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How to Finish Reading All the Books You Start

I read recently a literary critic who said that Tristram Shandy was one of those books in which no one ever got beyond page 10. Well I can do better than that. I was given Tristram Shandy as a school prize in 1959 and there it is in my bookshelf with a bookmark at p. 58. I think that works out at about six pages a decade.

The trouble is that I have lots of books like that. It's not that I get bored with them or don't like them. I would be perfectly happy to decide to stop reading a book I wasn't finding interesting. It's that I don't finish the books I do want to read. In fact I have bookshelves full of books with bookmarks sticking up half way through them. Even if I do get one of these books out of the bookshelf, I will have to start reading it again from the beginning because it's been so long since I looked at it that I've forgotten what I've already read.

Usually the reason I stop reading a book is because another book arrives on the scene. I start reading the new book in the enthusiasm of a new subject, and the old book gets forgotten about. Of course I never finish the new book either!

Recently I've found a way that avoids all this, and allows me to get all the books I start finished. If you have the same problem (and I know a lot of people do), you might like to try it.

What I do is simplicity itself. I chose five books as my "active" books and put them in a pile. Then I take the top book from the pile and read as much as I want to in one session. At the end of the session, it goes at the bottom of the pile. Then for my next reading session, I take the next book in the pile, read as much as I want to of that, and put it at the bottom of the pile. The two most important rules are:

1) I don't allow myself to read any book that's not in the pile. If a new book arrives it has to wait until one of the others is finished.

2) I don't allow myself to keep a book on top of the pile for more than one session. Once I've put it down, it has to go at the bottom of the pile.

This works like magic because the variety keeps my interest going. To make sure it works as well as possible, here are a couple of things to note:

1) Give yourself a good variety of books, both in subject, size and ease of reading. If you choose five heavy tomes, you will simply get yourself bogged down.

2) You can stop reading where you like, but most people like to aim for the end of a section or chapter. It helps if you read the first couple of sentences of the new section or paragraph before you put the book down. It helps your mind to prepare for the next session with that book.

Maybe I'll even get Tristram Shandy finished someday soon!

Reader Comments (38)

Nice trick, Mark! I'm also a relatively new fan of being thoughtful regarding *how* I read (I wrote about it in " How to read a lot of books in a short time" - )

November 7, 2006 at 14:03 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Cornell
Hi Mark,

Thanks for this interesting article. I have a couple of questions regarding your implementation of this reading system.

You say that you take one book from the 'Active' pile, and read as much as you want to of it in one 'session'.

"Once I put it down, it has to go to the bottom of the pile".

I wonder what you define as 'one session'. If you sip just, say, a minute-and-a-half of the book before being interrupted by the door bell or a long phone conversation (for instance) does that constitute the end of the session? My worry, I suppose, is that I may become frustrated on occasions where I'm only able to catch short, unsatisfying snatches of each book before having to put it away again. Is there a danger of taking a frustratingly-long time to complete each individual book? Or am I taking the 'session' thing far too literally?

Also, I'm interested in how you have found the long term application of your system? Have you been using it long? And do you get narratives mixed-up, or are they fairly easy to separate in your mind? I'm so used to reading one book at a time that I'm a little cautious of trying it this way!

I ask these questions because I am an avid reader myself, yet sometimes get frustrated at my inability to match my reading speed to my book-gluttony (I can speed read a little, but to prefer to use this for newspapers and suchlike, and to savour novels at a reasonably sensible pace).

Your reading system sounds like it could be just the solution for me, but I just wanted a little clarification on the above points.

Many thanks, Mark, for your books (I have read the first two several times, and am about to start 'DIT' for the second time) and the fantastic website and fascinating blogs and articles.


Neil Cumming

November 11, 2006 at 20:07 | Unregistered CommenterNeil Cumming
Dear Neil,

Regarding the length of a session: this is entirely up to you. What I was recommending was that you didn't keep on picking up the same book without giving any of the others their turn.

It's important that you have a good mix of books. That means you get some progressing quickly, while some progress slowly and surely. If you try to read five heavy tomes on "The Molecular Structure of DNA" at the same time, yes, you will a) get bogged down and b) confuse the books together. But if you're reading a detective novel, a classic novel, a popular history, a personal development book and a book on the Molecular Structure of DNA, you won't get bogged down and you won't confuse them together.I should mention that there's nothing sacred about the figure of five books. If you find it works better for you with three or four, that's absolutely fine.
November 14, 2006 at 13:37 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I have some law reading, chapters I can take out of the course manual. I am tempted to incorporate this in the five, to see how it works. Although I do wonder whether I should keep it separate from "fun reading".

