Hit Pause by Donalyn Miller

Shifting books around, I realized that I have started five books, but not finished them. No, I won’t tell you their titles. These books sit on my nightstand–with bookmarks sticking out of them—reminders of interrupted stories. I feel guilty about not finishing them. Daniel Pennac gave us the “right to not finish a book,” but a lot of readers feel guilty about setting books aside.

My friend, Jillian Heise, calls these unfinished (but not abandoned) books “pause books.” Books readers won’t abandon, but won’t finish. I imagine most of us have hit pause on a book. It’s such a common occurrence, that scientists have developed an index for identifying the most common unfinished books.

What causes readers to set aside a book for now, but not forever?

  • The book is too long. Reading a book takes commitment, and some books are more demanding than others. Occasionally, a book is so long that you get bogged down in it, or you switch to a faster-paced book for a while.
  • You have to, want to, need to read something else first. Your book club/book study meeting is next week and you haven’t started this month’s selection. You have a paper due, and all you can read is research. You borrowed a book from a friend and you need to return it. A book you’ve been eager to read just arrived in the mail, and you want to read it now. You prioritize what you read, and sometimes other reading moves ahead of your current book.
  • You’re worried that the book is about to get too scary or too sad. You can feel it—the tension that authors build—foreshadowing something terrible is about to happen. You know the dog is about to die. You know the killer is going to catch them. Your heart can’t take it, not today.
  • You love the book so much that you don’t want it to end (or the series). You’re attached to the characters. The writing delights you or resonates with you. You’re not ready to say goodbye. It can be emotionally heart wrenching when a book or series you love comes to an end. Savoring and prolonging books feels delicious. Go ahead.
  • The book already answered your questions about this topic. Picking up a book for research, self-help, or personal education, you’ve found the information you wanted. You don’t have to read every book cover-to-cover. Don’t finish a book for the sake of finishing it.
  • The book has not lived up to its promise (so far). Everyone is talking about this book. It received a starred review. It won an award. The author was on Stephen Colbert. All of your trusted friends think it’s amazing. Your FOMO (fear of missing out) won’t allow you to abandon the book, but you’re not feeling it.
  • You wanted a different book. You wanted vanilla and you got chocolate. You wanted more romance. You wanted less romance. You wanted historical fiction instead of science fiction. You’re just not in the mood for what this book has to offer, but that could change tomorrow.
  • You’re not reading anything. You have a deadline. You have to work late every night this week. You’re sick and you’d rather watch TV. You should be writing instead of reading. Your family needs you more this week. The book you started will still be there when you circle back to it.


What causes you to hit pause on a book? When is it OK to stop reading a book for now, but not forever? When is a book worth finishing? When should we just abandon a book?

I wonder what kids would say. I imagine their answers would reveal a lot about their reading attitudes, experiences and interests, too. Many kids think that if they don’t finish a book, they’re bad readers. Making our reading lives transparent—including our reasons for not finishing books—would relieve a lot of reading guilt.

I invite you to share your comments on pause books. I look forward to the conversation.


Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy co-founder, Colby Sharp), and facilitates the Twitter reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.