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The Tyranny of the To-Read List

2015 August 4



I’m reading a book called This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. It’s an essay collection by Ann Patchett and it has the distinction of being one of the extremely rare books that I happened to pick up at the bookstore, flipped through, and decided to buy solely because I liked the cover, the title, and the author.

Most people select their books at bookstores (and libraries and yard sales and digital book retailers) this way. It’s not revolutionary. But for me, who lives and dies by my “to-read” shelf on Goodreads, it’s either a special book or a special occasion that causes me to buy something not already on my list. But sometimes, there are so many books I want to read, and being surrounded by them in a bookstore or library, it’s impossible to choose just one. So I sometimes reach out blindly for whatever appeals to me in that exact moment. But I don’t trust my feelings very often–that’s why I have the list. That’s why I have lists for everything in my life, essentially.

It’s nice to be able to call on my “to read” list when people are looking for book recommendations or I’m looking for books to suggest for my book club. I’m what I call a chain-reader–I’m on to the next book as soon as I finish whatever I’m reading. There is no rest. Not reading does not mean rest for me–reading is my escape, so to be reading is to be in a state of pleasure, of peace and calm (unless it’s a book I don’t enjoy, which is pretty rare). Unfortunately, I don’t read as quickly or as often as I would like. This means that realistically, I won’t ever get to all of the books on my “to-read” list–a list that inevitably keeps growing even as I keep reading. It’s an uncontrollable force. Every once in a while, I’ll go through the list and cull, removing books I’ve forgotten placing on the list or books that got a lot of buzz before they were published but bad reviews once people actually read them, but even if I remove 20 titles, the next day I’ll add 5 more, and then 10, and before I know it, the list is bigger than when I started.

Of course, knowing I won’t read everything I want to read is a stressful situation. But it’s also a universal one. There’s always a new book, magazine, journal, essay, or blog post to read, just like there’s a new podcast, tv show, movie, or album to check out. My Netflix queue, my Spotify playlists, my Podcast app–they’re all mini-to-do lists–though consuming art isn’t a chore, it can sometimes feel like one because of all the pressure to hear the latest, discover the newest, know about the biggest plot twist before you hear spoilers.

So, I know I’m not alone. It’s cultural FOMO (fear of missing out) and it’s a problem. This FOMO causes me to limit myself to what’s already on my list. Granted, I put a LOT of things on that list–just in case. I don’t want to miss anything! I try to be selective, but it’s difficult when you love books as much as I do. But, the restrictions of the list also takes out the serendipity of discovering a book or borrowing a book from a friend’s shelf just because it looks interesting or someone recommends it. On top of that, I also feel like there are always things I should be reading: classics, particular authors, buzzy books. I’m so consumed by the shoulds that I rarely have time for the fun books I want to read just because.

Last summer, BookRiot posted an article advising readers to break free from the shackles of the to-read list. I was really tempted. How liberating, I thought. To be free of all these restrictions and limitations! All of the shoulds! But where would I be without my list? I fear I’d end up in a ball in the corner of the bookstore, surrounded by stacks of books, shaking my head and repeating, “I just can’t choose! Which one do I choose?”

How do you choose what to read next? Do you have a to-read list? How do you keep track?

4 Responses Post a comment
  1. Raquel permalink
    August 4, 2015

    This is such a great post! It’s awesome to see how other people approach the question of what to read next.

    I have a to-read list, but I mostly just go with my gut. I let my intuition guide me into what I read next, whether it’s stuff I find randomly browsing a store or library or something I find on my shelves I forgot I had (this happens a lot, actually!). Occasionally a book will literally just appear–someone will gift something to me or I’ll find one in one of those ubiquitous “FREE!” boxes that are all over Somerville. Sometimes I’ll go by how I’m feeling or what I think I need (escapism, validation, distraction, a lesson, encouragement, catharsis). Sometimes I’ll read it because there is a purpose like upcoming book club or a new release I can’t renew at the library. Other times I’m not quite sure why I’ve picked something up, but there usually ends up being a good reason why I happened to read that particular book at that particular time.

    It’s frustrating to know that I’ll never get to read everything I want to–one of the reasons I’m sad about eventually dying is because there are books I’ll leave unread, unless we get to read as ghosts (fingers crossed)–but one thing I HAVE started doing that I never used to is allowing myself to give up on a book if I dislike it or it doesn’t hold my interest. I used to HATE leaving books unfinished, but then I realized that continuing an activity that doesn’t bring me enjoyment is less time I could be spending reading a book I find fulfilling.

    I do love tracking what I’ve read on Goodreads, otherwise I think I’d forget everything I’ve read.

  2. Patience permalink
    August 7, 2015

    I can relate to this! After reading Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust several years ago, I created a list based on her suggestions, and also add to that list whenever I see or hear of other books I want to read. My list is just a word document and when I finish a book, I highlight the title with a color that indicates my general impression. (Purple = excellent; definitely re-read, blue = good, etc.) I frequently add new books to my list, but like you, I rarely select something spontaneously from a library or bookstore shelf. I enjoy reading through my list, but it also causes me some genuine anxiety. What if I never get to the end of it? What if I don’t have time to re-read the books I’ve flagged for re-reading? In my purse, I always have a short list with a few books on it from my big book list. When I’m at the library, I look for books from this short list, and once I’ve read everything on the short list, I create another one.

  3. August 11, 2015

    OH MAN THIS POST!! I too struggle with the “to-read” list – and I’m a bad list-maker because I have 3 different lists — there is the list on Goodreads, which is probably the most accurate, then there is my Amazon Kindle “wish list” (where I sort by price and buy the cheapest one when I need a new kindle book), and then there is the ever-growing physical “TO READ” shelf in my apartment. The Shelf is probably where I start my “new book” quest (I too chain-read – I really like that term!!), where i literally stand in front of it, thinking. I have found that over the years, what remains on The Shelf is a lot of stuff I’ve lost interest in, peppered with books I will actually read, so often the standing is ineffective and I go online or to the bookstore.

    CULLING the lists is a great idea – it’s something that I struggle with because FOMO, but I think I need to do that sooner rather than later. I also feel a strong urge to unify the lists, but sometimes that is so overwhelming….

  4. August 18, 2015

    I definitely, definitely relate. One approach I’ve taken, in the hopes of getting a bit more diversity in my reading list (in the sense that I’m not just reading everything new & buzzy) is to set loose reading themes by year: in 2014 I only read books published in the 20th century or earlier (except that fell apart a bit when it came to non-fiction; I just HAD to read Going Clear!) and this year I’m trying to read mostly books from series– LOTR, the Neapolitan books, Proust (except this is on hold while I read the stuff I scooped up at the Harvar Bookstore warehouse sale…)

    Obviously I’m not a stickler for these themes, but I think they’ve helped me seek out excellent stuff I might have never gotten around to!

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