How to want to read

Published 2022-01-31.

I once heard someone complain: “I can’t stand it when people say they want to read more, but never pick up a book. If you wanted to read more, you’d be reading more!” I nodded in agreement. If someone repeatedly says they want to do something, and yet they repeatedly fail to do that thing, it’s easy to conclude that they are mistaken about their actual desires.

Of course, when someone says they want to read more, the kind of ‘wanting’ they are referring to is not the same as wanting a slice of pizza. It is not an insatiable, moment-to-moment craving for books. Rather, it is an abstract belief that reading more would be valuable. People who say they want to read more are really saying they wish they felt more of an urge to read. That is, they don’t currently want to read—but they want to want to read.

For most of my adult life I’ve been a fairly steady, fifteen-books-per-year kind of reader. But I never felt as if this was enough. I had fond memories of being a kid who couldn’t wait to get back to his books, and I wished that that spark could be reignited. So, about a year ago, I decided to try to reignite it myself. By the end of the year, I had finished forty-seven books and made a good dent in twenty more. I essentially tripled the amount of time I spent reading. The reason I read this many books was not that I was trying to hit a target, but that I rediscovered a deep pleasure in reading. I still say “I want to read more”, but now I mean it literally. I’m already reading tons, potentially more than I should, and I would do it more if I had the time.

How did this change come about? The most important factor was that I became much better at choosing books. Until last year, I never viewed book selection as a skill to be cultivated, but I now view it as the main bottleneck to increasing my desire to read. The reason is that on most days, I am not choosing a new book, but continuing a book I’ve already chosen. This means that day to day, my desire to read is practically equivalent to my desire to read whatever book I currently have on the go. By definition, if my current book is appealing to me, I’ll want to read it.

This isn’t to say that I now only read books that are as easy to devour as Harry Potter. Many worthwhile books require patience, and some require hard work. The key is not to avoid challenging books, but rather to match each of your book choices to the right context. Here are some questions I ask myself when I’m unsure of what to read next. What is currently happening in my life? What are my current interests and goals? What are my close friends reading and recommending? What books have I enjoyed previously? Which authors influenced my own favorite authors? With a clear answer to any one of these questions, I can identify at least half a dozen books that would be a good fit.

It’s easy to forget that context matters. We’ve all seen authoritative lists of canonical books that everyone is supposed to read before they die. These lists give the impression that all books have a kind of intrinsic value that is universal, timeless, and absolute. If you don’t like Moby Dick, you’re simply incorrect in your judgment. Of course, most people put little faith in any particular ranking, but I think we should put equally little faith in the concept of ranking books at all. Any given book can create a wide range of reading experiences for different people at different times.

Even the concept of a personal ranking is fraught. I used to rate every book I read on a five-star scale. This exercise was stimulating at first, and I found it to be an enjoyable form of self-expression. You get to feel like a Michelin inspector, doling out judgments. But the motivation to rate books didn’t originate within me; I was encouraged to do it by a website I was using to track my reading. Until last year, I failed to see that my habit of rating books on a five-star scale was serving my own ends far less than it was serving the ends of the website—namely, to collect as much data as possible about the preferences of frequent book-buyers. So I stopped giving ratings altogether, and my enjoyment of reading increased immediately. There was no more voice in my head, interrupting the flow of my reading with insipid thoughts like, “Does this deserve 3.5 stars or 4?”

I also changed the way I define and track my reading goals. My goals had previously been corrupted by that same website, which encouraged me to define my goals in terms of the number of books finished per year—an alluring game to play, but clearly a strategy on the website’s part to solicit more ratings. Once I spotted this as a harmful pattern, I redefined my goals more loosely, in terms of personally meaningful questions. How do I want to challenge myself? What ideas do I want to explore? Can my reading make me feel more connected to my friends? This latter question is surprisingly potent. Nothing inspires the desire to read more than the idea that your friends are reading too. If you view a book as a conversation starter and opportunity for connection, rather than merely a store of information, you will want to read it much more.

I still keep track of almost all the books I read, and I enjoy writing reviews of many of them, but now I do all of this on my personal website. I no longer set numerical goals for my reading, and I’m increasingly indifferent about whether I finish books. What does it even mean to ‘finish’ a book? Even if I pass my eyes over every word, 95% of it will be gone from my mind after a few months. I’m not bothered by that fact because in most cases I’m not really reading to remember, or for any instrumental purpose. I’m just reading because I like it—because I want to.

Thanks to Matthew Jordan for editing this essay.

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