The Tyranny of the To-Read List
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?