December 5, 2006 at 22:04 | Unregistered CommenterWendy
"In fact I have bookshelves full of books with bookmarks sticking up half way through them"

.WOW...been feeling very guilty about spending money on books...I hadn't finished for a variety of reasons.

These tips are awesome and perfect for someone like me.

February 6, 2009 at 15:50 | Unregistered CommenterJack Clark
What a useful idea! And it's interesting that it foreshadows your new Autofocus ( methodology - do a little bit, put it on the bottom of the "list", do a little bit of something else, repeat. :)
February 6, 2009 at 23:18 | Unregistered CommenterAlys

Thanks for bringing this subject back up to the top of the pile.


Thanks for pointing out that this method is very similar to AF. I need to think about that, and see how reading books etc can be best incorporated into AF. At the moment I am just putting each book in as a separate task, but maybe there is a better way using a sub-list. Hmmm....
February 7, 2009 at 12:37 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi . I stumbled upon this post through another blog. That's a cool suggestion. I have the same problem, and currently i'm trying to rid my shelf of those books with bookmarks in them. I haven't figured out how, until i read this entry. That's an interesting suggestion and allows movement in my 'to read (to finish)" list. And I have to agree variety is key. I tried reading two books that were both 'heavy' and I got tired and overwhelmed. I suppose my greatest challenge would be resisting that new book.
I'm sure to try this later.
April 8, 2009 at 2:30 | Unregistered CommenterI

I hope it works for you, but I have to admit I still haven't finished Tristram Shandy!
April 8, 2009 at 15:16 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
dude thats a good trick im only 14 and i've already written a book and have several ideas for new ones, but i usaully have a hard time finnishing books and your write as soon as i pick up a book from the libray or buy one i forget about all the other ones.
P.S. feel free to email me
June 15, 2009 at 5:28 | Unregistered CommenterAllen Rathbun
Just discovered this post from 2006. I'm pondering how the principle of the "active pile" of books can be implemented in the current version of AutoFocus. One obvious way is to simply create a repeating task "Read the top book in the active pile." Another is to create 5 tasks, "Read some of book A", "Read some of book B," etc., and rely on intuition to ensure that each book gets its share of attention in due course.

Another question is the usual dilemma: whether I dare to put reading associated with a current project into the general AF list or instead put it into a separate list, or timeblock it, etc. etc.

And I can see ways of gaming the technique: say, reading a paragraph of the top book in order to get to the more interesting book below.

And then there's the hope that someone will produce fascinating apps for cycling through e-books on the Web in this fashion ...

All the usual AF high jinks.

October 15, 2009 at 8:49 | Unregistered CommenterChris Cooper
Your advice is REALLY helping me! I havent finished a book in over 6 (!) years, mostly because I get bored with the content and time commitment but now that I have a pile with a variety of books I feel so much more interested and motivated. It is almost like a little game that keeps you entertained.

My list currently consists of:

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel (my favorite currently)
On the Origin of Species by Darwin
Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky (close second favorite to Beatrice and Virgil!)

So thank you again for your nice advice!
December 4, 2010 at 12:03 | Unregistered CommenterRanjit
Good luck with the books, Ranjit. I've only read one of those myself - the Dostoevsky.
December 4, 2010 at 12:15 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I currently have a loong row of books, with a divider marking off the first six. Whenever I look for something to read, I focus on those six. I don't read books often or long, so it's taking a loong time to get through those.
December 6, 2010 at 15:25 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
I was just trying to devise a system and came across your article. I read alot of nonfiction but I find myself jumping from book to book. Some I finish. Most I dont Non fiction books dont always have to be finished. Some I like to scan for the most relevant info and not read any more of it. This I would not in the pile of five books to finish but in the browse or scanning pile of which I would probably add five. So now i have two piles- the "to finish" and the "to scan".
I hope I can combine both effectivly to get the most out of the readings. Wish me luck:)
January 2, 2011 at 15:40 | Unregistered CommenterPat
Just wanted to say I love this system! I stumbled on your post a while back, and have been trying this out recently. It works especially well with my Kindle, since I don't have to carry a bunch of books around. I have the exact problem you described in your post (trouble limiting myself to one book because I get so excited about new books/new subjects), and this really solves the problem. Thanks!
January 17, 2011 at 21:57 | Unregistered CommenterKristin
Thanks for your comment, Kristin. Yes, Kindle does really make a difference to one's reading habits!
January 17, 2011 at 22:11 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Thank you so much for this wonderful blog! I am off to delete 168 out of the 173 books I have on my Kindle and diligently (finally!) go through them, FINISHING each one!

