My “must-read” list is significantly longer than my “have-read” list. That’s normal, I think—and it’s a good problem to have. There are centuries of good books to get through, after all.
I was lucky enough to have a liberal arts education that prompted me to read some of the world classics: Aristotle and Augustine, the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible, Shakespeare and Cervantes, all of which (perhaps expectedly) got me hooked on books that stood the test of time. It thrilled me to crack open a text and think how many people before me had read these words. I wondered what contexts they were in when reading; I daydreamed about how various phrases conveyed different meanings to me and to them because of the backdrop of our varied experience. Reading became a kind of communion of kindred spirits.
Not wanting to miss anything, I started the habit of adding an entry to an iPhone note called “books + authors” upon each new recommendation, which derived from all kinds of sources: reading a compelling review, hearing about a new book from a friend, deciding that if Netflix thought it was worth a TV adaptation, it must be good, or—my kryptonite—observing it referenced, even in passing, by people I consider wise and insightful.
When I moved out to New York, I got a job at Commonweal magazine—and I was in way over my head. Lunchtime conversations with the writers and editors with whom I worked included so much fodder for my humble iPhone list I could barely keep up. I’d leave our staff lunch, go back to my desk and frantically read Wikipedia articles and order books to try to bridge the chasms I suddenly recognized in my education. It was the unmistakable pain of realizing how much I didn’t know I didn’t know.
As my “books + authors” list grew, I began to refer to it as my “what Ellen must read in order to be a good person and a worthwhile participant in the history and future of human discourse” list. Zero pressure, I know. I was racing through short stories and classic novels just to check them off my list, with no time to digest or sit with the ideas, feelings or characters they brought to my life. I’d unwittingly started to treat reading as more of a duty than a delight.
I’d unwittingly started to treat reading as more of a duty than a delight.
Graduate school the following year didn’t help. I was assigned two or three books’ worth of reading each week for the course of the entire program, and I doubled down on my new habit of consuming information efficiently, rather than enthusiastically. Many tried to convince me it was okay to “skim,” but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had too much pride: If a book was going to be checked off my list, it had to be official. It had to be read in its entirety.
Despite amplifying my unhealthy relationship to books, graduate school—the great leveler—also convinced me sufficiently that I just couldn’t read everything good there was to read. So I resigned myself (at first reluctantly, and then with relief) to a more manageable pace. Once the pendulum starting swinging in this new direction, however, inertia took over. By the time of graduation, my reading pace had slowed to a halt.
I was burnt out. It’s what I’ve come to call an education hangover. A little too much the night—okay, the years—before, and I couldn’t quite stomach using my newly free evenings and weekends to self-assign more books. I needed to detox.
A few months off helped, because soon I missed books: the ideas and the plot twists and the immersive other worlds I could enter. But the blue-lit “must-read” list on my phone continued to torment me. It gave the impression of an assignment fraught with pressures that I didn’t want associated with reading—especially if I were to delight in the act again.
My ultimate cure? Book club.
I joined a group of friends a few months after graduation, pleased to find these were the kinds of ladies who took socializing, rosé drinking and dissecting plot equally seriously. And because books were chosen democratically, they never came from my highly curated list; we read a book that Oprah recommended, and then a novel that one of the girls got for Christmas and then some New York Times bestseller that was poised for a screenplay. We even—it’s hard to admit this—read books that were downright bad. I am haunted by one: a piece of poorly written fiction with bland characters and an action-less plot...but a great cover.
This is not to say my new, more relaxed reading was lacking rigor. Like my experience at the magazine or in grad school, insightful remarks and deft observations were regularly posited by book club members. We renewed our commitment not to judge a book by its cover (even if a favorable judgment); we agreed that a meandering plot is more interesting to live than read about; and perhaps most important, we determined that the act of reading—even reading a genuinely bad book—was worthwhile if it created such occasions for communion with kindred readers.