I’m not a fast reader. It often amazes me when people online say they’ve read a hundred books a year, since even fifty is more than I can typically mange. It takes me a month or more to dissect most books (though I’ll often read several at a time). I want to note everything the writer has to say; it feels like a disservice to try and speed through their work.
My TBR list grows faster than I can read. I get interested in one or two new subjects every month, but most of the time there will be months more until I can think to pursue any of them through reading.
I don’t necessarily mind. As long as I’m occupied, reading good fiction and nonfiction where I can, I’m relatively satisfied. But this does raise a question I think many people have struggled with at some point.
With so many books and so little time, how can you, the reader, ever be satisfied or feel fulfilled?
About a month ago, I wrote a post about reading and how to remember what you read. I stick by what I said there, especially about speed-reading: If you’re going in with the mindset of “I’m going to read all the books,” you’ll probably only gain surface-level satisfaction from the individual pieces. And if a book is unenjoyable or uninformative, why are you even reading it in the first place? I’m of the opinion that speed-reading just to check books off your list is hardly reading at all, let alone consuming.
Now, obviously some can read faster than others from the start. Most of my friends, for example, are much faster readers than I, in that they can process information on a page at a faster rate. That out of the way, reading just to say you’ve read is hardly productive, no matter how fast or slow of a reader you are. I mean, I’m not usually one to question someone else’s motives in this case, but come on.
Acknowledge that you’re not God
When asking ourselves how we can be satisfied as readers, we first have to recognize the fact that no, we’re not going to read “all the books.” I mean, if you can find a way to read 4,716 and a half books a day from the moment you’re born, be my guest. But in reality, we’re going to have to narrow down the scope of what we want to read quite a bit.
Obviously it’s fine to be all over the place at first, not quite sure what you like and what you don’t. But eventually, once you’re able to acknowledge that some things have to be cut, a good next step will be to think about what interests you the most.
Do fantasy novels provide that thoughtful philosophy or escapism you need to deal with your work life? Great. Are you in a field of professional study that requires you do research on a certain topic? Fine. Do you just want to know as much as you can about the natural sciences? Fantastic.
It should go without saying at this point that “knowing as much as you can” is not equivalent to “reading as much as you can.” Naturally, if you speed-read but don’t internalize the majority of information (or waste your time on books that are mostly fluff), you’re going to know less than if you devote yourself to critically acclaimed books and form habits to remember what you read. That said, trying new, less well-known books can also be a great way of reading and supporting others, and popularity doesn’t mean everything in terms of content.
You want the time you spend reading to be worth it. In the end, it’s far more impressive to know more than someone else on a topic than it is to have read all the books on that topic but remember little to nothing.
Now, those last couple of ideas were geared more toward the consumption of nonfiction material, but what I said goes for fiction as well. Of course, read what you wish if you’re reading for enjoyment. (In contrast to nonfiction, I actually would recommend strongly against reading reviews for fiction first.) And maybe you can internalize the plot even at a near speed-reading pace. But again, I’d implore you to find the why of what you’re reading.
Once you know that essential why, you’ll be able to spend less time roaming around the bookstore, and you’ll know what to look for in the books you read.
How to be satisfied
This isn’t a concern for everyone. If you’ve found what I’ve said thus far helpful (or not), but you feel pretty fulfilled as it is, feel free to end here. The following will be for those who still feel frustrated at how many books there are that they just won’t be able to finish in their lifetime.
So how can you be satisfied without having read every book on the shelf?
The following is my personal take. Consistently reading books that are fulfilling to you in some way should be satisfying enough. Read at your own pace, and do your best to remember what you read, using whatever method suits you. If you don’t like a book, put it down, because life’s too short to finish that. And if others try to put you down for reading what you do, that’s more of a reflection of them than you, so I’d implore you not to worry too hard about being judged.
In reality, though we think this might be the case, your friends and colleagues won’t look down on you for having read less books than they have. Especially if you can tell them loads about the subject. And no one on earth expects you to have read every single book of influence. So find your niche, make a plan, and do your best to stick to it. I believe in you.
I’ll leave you with one more thing. Mistakes, like in anything else, are prevalent in reading. It may take time to find what works for you in terms of memorization. That’s okay. You may finish books only to find that they didn’t leave you with anything. Cool. There will probably be times when you just don’t have time to read all the books you wanted to in a given month or year. That’s perfectly alright. But in these situations, don’t give up entirely. Stitch up your plan, and when you’re able, get back to it.
It can be hard to think about our own mortality. But in this case, it’s important to accept that there are some things that you just won’t get to. And that’s perfectly okay.