Many blessings.
February 10, 2011 at 10:11 | Unregistered CommenterVictoria

The great thing about Kindle is that you can archive the 168 books to your computer without losing them, and then top up the remaining 5 as you finish reading them.
February 10, 2011 at 12:20 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I've been using this approach for three months now, and it's working well. I'm getting a clear sense of progress as I read through books that I plan to read. It's also good for mixing in work books with other stuff (so I can read a work book at home without getting too stressed).

My main aim is not to "make sure I read everything", but rather to make conscious decisions about what I'm _not_ going to read. I dropped two books from the stack just this week (mostly because I didn't trust the authors). The big advantage of the stack is that, once I start reading something, I either (a) finish it or (b) decide I'm never going to read it. It's nice to have that clarity.

Getting the right mix is definitely important - before I dropped those two, I had a stack of fairly unappealing books.

A few of other things:

* I'm keeping a definite "supply" of "will probably read" physically separated from the other books on my shelves. When a slot opens up in the stack, I know to choose one from there.

* For my eBook reader - I put physical placeholders in the stack.

* I've had good results mixing papers and articles into the stack too. I might read them in full the first time they come up, but it makes sure I do read them (or decide not to).
April 22, 2011 at 13:42 | Unregistered CommenterRob Alexander
There seem to be some parallels between this method and SuperFocus.

The "Five Books" seems like "Column 2" = the books you've committed to read or delete.

The "Waiting List" or "Will Probably Read" seems like "Column 1" = the books waiting to be promoted to the "active" list in Column 2.

There are obvious differences also -- in SuperFocus you basically need to activate a new Column 1 task every time you cycle through the Column 2 tasks, otherwise you dismiss that page of Column 1 tasks. Whereas in "BookFocus" you keep cycling through the active books and don't add any new ones till a book is completed or deleted, thus opening a slot for a new active book.

Actually that sounds a lot like "3T" or "3T + AF4" ( see and )

I suppose the common element between all these systems is a "high gear" list and a "low gear" list. The difference is simply the set of rules that govern the interaction between the two lists.
April 26, 2011 at 5:08 | Registered CommenterSeraphim
Mark - How do you currently work the relationship between this 5-books method, and SuperFocus?

I've tried a few different approaches but am not yet satisfied.

After reading this blog post, I'm thinking maybe I should keep two shelves of printed reading material -- one for the ~5 "active" items, and another for the "waiting" items. New material would be placed at the rightmost end of the "waiting" shelf. If the waiting shelf fills up, then I'd dismiss/discard several items from the leftmost end of the shelf. "Active" material would be treated in a similar manner: least recently touched goes at the leftmost end of the active shelf. Most recently touched goes at the rightmost end of the active area.

Then I'd simply have a recurring Column 1 task, "Reading". I'd take the leftmost item from the "Active" shelf, read as much as I want, then put it back on the rightmost end of the "Active" shelf. If I still want to read, I'd take the next item from the "Active" shelf, read as much as I want, then put it back on the rightmost end of the "Active" shelf. If I finish an item, I'd put it away downstairs, or toss it or file it, and then replenish the Active shelf from something taken from the "Waiting" shelf.

Do you do something like this, Mark? Do you use SF to "drive" your reading time? Do you sometimes give a book "special treatment" by putting the book title directly on your SF list (as you did with War and Peace)?
April 26, 2011 at 5:28 | Registered CommenterSeraphim

I just have a task called "Reading". I don't use a waiting list.
April 26, 2011 at 8:51 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I keep a short stack of books on the bookshelf. And I have a task called "Reading"
April 26, 2011 at 14:17 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu
Thanks for a very interesting post.
I also had the habit of reading lots of books at once and never finishing any of them, so I developed the following method to keep myself in line.
I always have one designated book which is my main read. I set myself a simple goal -- I must read at least 5 pages of that book every day. Provided I do that, I can read anything else I want during the day.
Those 5 pages very often turn to 10 or 20 pages or more -- but as long I reach the 5 page quota it's fine. It doesn't matter when I read those 5 pages -- it can be in the morning or the evening, before my other reading or after it, whatever I feel like doing that particular day.
I've found this method very helpful -- but perhaps I'll try Mark's method as well.
April 27, 2011 at 17:20 | Registered CommenterSTEVE
Steve - I like your rule.
April 28, 2011 at 5:11 | Registered Commenteravrum
The irony is that procrastination, drift & digression all loom large in Tristram Shandy. Over a hundred pages in & only a few minutes of time have passed in the main narrative & our hero hasn't even been born yet!

