Want to Read More? Give Up Sooner

Perfectionism Is Slowing Your Reading Rate

I was pleasantly surprised to discover I had read more books than I thought as I reflected on a busy year. It wasn’t because I set a goal to read x number of books per month. Quite the contrary — I had low expectations for how much I might read so I avoided goal setting altogether. Nor did I reserve untouchable time during the week to read. Between work travel and grad school, I never had a “typical” week to plan. I should also say I’m not a natural born reader. As a kid, most of my experience with “The Classics” came not from reading them but from watching Wishbone on PBS.

Here’s my secret: I read more in 2018 because I gave myself permission to give up on any book, at any time.


Rose Reading Room, New York Public Library

If you’re a perfectionist like me, you probably already have an enormous list of books on your “To Read” list. A good chunk are books you actually want to read because you like the author or the topic intrigues you. Another part of that list might be books you think you’d like (new topics, recommendations from like-minded friends, plugs on NPR).

Your list also contains several “classics”— those books you know you should have read in 10th grade. You’re nervously anticipating the day someone references a classic and everyone gasps upon realizing you’ve never read it. Don Quixote wasn’t a Jack Russell terrier?!

Then there are the books you feel you should read, maybe because everyone is reading this book right now, or a friend gave you this book, or a professor acts like this book is the key to all knowledge. Truth be told, you already know these books don’t appeal to you, but you also don’t want to be perceived as unenlightened or a terrible friend. So it gets added to the list.

Last, if you attend church, you’ll also need to read Christian books that your pastor, small group leader, ministry team captain, and the person who sits behind you whose name you don’t know even though you shake their hand every week describe as the most helpful book for my Christian walk that I’ve ever read. (Bonus points if someone followed up that statement with “You mean ‘aside from the Bible,’ right?”) To date, there are approximately 4,367 Christian books that have been described as most helpful for my Christian walk. You’ll need to read all of them before you can finally get it together.


Here’s the mistake I was making. Throughout the year, I would try to chip away at each category of books. For every few want to read and think I’d like books I finished, I would try to tackle a should read or a classic. Subconsciously I created literary rules like a parent creates dietary rules. Yes, you can have ice cream but only if you finish your vegetables first.

For example, since moving to NYC I discovered I really enjoy books on city planning and urbanism. After devouring an introductory book on urban sprawl, I immediately picked up a geek-out-level second book on urban planning about why reducing the number of lanes on a one way street doesn’t necessarily create congestion and how making intersections seem dangerous actually makes motorists pay better attention, thus making the intersections safer. Fascinating stuff!

But just as I was about to request a third urban planning book from the library, I felt guilty I had indulged in one specific subject while so many other should read books went unread. So I downloaded a free version of the classic, [book omitted so you don’t judge me], on my Kindle and began reading. I wasn’t into it. Maybe I’ll enjoy the audiobook — it’s a British reader! Didn’t help. Rather than moving on, perfectionism told me I had to finish this book before moving on to anything else. Finish your literary broccoli! I drove in silence.


I began this year with a book called Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done, by Jon Acuff. I had closed out 2017 reading one of Acuff’s other books, and Amazon suggested I might enjoy a second book by this author. Finish seemed like a good book to begin the new year, but I was somewhat hesitant to read back to back books by the same author. I thought about all those other authors I should read. Two servings of ice cream in a row?! That’s when the book called out my subconscious perfectionism.

“You’ve got some secret rules that make it really difficult for you to finish.” — Jon Acuff, Finish

Unbeknownst to me, perfectionism had created a set of rules for my literary habits I never knew affected my reading rate. I set an impossibly high standard of what qualified me as a “good reader,” and then beat myself up when I didn’t measure up. That would demotivate me to read, and next thing I knew I was searching Netflix for old Wishbone episodes.

These “secret rules” I unconsciously followed seem ridiculous when typed out. Once I became aware of them, I could consciously create a better set of rules for my reading life (because let’s face it, perfectionists can never get rid of rules completely!). If you’re dissatisfied with your reading, you may want to do the same. And if you need inspiration, I’ll include additional favorites from the year below. (If you don’t read every last one of these I’ll assume you’re an unenlightened, terrible friend.)

