If I have one hard and fast rule about reading, it’s that a book does not get on my list of books I’ve read if I didn’t read the entire thing. If I read half, it doesn’t go on my list. If I read all but the last few pages, it still doesn’t go on my list. I’ve never done a good job of tracking how many books I don’t finish reading in a year, since they never get on my list. In 2020, I made a deliberate effort to track these. Here are the 17 books that I started reading in 2020, but failed to finish for one reason or another.
- John Quincy Adams’s Diaries. I dipped into this off and on throughout the year, but didn’t finish the whole thing.
- Strange Harvests: The Hidden Histories of Seven Natural Objects by Edward Posnett. My sister recommended this, and I started it early in the year, but felt it wasn’t what I wanted to listen to on the 2-day road-trip we were making on our way home from Florida.
- Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. I first read this back in the fall of 1996 (it is book #30 on my list of books I’ve read since 1996). I decided to re-read it because I remember it being so good. I got halfway through before I gave up. It’s not that it wasn’t as good as I remembered it; it’s more that I am a different person now than I was then.
- John Adams by Page Smith. I picked up this 2-volume biography of Adams for a few bucks at a church book sale. I love reading about Adams, his life and times, and I made it maybe a quarter of the way through the first volume before other things grabbed my attention. (See: The Butterfly Effect of Reading).
- Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf. Steven Levy’s Facebook: The Inside Story came out right at the time I started reading this. I paused to read Levy’s book, promising to get back to this one eventually.
- A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram. I was deep into a Mathematica phase in the spring of 2020. So I started this book–a copy of which I first bought when it first came out–but then, as now, I didn’t get very far into it before giving up.
- An Elementary Introduction to the Wolfram Language by Stephen Wolfram. Programming is a big part of what I do for a living. I never RTFM, but in this case, I made an exception. It turned out that I picked things up quickly enough that I found I didn’t need to finish the book.
- The Summer Game by Roger Angell. I was missing baseball in the spring. I think reading The Summer Game was too painful with baseball on hiatus at the time.
- Our Game: An American Baseball History by Charles C. Alexander. Ditto.
- The Long Sunset by Jack McDevitt. Sometimes, I really want to read a book, but I’m in a nonfiction mood and the book in front of me is fiction, or vice-versa. This was a case of the former.
- Ballpark: Baseball in the American City by Paul Goldberger. See nos. 8 and 9.
- The Journal of Henry David Thoreau: 1837-1861. Like Adams’s diaries, I dipped into this one now and then throughout the year, but never read the whole thing.
- The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon. This is my Charlie Brown football. Gibbon holds it out to me every year, and ever year I take running kick at it, and he pulls it away at the last second. Part of the problem is it is so long, I think of all of the other books I won’t get to read, but that seems like a weak excuse, considering that something like 7 of the books I did finish in 2020 were over a 1,000 pages each.
- Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 1 by Joseph Needham. I have a fascination with lifelong projects–the Durant’s Story of Civilization; Dumas Malone’s Jefferson biography. I managed to get ahold of the first 5 volumes of Needham’s magnum opus in 2020, and I found what I read fascinating, but it was slow reading for me, to ensure full comprehension. I think I got halfway through the first volume before giving up.
- The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien. In October the kids and I did a Lord of the Rings movie marathon. After it was over, I wanted more, so I decided to re-read the books. I read The Fellowship of the Ring, but that seemed to sate me. I got bogged down in The Two Towers and moved on to something else.
- American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham. I enjoy Meacham’s books and this one had been on my list ever since visiting the Hermitage in 2017. I started it, but got distracted by other things. No fault of the book. I plan on coming back to it at some point.
- Chickens, Gin, and a Maine Friendship: The Correspondence of E.B. White and Edmund Ware Smith. I started reading this while on vacation in a remote part of Maine in November. I hadn’t finished by the time our vacation was over, and it felt weird reading this book and not being in Maine, so I never finished it.
In every case, the failure to finish was no fault of the author or the book, but of my rapidly changing attention when I read (seriously, see the Butterfly Effect of Reading), or because the book was too painful to finish given the circumstances (like the baseball books). I wish I could say I’ll do better in the future, but that would be a lie. I’d guess that I fail to finish between 15-20 books a year on average. Some I have eventually come back to and finished. Others, well, I’ll get to them eventually.