Quality, Not Quantity

  • By Tara Laskowski
  • January 14, 2019

Skip the resolution to read more. Instead, read better.

Quality, Not Quantity

It’s a symptom of a new year, I suppose, but over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a bombardment of posts and articles about the number of books I should be reading. Several friends have been posting their “number” — how many books they read in 2018 — or their goals for how many to read in 2019.

There are many articles discussing things like, if we stopped playing around on social media, we’d be able to read more books (200, this one says!), or touting lists of the 100 must-read books of your lifetime, new releases to watch out for, etc., etc.

These posts leave me feeling inadequate. For, while I love to read, other priorities often take precedence — work, family, my own writing, and, occasionally, sleep.

I haven’t counted the number of books I read last year, but I can tell you it’s nowhere near 50 or 100 or whatever ambitious numbers folks have been aiming for. It might not even be enough to count on my fingers. My pile of to-reads keeps growing endlessly higher, thanks to all the great writers out there who keep publishing good books.

But then I thought: Maybe I shouldn’t feel so bad. Maybe, like sexual conquests, having a “number” is not really anything to brag about, since the more you have, the less likely you are to truly enjoy them.

Because, let me tell you — the books I do read? I really savor them.

I’m the one who gets depressed when a book I love is over. It may take me months to finish a novel, but each time I pick it up (or turn it on, in the case of audiobooks), I’m immersed. Fully. It weaves its way into the tapestry of my life. It becomes another thing happening to me, and it leaves an impression.

Just the other day, for example, something about the weather and the routine task I was doing in the kitchen brought me right back to the time, two years ago, when I was reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Immediately, I felt the way I felt reading that book: I had this gut reaction, a fond longing for that world that was somehow tied to the time of year I’d read it and how it had made me feel.

I’ve found this to be true with a lot of books I really loved. A smell, a place, even a food can immediately take me back to the “feel” of reading a certain book. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch got me through a cold winter commuting on the train into DC. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties I listened to while walking around my office at lunchtime in spring, watching all the trees blooming.

And I can’t pull out a particular purse I use without thinking of Tana French’s In the Woods because it fit so perfectly inside one of the pockets. The book, the story, the characters — they somehow have gotten absorbed into the memories of my own life because they spent a lot of time with me.

So, this year, instead of worrying about how many books I’m reading, I’m going to focus on reading them well. If you’re a slow reader, too, here are some ways to focus on quality vs. quantity.

Leave it up to chance. I like my friend Sarah’s idea for avoiding the pressures of which book to read next. After years of making a list of must-reads — and then subsequently failing to meet her goals and feeling bad about it — Sarah decided a new approach was in order. This year, she’s going to “write, on little slips of paper, the titles of all the books I really want to read (including things to re-read).” She’ll put all those slips in a coffee can and draw one at random to read. “I have given myself no deadline for finishing any of them,” she says. Just leaving it up to fate.

Listen to books rather than read them. Last year, I wrote about my newfound obsession with listening to audiobooks, particularly while driving to and from work. Listening to a book forces you to slow down. You can’t skip over beautiful descriptions or flip ahead to see what happens. You have to savor every word, which means the book will linger with you longer.

Revisit oldies but goodies. Rather than feeling the pressure of reading all the new releases out there, why not take a breather and re-read one of your old favorites? Revisiting a book years after you’ve read it can really change the feel and purpose of a book. I like to re-read classics I first fell in love with at a younger age — like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Sound and the Fury, Harry Potter, and The Great Gatsby — because I not only get to rediscover what I loved in the first place, but I also find new aspects of the book to enjoy as I arrive at different stages of life.

Resist the completist inside you. I’ve always felt terribly guilty about not finishing a book, but I actually think giving up on the books that you just aren’t feeling helps you spend more time on the ones that do move you. Why waste the precious minutes you have for reading on a story that isn’t working for you? Say your goodbyes and move on. Your happiness will thank you.

So, this year, my advice: Don’t stress too much about how many books you read. Just make sure you enjoy them.

Tara Laskowski is the author of Bystanders, which won the 2016 Balcones Fiction Prize, and Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons. You can add her debut novel, One Night Gone, to your to-read pile in October 2019, when it will be published by Graydon House Books. She lives in the Washington, DC, area with her husband and son.

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