The Sunk Cost Fallacy and the Pressure of Finishing a Novel

Have you ever bought a book, read half of it, decided you hate it but read the rest of it anyway, to avoid feeling like you have wasted time and money? This is an example of the sunk cost fallacy. In business, a sunk cost is one that is paid and cannot be recovered, such as lease payments or the purchase of capital. However, most economists will tell you that it is irrational to consider sunk costs when making decisions. It is fallacious thinking to go through with something that is below expectations simply because time and/or money has already been invested in it. But we are human beings, driven chiefly by emotion, and so we make these illogical choices.

Outside of business, sunk costs regularly determine the behaviour of people in day-to-day life. Around the world, bad restaurant meals are eaten, second-rate films are watched and, most importantly, boring books are read. The fallacy resides in the belief that to persist with something that is unsatisfactory justifies its purchase. For someone who is halfway through a tedious book – their money and time already invested – the decision to read on will lead only to the further wasting of resources. To invoke another economic theory, it is also wise to consider ‘opportunity cost’; what else could you be doing instead of reading this book?

When a modern reader tackles a piece of classic fiction, the pressure placed upon him or her to finish the book becomes particularly heavy. The common anxiety about sunk costs, in combination with the reputation of canonical texts, certainly makes it difficult to back out. There is indeed a satisfaction derived from completing one of the great novels, but if the satisfaction comes only once the reading experience is over then, for this person, reading has become a labour. Reading is for enjoyment, not for ticking off works from a checklist of ‘the greats’.

I recently finished ‘War and Peace’, but the final third of the novel was a slog that I really should not have put myself through. The £25 price tag and the hefty status of the book drove me on to the final word, but the dominant tedium of the novel hardly rendered my unrecoverable investments of time and money worthwhile. It definitely feels good to say that I have read ‘War and Peace’ but, more importantly, the act of reading is also meant to feel good. By trying to justify spending £25, I misspent hours and hours of my time. The sunk cost fallacy made me think that the best decision was the one that mitigated against a sense of loss, whereas in truth the best decision would have been the one that ensured the most enjoyable experience.


A battle scene from the BBC’s recent adaptation of ‘War and Peace’

Doing an English Literature degree over the past three years meant that almost one hundred percent of my reading material has been old stuff; it didn’t get much more ‘modern’ than the early 20th century. I recently returned to reading works written within my own lifetime, and it made me see how familiar I’d become with boring novels. Strange as it may sound, immersing myself in the literary canon lowered my expectations of novelistic entertainment, without me really noticing. A couple of (very) modern reads reminded me that the onus is entirely upon the author to engage the reader. If a reader feels that he or she should persevere with a book, then the author has failed.

I’m disappointed to say that I’ve stopped reading a poor novel only once. On a train to Sarajevo last summer, I was reading Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’ (1940) to prepare for my dissertation on Wild West fiction. The novel supposedly introduced ‘conscience’ to the genre’s taste for cavalier killing, but it introduced it with the most eye-gougingly bad prose. I gave up on the book only about thirty pages in. It left me feeling disappointed with myself, chiefly because the book cost me £10, but I had to remember that it was Van Tilburg Clark I should have been disappointed with. It was he who wasted my money, and thankfully I prevented him wasting much of my time as well.


The front cover of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’

Of course, there are times when finishing a book is unavoidable, irrespective of whether one is enjoying it. If the book is a gift, then reading it in its entirety feels somewhat obligatory. It’s never easy to pretend one has read something, especially in front of a friend. Likewise, finishing novels is pretty compulsory when studying literature in school or university. Reading a book from start to finish becomes a lot more necessary when the primary objective is not to enjoy oneself but to acquire an informed, analytical perspective of the text as a whole. In 2005, talking on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker emphasised just how important it is to read the books on the syllabus. He thinks he failed his interview to study English Literature at Oxford University because he had not read Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess Of The D’Urbervilles’. Not that this constituted a significant blow to his career. But, adults: you are free from these scholastic restrictions. As novelist John Irving once said: ‘One reward of leaving school is that you don’t have to finish books you don’t like’. Irving was clearly a little more assiduous than Cocker during his school years.

In my future reading, I will exercise my readerly freedom that the sunk cost fallacy has otherwise deterred me from thus far. I have particularly nice copies of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is The Night’ and Thomas Hardy’s ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’ sitting on my bookshelf, currently unread. I intend to read them soon, but I am ready and willing to put these books down whenever they stop (or never start) being entertaining. I will look at it this way: at worst, I’ve purchased a pair of beautiful ornaments.


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