Why Don't People Finish Books?
Thoughts on Paul Bloom's article.
In a recent article, author Howard Bloom writes about how few actually finish the books they read:
The article is worth reading in full, but I wanted to add my own thoughts here:
First, everything Bloom says about why this is bad is correct. You should finish reading books (especially mine - the last chapter of Children’s Justice is the best).
There are ideas and arguments that can only be conveyed in the long form of books where one idea builds on the other. They have to be read in full and in order. Skimming, skipping around, or not finishing them leaves the reader with the comprehension level they would have if they watched a movie out of order.
However, I think the reason that people treat books this way and not films has to do in part with the expectations the publishing industry has created.
Why Most Books Aren’t Finished
1. Most Books Are Predictable
I used to play a game with friends where we’d watch the first 15 minutes of a trash movie, try to predict what would happen, and then skip to the last 15 minutes.
If the movie was bad, you could predict everything that would happen from the first 15 minutes. The guy you thought would betray them turned out to be evil, the “normal” house they’re visiting to turns out to be haunted, the skeptic character learns to have faith and trust people, etc. Yawn. Predictable.
(To be clear, we’d never do this with a good movie, and when the last few minutes revealed the movie was not predictable, we’d usually go back and watch the whole thing. This process was reserved for the lowest-budget nonsense.)
Many non-fiction books follow the same pattern, where you can often predict everything the author will say from the first chapters. If the reader feels they already know what the author will say, why finish?
But why are books so predictable? Well…
2. Publishers Want “One Long Slow Idea” Books
Most books are “one long slow idea books.”
They have one idea. They explain that idea over 300 pages.
If you’re smart, you can extrapolate the entire “long slow idea” from the title. I don’t need to read Atomic Habits to know that small habits compound over time. I can just read the title. If I want to know which habits stick, I can read the table of contents which has four “laws” for picking good habits. Does this idea really require five hours of audible listening to understand?
“One long slow idea books” are the result of the incentives of the publishing industry. A big idea can be put on the cover. A million twists and turns cannot. The publishing industry is not in the business of writing great books, but selling books. Many books aren’t even written to be read, but as a “calling card” for the author. Does anyone really are about the writing quality of a politician’s memoir or business book?
Many-idea or compounding idea books are harder to sell. If the ideas of Chapter 5 require you to read Chapters 1-4 to understand, then the publishers can’t sell those amazing ideas. It’s easier to sell a book where all of the ideas can be put on the cover and immediately understood. But those books suck.
3. Bad Books Condition Readers
Because the publishing industry puts out so many predictable “one long slow idea books,” readers are conditioned to bring the expectations of these books to all books, the same way film audiences have been conditioned to have certain expectations about movies by modern blockbusters.
In the same the average Disney viewer is confused by an art film if they bring their blockbuster expectations, a person who reads only “one long slow idea” books is confused when confronted with a great book that moves from idea to idea.
You can tell these readers when they ask you to summarize the “main points” of a book. A great book cannot be reduced to “key ideas” and the best ideas require you to read the entire book to understand. These expectations mean readers miss out on books worth finishing.
How Authors Can Respond
If you’re an author, should you respond to this?
Here is what I did:
Make your pitch clear and concise. Summarizing the entire story of Game of Thrones is impossible, but the idea that frames it (people fight over the throne) is conveyed by the title. Likewise, my book Children’s Justice has a title that is the pitch. Make your pitch as clear as a “one long slow idea” book even if what is inside is more complex.
Front-load key ideas. If you know most readers don’t finish, put your must-read ideas in the front. With Children’s Justice, I made sure the first three chapters set up the main argument. (The last chapter is still best though.)
Keep up the pace. With Children’s Justice, I aimed for 3,000-word chapters, with each chapter having at least each section three sections running 1,000 words each, which is about the length of a substack article and a five-minute read. Even though the book is 100,000 words long, if each section only takes five minutes and each chapter only fifteen the book will be “page-turner.”
Don’t care. Some ideas simply require you to read the whole book. I’ve had people get mad about what the book doesn’t say because they read an out-of-context quote from a later chapter they didn’t understand. If this is you, I judge you and think less of you. To understand books, you must read them. Sorry, that’s how books work.
How Readers Can Respond
Here is what I’m doing as a reader with this knowledge:
Buy less, commit more.
I realized recently the majority of the books I’ve bought are due to liking the idea rather than the book. So I got rid of most of my library. Every book that I wouldn’t read in the next six months or re-visit in the next five years I donated.
This is heretical to many. It felt great. Now the only books around are those I intend to read or love so much I’d read again. Saying yes to one book means saying no to all the others. Though I’m buying fewer books, the ones I get, I read.
P.S. If you liked this article, read my books. The last chapter is the always best.