When writing became my full-time job, my reading life got all professional too.
Kinda makes sense, right? The best writers are super well-read people. I mean, they know everything. They make all these literary allusions, they quote passages from beloved books, you can't stump them with an author reference...
Basically, when it came to my reading life, I kind of panicked.
In spite of graduating with an English major, I still had some holes to fill. I'd never read The Great Gatsby--how had that happened? And Moby-Dick and The Tale of Two Cities. A lot of classics to catch up on, and oh, in the meantime, amazing writers are still actively writing...
Really, it was a paralyzing scenario. And in true Lucy Flint fashion, I came up with a plan:
READ EVERYTHING AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.
... It didn't exactly work.
I made lists. A lot of lists. I read to balance out deficiencies in my book knowledge. I finished every book I started, with total seriousness. I took very detailed, I-could-give-a-presentation-on-this kind of notes on what I read.
Heck, if the quality of my own writing depended on what I read, I didn't see how I could do it any differently.
Funny thing happened. My reading energy dried up. And I got really into reading magazines instead.
Eventually I realized I needed to lighten up. I redesigned my reading life to blend structure with a bit of quirk. And now? I'm always energized by what--and how--I'm reading.
Here are my new guidelines:
I keep a huge list of books to read. And I do mean huge. At last count, I have over 1300 books on my reading list, and I'm adding to it all the time.
This used to be a bit crippling--until I changed my perspective.
Here's the thing: I'll never get all the books read. Never. There will always be worthwhile books out there that I won't get to.
Why is this good news? Because it gives me the permission I need to quit reading books I don't like. I want to find the ones I love! So if a book doesn't win my heart over pretty quickly, I toss it.
I build a monthly reading list. Because 1300 books is still a bit daunting, I break it down and focus on a select number of titles each month. I pick out fifteen, a dozen of which are novels.
Buckle up, because this is where structure meets quirk: Each month has a theme.
I know, I know, it's a little goofy. But I can't even tell you how much it delights me to do this. One month, it's books with an animal in the title. The next month features titles that start with the letter M. The month after that, it's books with a color in the title, or one-word titles, or every thirtieth book on the list.
I once explained this system to another writer, and she had such undisguised pity on her face. Apparently this way of reading is lunacy. But whatever. It's my lunacy! My reading list! ... Ahem.
I order more books than I can read. So, I order those fifteen themed books through the library, even though I know I won't get through them all.
Because I'm not that quick of a reader. In all honesty, I read about three to six full books in a month. So why order so many? So I'm free to discard the ones I don't like! It keeps me from feeling trapped with a few selections.
(Plus, it really does feel cathartic to chuck a book. Pffft, I'm not reading this! It's a weirdly great feeling.)
I give a book twenty pages. In spite of my delight in tossing a book, I really do commit to read the first twenty pages. At that point, I know if I'm interested in continuing or not.
Twenty pages is long enough to give you a good feel for the style, the characters, and what you're in for.
And I've found--after suffering through all too many--that if I'm snarling or rolling my eyes during the first twenty pages, I'm going to feel that way all through the rest of the book. So I chuck it. No guilt necessary.
I know, I know. This totally horrifies some people.
My only requirement in tossing a book: I try to pin down what exactly made me drop it.
Was the style obnoxious? How? Was the main character totally unsympathetic? Where did I lose interest? Why wasn't it working for me? This little step lets me extract a bit of learning... without enduring the next 350 pages.
Obviously, then, I still do take notes. Yep. It's still my job, after all. But my note-taking is a lot more casual.
I'll write down what worked the best in the book, what kept me reading. I'll try to capture what exactly was disappointing or what was so moving. How did they make that setting come alive, why was that dialogue exchange so spot-on, or how did they pace the climax?
I'll copy out paragraphs that I loved, or ones that were confusing so I can avoid those mistakes.
So yeah. There's still note-taking. But I try to keep a light hand.
I wipe the slate clean. At the end of each month, I return all the unread books along with the rest.
It gives me a light heart to chuck out the books I didn't get to, instead of making myself complete the list. It's freeing.
Sometimes you just have to be in the right mood for a certain book. So if it fell through the cracks this month, no worries. I'll probably reorder it again, some other month.
... So there it is. That's my reading life. Somehow, that blend of structure and freedom works just right for me. I don't feel so pinned down, but there's enough of a challenge that I get excited to dive in, month after month.
What about you? Do you toss books freely, or have you found it's worth it to persevere? Do you keep a reading list? Or do you like to browse and pick up what sounds good to you?
What works well for your reading life: Let's continue the discussion in the comments.