The Case for Raising Your Reading Standards (If You’re Like Me and Don’t Have Any)

Reading StandardsA less-is-better ethic is taking hold of my life. Influenced by an eclectic mix of productivity gurus, leadership coaches, spiritual guides and environmentalists whose teachings are surprisingly similar, I’m getting increasingly choosy. Refusing invitations. Declining requests. Limiting commitments. Editing my closet. And generally whittling away the excesses of my life to focus on the few things that really matter to me.

Depending upon your advisor, this focus on pursuing fewer activities of higher quality apparently can help us fulfill our potential, save the planet, find God. As a recovering overscheduled-overcommitted-overwhelmed person, I’m all in with the trend…except for one area: my books.

My reading life is wild. My bookshelves untamed. I read voraciously, haphazardly even, giving my time to too many unfulfilling books and letting too many promising titles linger unread. But the mere thought of imposing some discipline on my book buys fills me with dread. I’m talking shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, trembling. I start seeing things, specifically the specter of a high priestess of Literature (who bears a striking resemblance to Francine Prose) hurling books off my shelves and epithets (overwrought! middlebrow! trash!) at my head.

But sometimes we have to venture out of our comfort zones and scrutinize the things we hold dear. In my case, this means taking a closer look at my wide-ranging collection of books, spanning genres and cultures, poetry and prose, attic to basement. So I’ve decided to submit my books to the tidy step-by-step discernment process that Greg McKeown outlines in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. A new addition to the growing literature of choosiness, Essentialism suggests that every opportunity should be vetted according to the following process:

  1. Write down the opportunity.
  2. Write down a list of three minimum criteria the opportunity would need to meet in order to be considered.
  3. Write down a list of three ideal or extreme criteria the opportunity would need to pass in order to be considered.
  4. Reject opportunities that don’t meet the minimum criteria AND those that don’t meet two of the three extreme criteria.

If the past is any indication, my basic requirements are quite minimal. Books need be little more than available, legible and in English to earn consideration.

But with too little reading time and so many bad books out there, maybe it’s time for me to raise the bar just a smidge. With McKeown’s “extreme” selection criteria in mind, I’m setting a stretch goal, if you will: Every book I complete should move me–extend my imagination, push my thinking or my being forward, make me laugh or cry out loud. Every book I complete should deliver this ideal reading experience irrespective of genre, author credentials, reviewer opinion or online buzz–and by page 50. It should do these things for me personally, specifically, and significantly. If not, it’s okay to toss it aside.

The trade-off is clear. Reject books that don’t rise to the standard I’ve set and be rewarded with another that does. Not bad. What took me so long?

Is life too short to read books that don’t speak to you? Have you set specific reading criteria for yourself? What makes the cut? What doesn’t?

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