doubt. Allow me to introduce you to some of my friends:

  • The Fortunes: Peter Ho Davies
  • The Queen’s Gambit: Walter Tevis
  • Miyami and the Sea of Happiness: Jennifer Tseng
  • A Pocketful of Names: Joe Coomer
  • Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows: Balli Kaur Jaswal
  • Dancer: Colum McCann
  • The Calligrapher’s Daughter: Eugenia Kim
  • The Kiss Quotient: Helen Hoang
  • Fingersmith: Sarah Waters
  • Our Souls at Night: Kenth Haruf
  • Play It As It Lays: Joan Didion

I hope they’ll bring you as much joy as they did me. But if not… DNF them and go on to another. Read what you want.

Some years ago, the writer Daniel Pennac devised what he called the Reader’s Bill of Rights. The right to not read… to skip pages… to not finish… to reread… to read anything… to escapism… to read anywhere… to browse… to read out loud… and to not defend your tastes. These are not the rules that Sister Edna Marie would have led us to respect, but she’d have marked me down for the DNF’s, too. I’ve gotten over it.

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