The Ends of Books

One of these days, I’m going to read the ends of most of the non-fiction books I’ve picked up in the last few years.

The truth is, often I start a book, and one of two things happens:

  • The book is really boring, I put it down and never pick it up again.  This is the easy one.
  • The book is really interesting, it generates so many good ideas it makes my wisdom teeth ache, and all I can think of doing is writing down my thoughts, underlining the great passages in the book, and getting excited about all this.

The second event is the more difficult one – because inevitably, I get so knotted up in my own paths running out in so many directions from a truly stimulating book, that I never get around to finishing the book.

In theory, a book is a portable, random-access, mass storage device.  Emphasize the random-access part.  Non fiction books, today, are not necessarily meant to be read in linear sequence, they are designed more like web sites, ideal for jumping around in, as you search the parts that interest you most.  But I grew up in the era of linear book reading, and I can’t quite lose the habit.  I always think I’m going to miss some important link to something earlier in the book.

This is certainly nonsense, but it wouldn’t be the first, nor the last, nor the silliest of my silly habits.  The result is that I have rarely read the parts in “the back of the book.”  I also harbour the secret notion that this is where the real interesting “meat” of the book is located.  Probably also nonsense, but then, if you spent years dealing with textbooks as part of your education, you understand about the “advanced” stuff being at the end.

So, one day, I’m going to pick up all those unfinished books, and just jump to the end, and read only the parts I’m really interested in.

Meanwhile, some advice for non-fiction authors who want to reach people like me (and I’ll bet they mostly already know this):  Put all your good stuff up front, and use the back of the book for – um – er – backup.

Author: Ray

Ray Gallon is president and co-founder of The Transformation Society (, a research, training and consulting company focusing on building learning organisations that can manage complexity and the digital transformation. He has over 40 years as a communicator, first as an award-winning radio producer and journalist, then in the technical content industries. His management experience includes a stint as program manager of WNYC-FM, New York City’s public radio station. Ray is a self-described "humanist nerd," and has always been interested in the meeting point between technology and culture, and has used his broad experience to advantage with companies such as IBM, General Electric Health Care, Alcatel, 3M, and the OECD, as well as in smaller companies and startup enterprises. Ray recently helped co-found the Information 4.0 Consortium ( and serves as its current president. Ray is a university lecturer and a keynote speaker at events throughout the world. He has contributed articles and chapters to many books and periodicals and is the editor of the recently published “Language of Technical Communication” (XML Press).

2 thoughts on “The Ends of Books”

  1. Ray, I used to do this, too. So I kept a lot of books “for reference” or “to take on vacation when I’ll have time to actually read them”. One year I brought two large cartons of books with me to our 30 foot sailboat, and spent the summer reading. I got through better than half of them. It was actually a relief to pass those books on to friends and not have to haul them back home.
    Nowadays, I just add books to my Kindle. There’s the entire library of things I want to read, in one place. Every night before I go to bed, I open it up and read. If I get bored with a book, I switch to a different one, knowing I can come back to the exact spot where I left off – even if it’s 6 months later.
    I do a lot of underlining while reading on the Kindle, too. Thoughts I want to reread later, wisdom I want to keep. To tell the truth, I haven’t tried to download them yet, and I’m not even sure I can, but it’s cool to know they’re “in there”.
    I gave away a ton of books this year. From now on, unless it’s an art book or something that needs illustrations or color to be understood, I’m only buying books on the Kindle.
    Might be something worth considering. At least you’ll know where to find those unfinished books when you’re ready.

  2. Jennifer, one of the things that haunts me is that I wonder if it’s worth it to read those back ends. I mean, as an authentic scanner, in Barbara Sher’s sense of the word, I might well have stopped reading those books because I’d gotten all I was going to get out of them.

    You know how it is, sometimes you read maybe a third of a book, and you go on, and you have to get more than half way through it before you realize that you’ve already understood all of what the author was trying to say, and the rest is just justification…

    Of course, if I don’t try I’ll never know. I do have a number of different readers on my iPhone (including Kindle), so I could easily try your idea out – and I just might 😉

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