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Our Reading Lives

Learning to Let Go of Reading Books at the “Right Time”

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The Problem

Recently I finally picked up a book that has been on my TBR shelf for three years, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. I read it in roughly two sittings, and while I enjoyed it and eagerly started in on the sequel I found myself thinking “if I had read this book three years ago I would have loved it so much more.” And then came reader’s guilt.

The Raven Boys book cover

I had bought the book three years ago, and because hindsight is 2020 I knew this book would have had a much bigger impact on me if I had read it right away. I started to think that maybe if I could have gotten my act together sooner I would have had a better time reading the book. By letting it sit, was I being unfair to the book? Was I being a bad reader? How do I rate this book? Do I give it the four I thought it was now? Do I give it the five I would have given it two years ago?

Presumably, I am not the only one who has had this experience or asked these questions. This spiral of guilt about reading the right book at the wrong time happens to me more than I’d like to admit. Most of the time I would just try and forget it, and resolve to pay more attention to my TBR in the future. Despite this resolve, however, life is busy and TBR lists are long. 

This time felt different though. I couldn’t tell if I was working myself up like usual, or if this was me realizing I had a big problem when it came to reading. 

The Solution

Determined to make myself feel better I looked at what I was reading three years ago. Scrolling through my Goodreads I realized that three years ago was the first time I had ever surpassed my reading goal. I wanted to read one book a week for a total of 52 books. I ended up reading 56 that year. That’s nothing to sneeze at. The year before I had read only a total of 26 books. That’s a 30 book leap from one year to the next, that’s huge. 

When I looked at the books I read that year, a lot of them were rated very highly. It had been a great year for reading for me. Some of the books I read have become foundational to my continued development as a reader and a writer. There were a few flops of course, and several of the books I read were requirements for my undergrad, but the vast majority of what I read for fun that year was top tier. In fact, one book I read, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, is now in my top five books of all time. 

If I had read The Raven Boys and the rest of the series when I bought them, I would have had to take out other books I loved that year. And while I know I would have loved reading it, was I willing to let go of five of the other books I read that year? Not really. Especially not knowing which of those books would have to be “traded.”

Once I had framed it in my head like that I felt instantly better. While a book might have meant more to me earlier in life, I wasn’t ready to sacrifice the books I did read at that time. When it came down to it I realized that if I always try to read “the right book at the right time” I would miss out on so many happy accidents reads. At the end of the day, I would rather have books that I read and loved on accident, than books I constantly was trying to schedule in to fit perfectly.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, especially when it comes to books that would have helped me feel more comfortable with my sexuality earlier. However, it’s helpful to remember that a book I wish I had growing up is still helping tons of other people at the right time for them.

Just like we as readers need to accept that we won’t ever read every book, we have to accept that not every book we do read will be the “right” book for us. This is one of the things that makes reading beautiful. Each book will mean different things at different times to different people. And who’s to say that in ten years I won’t reread a book that will feel more pertinent to me at that point than it did when I read it for the first time. 

Once we let go of reading something at the “right time,” we let go of a lot of guilt. Not all reading roadmaps will look the same. And often despite our best efforts, we will probably have a longer “to-be-read” list than a “have-read” list. That is just what makes us readers.

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