It's well worth sticking with the novel, though, as it contains some of the greatest gags in all literature, e.g. the moment when the narrator worries that the reader might guess the end of the narrative from the next page & promises that if so, he'll tear the page from the manuscript. Next page: totally blank.

An eccentric & meandering tale to be sure, & not for everyone, but genius nonetheless. A straight line may be the shortest point between two points, but it is seldom the most interesting.

"So much of motion, is so much of life, and so much of joy—and ... to stand still, or get on but slowly, is death and the devil." TS
April 29, 2011 at 10:34 | Registered CommenterJames Precious

Glad to hear someone has read the book - maybe I'll try again with an electronic version.
April 29, 2011 at 14:04 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
This works for knitting and crochet projects as well. Any devotees will understand the pile of unfinished objects and the temptations to cast on new items.
May 5, 2011 at 12:23 | Unregistered CommenterAnne
Anne: Agreed!
May 5, 2011 at 13:21 | Registered CommenterCricket
Thank yooooou! I still have yet to get thru the Divine Comedy!!!! LMAO
To the pile it goes 😁
And meh...e-readers are neat & all, but I like good ol' fashioned hardcovers & paperbacks! (even at the ripe age of 23!! Lol)
March 3, 2016 at 17:20 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew J.S.
I have been wrestling with the question of how to read all the books I want to read, along with all the New books that come my way in a never ending stream. And then I read this great post! What an ingenious solution! I've already selected my five books, putting aside the dozen or more I have been trying to read all at the same time. Does this way of reading books -- or the one book at a time method -- allow for "dippping?" I am constantly dipping into all sorts of books, books that I don't want to read in their entirety, but only dip into for a few pages. Or is it just the five, or the one, and no more, period? Thanks.
March 4, 2016 at 0:00 | Unregistered CommenterTom
Great post, and found just in time! I just completed building a wall bookshelf for my wife and my 36 linear feet of books (less than I thought, but still a very interesting exercise to see all your books in one place). They have been in boxes for 11 months following a move, and it's glorious to see them out in the open again. But now, how to begin..? This post (and the subsequent comments) are just what I needed.

Two quick thoughts for the group:

1) There is a great Japanese word "Tsundoku", which means acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one's home without reading them. I love that this is a phenomenon worthy of a word.

2) I also found comfort and an explanation for tsundoku in this quote attributed to Warren Zevon - "We love to buy books because we believe we're buying the time to read them."
July 18, 2018 at 15:05 | Unregistered CommenterScott Moehring

1. I think that's going to become my new motto - TSUNDOKU!

2. Love the quote.
July 18, 2018 at 21:16 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I have many books I've started reading but haven't finished. And often it's because the first part of the book has good learning, but the rest is very thin. I've learned the main point, and to expand endlessly or go off into endless tangents is not worth my time.
July 18, 2018 at 23:32 | Registered CommenterAlan Baljeu

That's certainly true of the book I'm currently reading: "Make It Stick: the Science of Successful Learning" by Brown and Roediger.
July 19, 2018 at 17:45 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark,

Regarding to your Kindle strategy; I'm actually using the same strategy. I've created a collection of my active list called "@Active-5". The "@" symbol is to keep this collection on the very top of the listing overview on the Kindle.

Please let me share with you my other strategies how to finish reading books:

Btw., what do you prefer: Kindle or a real book?

March 14, 2019 at 9:21 | Unregistered CommenterMarko

Thanks for the link. Some good stuff there.

As for Kindle v. real book, the answer is that I prefer Kindle for books which are purely text and which are designed to be read from one end to the other. If there are illustrations or it's a reference book or text book rather than a straight read, then I prefer real books.

Some advantages of real books:

They look pretty (most of them anyway)
They have a physical presence so you can find "something to read" more quickly
Other people can see what you're reading if you want to show off your fashion-awareness or erudition.
The illustrations are easier to manage.

Some advantages of Kindle books:

They are cheaper (most of them)
You can carry a huge number of books around with you
They automatically show the books in a list in order of last-read
You can search them (important when reading long Russian novels, e.g. is Pierre Bezukhov the same person as Pyotr Kyrillovitch? Answer: Yes)
You can highlight a word in a foreign language and get an immediate translation.
You can adjust the font size
March 14, 2019 at 13:33 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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