On Being (Sp)Read Too Thin: The Paradox of Reading Choice

“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

So says Bilbo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring. And boy can I ever commiserate with our fuzzy-footed friend.

I look at the (literally) teetering stack of books on my bedside table, the twenty-or-so titles currently loaded on my Kindle (some started, many as yet untouched), the pile of library books gathering dust on a chair, and my latest purchase from a used book store resting on the table by my front door. I look at these and feel like a failure.

I’ve finished exactly one book in the last two months (Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, which is maybe the best book I’ve read this year, so, you know, it isn’t all gloom and doom). That would, by my typical expectations, be a bad sign for the health of my reading life, given that I usually read somewhere between 30 and 50 books a year. But here’s the weird part: I’ve been reading a TON. The books in all those stacks I mentioned earlier? Most of them have a bookmark tucked somewhere between their covers.

The problems isn’t that I haven’t had time to read or that I’ve let myself get wrapped up in other hobbies, work, distractions, etc. The issue is that I have so many quality choices and so much access to books that I’m paralyzed, unable to zero in on one (or even two or three) to pursue with everything I’ve got.

This isn’t a reading slump so much as an example of Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice played out in my personal library (it’s probably a good thing I don’t actually have a copy of Schwartz’s book, because I’d probably try to read that too). Here’s a list of books that I have started at some point over the last two months but have, as of yet, not finished.

I’m switching up between fiction and non-fiction, physical books and my ereader, new releases and classics, and still bupkis.

I have read some of all of these books, and all of them have been compelling in some way. I want to finish them all, and at some point I hope that I will, but for now, there’s a bottleneck of epic proportions, and I’m off to the side, tsk-tsking these books, wishing that one of them would pull away from the rest.

Or, at least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself.

But of course the crowded traffic metaphor is ridiculous, because it conveniently puts the books on the spot and leaves me out of it, when all I would really have to do to solve this “problem” is put the title of each book into a hat and draw one out. Boom. There’s the one I finish next. I could put away my guilt about leaving these excellent works half-read and just put the hammer to the nail.

In fact, that’s what I’m going to do right now (except because I’m sitting at my computer, I’m going to use random.org). Hold on.

Random.org screenshot

LEAGUE OF DENIAL was the 2nd book listed above, so that’s the book I’m putting all else aside to finish.


Ok, League of Denial it is. Kind of a lucky break, since I’m nearly finished with it already. Sometimes fate smiles upon us readers. Whew.

I’d understand if any of you feels like I’ve made a mountain out of a molehill here, that having too many good books to choose from isn’t any reason for guilt or anxiety or an entire post on Book Riot. But here’s the thing: no reader likes it when their bookish mojo gets sapped, whether the cause is a string of books that couldn’t hold their attention, an increase in busyness in the rest of their lives, or because they’ve got a dump-truck-load of good books to which they want to devote equal time and attention.

If the paradox of reading choice has reared its head in your life, I want to hear about it. What where the books competing for your attention? How did you resolve the bookish traffic jam?

Give me a shout in the comments. In the meantime, I’m going to steep myself in the NFL’s concussion crisis. Everything else is just going to have to wait.

There's only one way to respond to "two free audiobooks." It's "sign me up!"