New Rule: Read what you want.

No more separating books into ice cream and vegetable categories. Pick books you know you’ll love, and enjoy them guilt-free. I honestly think this strategy helps more than a rigid spend 20 minutes reading every day resolution. If I find a book I really enjoy, I don’t need to schedule time to read it. I make time.

I’ve also realized my instincts are usually pretty accurate. I was given several books last year. I knew which books I’d like and which I wouldn’t. Two of those books went right to my bookshelf, unread, without me feeling a tinge of guilt. Maybe future Steve’s instincts will lead him to read those someday, but today is not that day. Another book that was gifted to me I’m not sure about. I’m going to try it. If I don’t like it, then . . .

New Rule: Stop reading when you need.

You should also trust your instincts when you’re just not into a book. Unless you’re in school or an editor at a publishing house, no one is forcing you to read that book except you. Put it back on the shelf or give it away.

This year, I gave myself permission to stop reading a 600+ page biography I had started and stopped three different times over two years. I was more than 250 pages in, but it was bogging down the rest of my reading. It would never taste like literary ice cream, and I knew it.

I might have felt guilty for bailing 250 pages into that biography had I not read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo. The book explains how to recognize possessions that have reached the end of their useful life. Kondo illustrates how we often buy clothing we think we’ll wear but never do, so we feel guilty and keep it in our closet. You can get rid of unworn clothing guilt-free by realizing it taught you something about yourself and your style. (Talking to your clothing, as Kondo recommends, is optional.)

The same could be said for books. No partially completed book is ever a waste. You learned something about who you are as a reader. Take note, and take your bookmark out.


I’m excited to begin 2019 with these newfound rules. I think they’ll help me read more classics, not less. Four years ago, I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It didn’t feel like a dusty classic because for some reason (perhaps my nonfiction reading?), I was curious about its premise. I wanted to read it. East of Eden delivered. So much so that I immediately picked up Of Mice and Men. I enjoyed that too. Then, just before I picked up The Grapes of Wrath, my unconscious told me I was reading too much Steinbeck.

I can’t fault my subconscious in 2014. Who knows, I might have viewed the book as merely a classic back then. Now, given our current political climate, the book jacket description doesn’t sound like a classic, it sounds like something I want to read.

[One family’s] repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into Haves and Have-Nots evolves . . . A portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength, the novel . . . probes into the very nature of equality and justice in America.”

Coda: My Favorite Books from 2018

Sure there’s Amazon, but I highly recommend visiting your library. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how the New York Public Library allowed me to read more and quit sooner. They have everything (including e-books)! And it’s much easier to bail on a book you can return.

Memoir 
I Will Not Fear: My Story of a Lifetime of Building Faith under Fire, by Melba Beals. The story of one of the first African American students to integrate Arkansas schools and how it prepared her to persevere in the face of discrimination throughout her life.

Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover. Not just about “those religious extremists over there.” In reality there’s similar elements of religious fundamentalism and patriarchy affecting women in the churches and religious schools where I grew up.

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, by Phil Knight. Nike’s growth from fledgling startup to fashion powerhouse with glimpses into the basic human longings even the most successful entrepreneurs feel.

Classics
Stop judging me.

Fiction
Property: Stories Between Two Novellas, by Lionel Shriver. What happens when the things we own end up owning us?

Politics & Social Sciences
Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, by Linda Tirado. Is the fact that so many Americans live in poverty, an indictment on the individual or the society? Helpful first-hand nuance to that question.

Urbanism 
The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, by Joel Kotkin. What happens when millennials living in cities start having kids? How can a city become more livable without losing its identity to commercialization.

Education
Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School, by Carla Shalaby. Highly recommended for teachers. An empathetic look at “troublemakers” and how medication masks the deeper problems not with them, but with our schools.

Religious
Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, by Timothy Keller.
The most helpful book for my Christian walk that I’ve ever read.