For a long time, I did a lot of guilt over books that I didn't finish. I think this reaction came from the way books are presented at school, where it is a mortal sin to leave books unfinished, no matter how much you dislike them. You get bad marks for that kind of thing.
As a result, leaving books unfinished left a stale taste in my mouth, one that drove me to such guilt that, yes, I often balked at reading for fear I would be stuck with a book I didn't like, but HAD to finish. It was a little like never loving for fear of heartbreak.
After starting my MFA, I think my feelings have shifted quite a lot. First, let me say that I have read more books that I've disliked or even hated, in the last two years than at any other point in my life. But I've also been exposed to some new favorites I never would have known to try otherwise. When you're studying literature, for every Howard's End there will also be a The Chocolate War assigned to you. (Yes, I hated one of those books) That's just the subjective nature of reading.
Obviously, I had to finish the books I loathed, but all the same, I've found my perspective shifting around the topic of leaving other books unfinished. During the summers, I am much more likely to get a few chapters into a novel and then ditch it. Permanently. I do this for a few reasons, upon which I shall expound.
1) I will read enough books I don't like during the school year to more than likely make my quota.
This might sound snarky, but I mean it truthfully. There IS a lot of use to occasionally reading books I don't like. From those books, I learn what I don't want to do in my own writing. They force me to work the part of my brain that wants to "fix" plot problems, pacing or word choice. That's a useful muscle for me to use. Also, these books will usually still have some strong elements, and those can be worth learning from. All the same, I think I learn more from reading books that I DO connect with - the ones I want to emulate. The bulk of my time should go into reading those. Even in the summer, time is limited, so I don't waste it on filling the "bad book quota."
2) If I'm not occasionally tossing aside a book I don't like, it means I'm not reading widely enough.
As a child, I went through phases where all I ever read was Brian Jacques's Redwall series or Rowling's Harry Potter. I knew I would like these books and I wasn't wrong. In general, I can usually bet that if a book is a Young Adult or Middle Grade Fantasy or stars animals, I will probably like it. Sure there are exceptions, but these are safe choices.
But reading shouldn't always be safe. It should challenge us emotionally and intellectually and often that is best done with books outside our comfort zones. Last summer I made an effort to read more YA contemporary, not really my area or my "thing." One book I hurled across the room at chapter 5, but another was John Corey Whaley's Where Things Come Back and that made me sob happy tears. It stretched me as a reader and as a writer. Reading deeply and widely is an important part of developing a voice. But outside my usual genres, I know I'll also find more things I don't click with. There's a reason that I love animal and fantasy books and a reason why I write them. Some books will be good enough to transcend those barriers of personal preference. Others will be returned to the library early amid rants of disappointment.
3) Just as you can learn a lot from a bad book, you can learn a lot from an unfinished book.
Last year, I read one book that wasn't bad or outside my genre and it... lost me. The pacing dragged and I just couldn't be bothered with finishing it. That was when the importance of editing for length in an adventure story REALLY hit me. At over 120,000 words, this book had too much bogging down the story. I had a hard time imagining it ever picking up to a satisfactory clip and so eventually I returned it to the library. As a long winded author, it was a hard lesson to learn. Other books I've put down because their openings were confusing or contrived or uninteresting. Others lost me with an uneven middle or bothersome content choices. All valuable lessons.
But the number one reason I don't finish books is...
4) The library thought they owned the thing or something.
Seriously, guys. My library does this ALL THE TIME. They let me take away a book but then they seem to think they still own it or something and start sending emails asking for it back. But in all seriousness, this is an interesting category. Sometimes these books are the ones that show the difference between a 4 or a 5 star book in my rankings. No matter how little time I have, I will always finish a 5 star, even if that means facing late fees. A 4? Well, I may check it out again. I may not. Generally, it's yet another reminder of how subjective this whole reading business is.
So those are MY reasons for leaving books unfinished. What about the rest of you? Any others?