Recalibrating my reading

Back in November 2011 I published a list of books I wanted to read. Looking at that list now seven years later, I am dismayed at how few of those books I have actually completed reading since then. From a list of 85 books that I claimed I wanted to read, I have read a total of 8 of them seven years later:

  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
  • Can You Drink the Cup? by Henri Nouwen
  • Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  • Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  • The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
  • The Shan: Refugees Without a Camp by Bernice Koehler Johnson

That’s only 10%, why so few?

The problem is not that haven’t been reading much over the last seven years (I’ve read a total of 180 books over this period). I think the issue is that the sort of books I actually read is different to the books I think I should read.

When I analyse the list of what I thought I should read, it contained 30 literary classics, of which I have read two, though I’ve also read some other classics which were not on my list in 2011. There were also 43 books about Christian topics, many of these books are quite serious’ and require concentration to read well. I’ve often felt guilty for not reading some of these books which I spent good money to buy and are by reputable authors. However, I have read plenty of books on Christian topics in the last seven years, what tends to determine exactly which books I choose to read is the issues I happen to be wrestling with at the time.

My choices of what to read are driven by multiple factors, here are some I can think of:

  • What I’m already part way through reading (I usually have 3 or 4 books on the go simultaneously)
  • How I am feeling (do I want something light, or am I in the mood to concentrate?)
  • Time available
  • Current ability to concentrate (do I have an hour alone or fifteen minutes with kids bouncing around)
  • Book availability (am I at home where the hardcopy is, do I only have my Kindle)
  • How public is my location (I’m not going to read The Mortification of Sin at work!)
  • What issues are currently on my mind
  • Am I trying to learn something in particular

For good or bad, those are the kinds of things which influence what I actually read. The results of such choices are reflected in the list of books I’ve read over recent years. What is immediately apparent is an abundance of lighter Christian reading, business’ and self-help’ books and fiction compared to the serious list of what I should read.

A factor in these differences is something I wrote back in the 2011 post:

In choosing books to read, I am trying to aim for literature that will enrich my soul — quality rather than quantity.

While that is a good aspiration, it doesn’t account for reality. In order to enrich my soul what I am reading has to meet some immediate need or I will discard the book and opt for something else. I do try to slowly plod through serious books even while I’m reading more interesting stuff, but if it is too hard I keep putting it aside and eventually forget the flow of the book so achieve nothing.

Moving forward I think I need to make use of libraries more where I can, it is easier to try a book and then discard it without guilt if it is borrowed rather than one I bought. I do want to finish reading all the books I have purchased myself though so will need to exert discipline to keep reading some of those harder ones on my bookshelves at home.

Something I did do this week is cull all the freebies from my Kindle library (over 150 of them!). My reasoning is that even if I only paid 99c for a kindle book on sale, the barrier of actually paying real money should have caused me to give the purchase decision more thought than if the book was free. Also, a lot of the freebies were in the old and difficult to read’ category so had been sitting there un-read for years, better to be shot of them.

An encouraging trend is that over the last three years my reading rate has picked up sharply so it could be that if I revisit this topic in another seven years a lot more of the books already on my shelves will have found their way on to the lists of books I have read. I hope so, because they are good books and will enrich my soul if I put in the effort to read them. But I also want to see plenty of poetry and fiction on my reading lists in future years, also a bit more history and biography. The business and self-help categories can probably be dumped without any loss to my wellbeing.

To make my musings here more concrete, I’ve come up with some personal book selection guidelines’:

  • Prioritise books I already own
  • Use libraries as much as possible
  • Try books but abandon the junk quickly
  • Classic novels are usually good reading
  • Read lots of poetry
  • Read what I enjoy, we all have our own tastes
  • Don’t feel guilty for reading fiction
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