Like a lot of great ideas, Nancy Pearl‘s “Rule of 50” arrived in a flash. The librarian and best-selling author was fielding questions on a public radio show when a woman called in and explained she wasn’t enjoying the book she was reading but felt guilty about abandoning it.
“And then it just came to me,” Pearl says over the phone from her home in the Pacific Northwest. “I said, give the book 50 pages and if, at the bottom of page 50, all you care about is who the murderer is or who marries whom, turn to the last page, and then stop reading.”
The directive earned an addendum years later when Pearl realized that the older she got, the more precious time became. So, readers over 50 can instead subtract their age from 100 to determine the number of pages they must endure. “The great thing about that,” Pearl says with a laugh, “is that when you turn 100, you can legitimately judge a book by its cover.”
Pearl, who included the Rule of 50 in her 2003 guide “Book Lust,” didn’t realize what she was setting in motion. Some readers take the protocol very seriously – “they act like it was Moses and the Ten Commandments,” she says – and the reach of the rule no doubt multiplied when it was selected as part of Starbucks’s quote-on-a-cup campaign.
But not everyone follows the rule, including Pearl herself. “Whenever I get bored or annoyed by an authorial tick, I immediately stop,” she admits. And there are plenty of people who believe that bailing on a book is a crime against literature.
In short, there are many ways to finish – or not finish – a book. That was the upshot when we asked readers of the Washington Post Book Club newsletter about their own habits. Many of the more than 600 respondents told us that life is too short to spend on a lackluster book – and many of those people referenced “Nancy’s rule.” But there’s also a forceful minority who bail on books less as they age, if they ever did in the first place. Here are some of the lessons we learned from our readers.
The decision to abandon a book is reversible
According to Pearl, “at a minimum, 80% of why we like or don’t like a book depends on our mood.” She should know. She tried to read George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” twice, only to set it aside. But on the third attempt, the pages she had once dismissed had a completely different impact on her: She started the book during a flight to a workshop, and by the time the plane landed, she wanted to skip the workshop so she could finish the book.
Our own readers had similar tales. Eileen McGorry, of Olympia, recently read “Let the Great World Spin,” by Colum McCann, a book she had tried and failed to read three times before. “I picked it up once again after one more recommendation from a friend and consumed it in three days,” she writes. “This example and others like it prove to me that I have probably never put down a book for good.”
When you know, you know
Some people can discern within a sentence or two whether a book is going to be a keeper. “I once read that an author had better hook the reader in the first three lines, and that’s what I adhere to,” writes Robyn Russell, of Fairbanks, Alaska. “Ten pages tops is what I give them.” When Rebecca Summerlot, of Windermere, Florida, was young, her mother encouraged her to give a book 20 pages. “Now? I can bail out, without remorse, at any point,” she writes. “I’ve quit a book mid-sentence when it’s not working for me.”
When you know, sometimes you don’t really know
And yet, have you ever felt your attention waning, only to unexpectedly find that the story has gotten its hooks in you? That’s what happened to Bruce Orem, of New York. He usually gives books about 25 pages, but it’s not a hard and fast rule, which is sometimes a good thing. “I believe I gave Hernan Diaz’s ‘Trust’ just five extra pages and then BAM! I read it two times in a row,” he writes. Margaret Pereira, of Pleasanton, California, usually gives books one chapter unless she’s been warned that a great book has a slow start. “’The Shipping News,’ by Annie Proulx, was a book I detested until I finished with such a sense of awe for the writer and her mastery at character transformation,” she writes.
The pandemic changed reading habits for some
A number of respondents mentioned that they’re more likely to abandon a book since 2020, which isn’t entirely surprising. As Peggy Rose, of Sebastopol, Calif., writes, “The pandemic gave me permission to really care about what I really care about.” Likewise, Anton Prosser, of St. Paul, Minn., never bailed on books until the pandemic. And not a moment too soon: “Listen, I might be the only queer person on earth who DESPISES ‘A Little Life,’” he writes of Hanya Yanagihara’s novel. “It made me so miserable that it triggered a mental health event. I had given it almost 300 pages because that book is so lauded, but I hated it. I read the last few pages, the summary on Wikipedia and then put it away. (Turns out I didn’t even read the worst parts!) Any book that sends me into a disassociated spiral is not something I should be reading.”
Reading samples can help cut down on abandonment
Some readers swear that the trick to picking a winning book is conducting tryouts. Bernie Anne Mossotti of Wildwood, Missouri, likes to read a few pages while she’s in a bookstore to get a feel for the story before making a purchase. Others take advantage of the free samples they can get on their Kindles. “Starting with a sample means I have to actually perform an action to get the rest of the book,” writes Rhonda Chase of Pleasanton, California. “When I finish my sample, the cost and effort either feels worth it or it doesn’t.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post.)
You’re not imagining it: It’s easier than ever to bail
The evolution of Whit Andrews’s book procurement says it all: “When you’re in the back of a Dodge Dart and the nearest library for which you have a card is an hour away, you can tolerate a bad book a lot more than when you’re holding a piece of silicon/e-ink and a decent book is less than $5 away.” There’s so much competing for our attention these days – including so many other books. A number of readers mentioned the easy access to e-books and audiobooks on the Libby app tied to their library card.
If you do bail, there’s no sense in feeling guilty about it
Bookstore owners do it. Librarians do it. Even English teachers do it. “I’ve even bailed on books I was having students read in classrooms if I didn’t feel strongly about the novel and the kids were sufficiently hostile,” writes Cynthia G. Bazinet, a retired English teacher in Nova Scotia. “Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do – for everyone’s sanity.”