"There is a limit to the time assigned to you, and if you don't use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return." — Marcus Aurelius
So, I've been reading a lot this year.
Originally, I just wanted to spend less time with my face in a screen and more time exercising my brain. A solid year of doomscrolling took its toll on my mental and physical health, so shifting my attention to the analog felt like a good place to start. In my quest to "read more," though, I've fallen into an altogether new trap: completionism.
I don't like leaving books unfinished. If I go out of my way to acquire a new book and start reading it, I will inevitably force myself to finish it regardless of how unengaging the story or deeply boring the prose. I do the same thing with movies, television shows, music, and just about everything else too.
This is stupid.
After six months of indiscriminately devouring nearly 40 books completely at random, I've determined consclusively that I do not owe these books anything. This might seem like an obvious lesson to some, but for me, accepting that it is okay to put down a book I wasn't particularly enjoying has been a revelation.
Reading for the sake of reading is like eating for the sake of eating. It's unnecessary, unhelpful, and all around unhealthy. At least a quarter of the books I have read so far this year have been a slog or otherwise chore to get through. At a rate of about two books a week, that means that I have wasted over a month of my time.
But, here's the thing... not all media is created equal.
Whether its books, blogs, movies, podcasts, or television shows, we owe it to ourselves to consume that which elevates us and forget the rest. This means learning to quit, while at the same time not being "a quitter." Identifying the difference between a tough piece of content and a bad investment is going to be what helps me grow outside my own bubble.
Learning to Quit
Without a framework for what constitutes "valuable" or "enjoyable," I might find myself missing out on potentially interesting reads had I just given them a proper chance; so, like any good nerd, I've created a set of rules that determine when and how to abandon a book I've chosen to start reading:
- Always read the first three chapters of any new book.
- If no notes, highlights, or inspirations are encountered, put the book down.
- Give it another try at least a year later; and if necessary another year after that.
- Three strikes and it's out. Donate the book to someone who will appreciate it more.
One thing I've been working on lately is reading more actively. What this means is that, instead of simply reading a book and then forgetting about it a week later, I take a more hands-on approach. Highlighters and notebooks are my friends. If I'm reading a book that is slow going, but has me taking notes or highlighting every third passage, then it is a clear indication that I'm getting enough value out of the book to justify the effort. On the other hand, if things aren't going well by the end of the third chapter, it's time to put it down.
Try and Try Again
Have you ever watched a movie or listened to a song that didn't resonate with you until years after you were first exposed to it? Maybe you were too young, or your taste profile just didn't line up with it. Whatever the reason, your first attempt was a failure, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should give up on that piece of content forever. Maybe you just need to grow a little.
In the event that I decide to abandon a book, I've decided to give it a few more chances. Every book that I abandon will get another chance at redemption over the course of at least three years. The reason for this is to account for my own changing perspective and interests. Obviously, this can't go on forever, so I've capped my retry-loop at three attempts per book. This gives me a chance to encounter it at different points in my life without keeping it in the rotation indefinitely.
Quality and Quantity
While this post seems to indicate that I will be abandoning my goal-based approach to reading, that is not the case. As far as motivation goes, tracking the number of books I read has been particularly helpful. That said, what I will be doing is focusing on quality as a secondary requirement of the books I consume. Given how many books are published every year, I don't doubt that I'll be able to be both selective and prolific.
Here goes nothing.