Surrender, Readers!

You have nothing to lose but your guilt.


“So many books, so little time…” has been the plaintive refrain of booklovers for some time now, with T-shirts, bumper stickers, and other paraphernalia proclaiming our frustration about the daunting prospect of trying to read everything that interests us.

The best response to this is simply to give up. You will never be able to read every book that interests you. Acknowledging this bald fact can be liberating.

You will no longer feel driven to read every book that people are talking about and you can stop feeling guilty about not having read Moby-Dick in high school.

Reading, in fact, is like jogging or playing the piano. It is an activity in and for itself. Just as the important thing about jogging is not the destination but the running — or playing the piano, not the piece but the playing — so the book being read is secondary to the fact that you’re reading, exercising your imagination, and learning something (even pulp fiction has its lessons).

Personally, I don’t fit well with book groups because I don’t like other people picking what I will read. But their members clearly feel it is more important to have the chance to read something together and discuss it. If only they could shake off the groupthink about reading those books getting the most hype in what Toni Morrison used to derisorily call the “book chat” crowd.

Knowing that you will never be able to read everything you’re supposed to means you can pick up a 1940s novel you never heard of at a used bookstore and read it for the novelty. It means you can pick at random from the Little Free Library in your neighborhood or the shelf in your vacation rental and try something different. It means you can indulge in the spontaneous download of a self-published book the Amazon algorithms throw your way.

There are no checklists, book reports, or gold stars for adult readers. The world is your oyster. Take a chance. If you don’t like the book, stop reading it. Stop fretting that reading this trashy detective book or romance is keeping you from Franzen’s latest masterpiece. Don’t be embarrassed when you haven’t read the latest literary sensations that come up in dinner party conversations; just keep quiet or change the subject to the newest television premiere.

Yes, I read Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena because everybody was talking about it and Lily King’s Euphoria because it was chosen by my wife’s book group, and they were great. But recently I’ve also read the para-rescue thriller The Empty Quarter by David Robbins because I have a weak spot for adventure stories, and The New and Improved Romie Futch by Julia Elliott, a compelling cutting-edge writer who hasn’t been reviewed much but who caught the eye of the booksellers at Politics and Prose.

They were great books, too.

Rather than let your life be ruled by “So many books etc.,” take Rousseau’s dictum to heart that we are born free and need only throw off the shackles of expectations set by others or ourselves. There are not too many books, and there is just enough time to read whatever comes across your path. Relax, enjoy, and keep in mind you can die happy even if you never read anything by Jonathan Franzen.

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