Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em

WhenThat wisdom obviously applies to never counting yer money when yer sittin’ at the table (thank you for your insight, Kenny Rogers), but also to making the most of the time you have available to read.

After I finally gave up on Owen Meany, I devoted more thought to dropping books.  Maybe my general plan of quitting a book if I don’t feel engaged by page 50 wasn’t detailed enough, since it didn’t kick in for that book club selection.  Once I started framing my reading time as a limited but very valuable tool for living the life I want to lead, it was easier to come up with a framework.

Know why you’re reading.

First, I think it’s valuable to decide what you’re in this for.  Sometimes you want to master a particular subject or skill, like a foreign language or how to garden organically or how to structure a book proposal.  Sometimes you have a more nebulous goal like giving yourself space for an intellectual life or making time for restorative leisure.  For me, reading is all of that (except for the gardening–I’m over that phase!), but in any case it’s not just passing time mindlessly.  That’s what TV and the internet are for.  🙂

Be mindful of your time.

In the last newsletter I wrote about finding pockets of time for reading, so I already know I don’t usually get great swaths of time for books.  But because I love reading I sometimes lose track of what I’m actually doing with the time I do have.  Being mindful means I’m trying to stay more attuned to how what I’m reading fits in to my goals.

Ask yourself some questions.

Depending on your reading goals your questions may vary, but this is part of making your reading time more valuable for YOU.  If a book was a best seller, or won a prize, or is beloved by everyone in your book club, or was given to you by your mother-in-law, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a great fit for you personally.  And that’s ok.  To make the most of my time, I’m trying to make sure that what I read fits me.  Here are a few of my questions:

  • Is this book inspiring me?
  • Is this causing me to think differently or more deeply about an issue, a culture, the way I live my day-to-day life?
  • Is what I’m reading challenging me?
  • Is the language or content or structure exercising my mind?
  • Is this book expanding my understanding?
  • When I read this, am I increasing the truth and beauty in my life?
  • Am I learning anything from this book?
  • Is this book sparking my creativity?

My reading purpose is to make space for beauty, creativity, and the life of the mind in the midst of my responsibilities as a wife, mother, teacher, and professional.  It’s to interact deeply with ideas and be changed by what I read.

This leaves room for lots of different books.  Literary fiction, narrative non-fiction, history, Oreo sci-fi/YA fairy tales…as long as my mind is working and I’m really feeling restored and energized, I’ll keep reading.

But, if I need to cut my losses, that’s all right.  I can walk away from books that aren’t good fits for me.  I’m not letting anyone down if I choose another book that delights or challenges me more.

Hopefully I’ll do better in the future at applying this framework before I start to seriously regret lost time!

What are your criteria for deciding not to finish a book?

3 thoughts on “Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em

  1. My criteria vary, but yesterday I learned that mood is also a factor. I started three books and cast them aside before realizing that my state of mind was not right for a new book. I found some comfort in an old, familiar favorite. Those new books will still be there another day.

  2. I’ve been studying for the last year and because of that I don’t have much time to read “other books”. That made me act similarly to what you are writing about. At times I stopped half way thru a book, just because I knew I could find a better read elsewhere. Thanks for the great post 🙂
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