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Essay

Nancy Pearl's Rule of 50 for dropping a bad book Add to ...

I was raised in a family in which the dictum "Finish what you start" was the 11th commandment. This stricture was applied in almost every conceivable situation, whether it was eating my father's lovingly (I'm sure) prepared soft-boiled eggs for breakfast (yuck!, way too runny for me), keeping up my elementary-school clarinet lessons long after the limits of my modest musical talent had been reached, or sticking it out at a college that, while it had been my first choice, had clearly proved to be the wrong one.

So it was only natural that when it came to reading, I simply took it for granted that virtue required that I slog through any book I started, whether it was William Thackeray's Vanity Fair (a hated Grade 10 reading assignment) or Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (I loved the beginning, but got bored with all the woo-woo philosophy about two-thirds of the way through).

Mine was also a family of readers, with a house full of books, and my childhood library was virtually a second home to me, so I certainly didn't lack for choices in my early reading life. But to my way of thinking back then, I had to finish the book I was reading, even if I already knew that I didn't especially like it, before I could start another one, one that I might love.

It wasn't until I became an adult, and a librarian, that I began to question my commitment to finishing each and every book that I began. Now that I really was living a major portion of my life in the library, I literally found myself surrounded by books, tempting me, calling to me from the shelves. How could I - in one lifetime - ever get through everything I wanted to read if I had to finish those books that I discovered to be (at least to me) boring, badly written or just plain bad?





It dawned on me that maybe, just maybe, I didn't have to finish every book I started. Gradually my attitude changed, but not without a struggle. I felt bad for the authors whose books I gave up on. Didn't they deserve a full chance to entice me into the world they'd created? I could hear their voices in my head, like the voice of my conscience, saying, "Wait, wait, it gets better! You haven't gotten to the good part yet." Oh the guilt, the guilt!

But, little by little, I finally became comfortable with not finishing books that I wasn't enjoying. And then, during the weekly radio show I was doing at the time on KUOW-FM, Seattle's local National Public Radio, my Rule of 50 finally came into focus. We were taking call-ins, as we often did, and I was trying to explain to a caller why I thought it was a mistake to keep reading a book that you've stopped enjoying. The woman on the other end of the line said, "But how many pages should I read before I can guiltlessly stop reading a book?"

On the spur of the moment, with no particular psychological or literary theory in mind to justify it, I developed my Rule of 50:

Give a book 50 pages. When you get to the bottom of Page 50, ask yourself if you're really liking the book. If you are, of course, then great, keep on reading. But if you're not, then put it down and look for another. (Always keep in mind that there's nothing to stop you from going back to it later, whether that might be in six days or six years. Or 60 years. There is many a book that I couldn't get into the first time, or even two, that I tried to read it, and then, giving it one more chance, totally fell under its spell. The book obviously hadn't changed - but I had.)

And if, at the bottom of Page 50, all you're really interested in is who marries whom, or who the murderer is, then turn to the last page and find out. If it's not on the last page, turn to the penultimate page, or the antepenultimate page, or however far back you have to go to discover what you want to know. And rest assured that, despite the sophistication of computerized checkout and check-in technology at the modern library, there's no way that anyone there will be able to tell (even if they were interested) whether you've really read every page of the book you just returned.

This rule of 50 worked exceedingly well until I entered my own 50s. As I wended my way toward 60, and beyond, I could no longer avoid the realization that, while the reading time remaining in my life was growing shorter, the world of books that I wanted to read was, if anything, growing larger. In a flash of, if I do say so myself, brilliance, I realized that my Rule of 50 was incomplete. It needed an addendum. And here it is: When you are 51 years of age or older, subtract your age from 100, and the resulting number (which, of course, gets smaller every year) is the number of pages you should read before you can guiltlessly give up on a book. As the saying goes, "Age has its privileges."

And the ultimate privilege of age, of course, is that when you turn 100, you are authorized (by the Rule of 50) to judge a book by its cover.

Nancy Pearl is a librarian, critic, radio commentator and author of Book Lust. She is also the only librarian with her own action figure.

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