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The Deep Dive

No, you don’t *actually* need to read more this year.

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Rebecca Joines Schinsky

Chief of Staff

Rebecca Joines Schinsky is the executive director of product and ecommerce at Riot New Media Group. She co-hosts All the Books! and the Book Riot Podcast. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccaschinsky.

As I write this in the waning days of 2022, my inbox and Instagram feed are chockablock with suggestions for new year’s resolutions and how to keep them. There are invitations for workout challenges and meditation challenges (an oxymoronic concept if ever there were one, but that’s an essay for a different day), exhortations to practice gratitude and composting and slow fashion, and—you knew it was coming—countless helpful hints for how to read more books in 2023. Don’t get me wrong; I am extremely pro- all of these things. My personal routines include exercise, meditation, and a daily gratitude practice, and one of my intentions for the new year is to avoid fast fashion. I like a goal as much as the next girl, and I’m not here to judge. What I want to interrogate is not whether these things—the exercise and meditation and reading and eating less red meat—are good, but the idea that we should do more of them each year, emphasis on both the should and the more. Why is “read more books” such a popular resolution, and what other frameworks might we bring to thinking about what ​reading means in our lives?

It’s tempting to dismiss the ubiquity of new year’s resolution-focused content as a product of capitalism. Sell people the belief that they have a problem, then sell them the solution. Tale as old as time, right? Not to mention that in advertising- and affiliate-based business models, you can sell someone else’s solution and still make a tidy profit. Again, no shade. I’m 15 years into a career that exists largely because a lot of people click links to books and many of them buy. When we’re talking about new year’s resolutions for just about any interest or avocation, capitalism is an inextricable and undeniable part of the equation, but it’s not the whole story.

There are indications that humans were making new year’s resolutions as long as 4,000 years ago. The siren song of a new year calls us to conceptualize ourselves as resolute: bold, courageous, tenacious, uncompromising, unflinching, unwavering, unyielding, even if the only resolution we’re likely to keep is to continue resolving. We can’t seem to resist an opportunity to collectively press the reset button. Resolutions reveal our values: the ones we hold, the ones we aspire to hold, and the ones who hope to be perceived as holding, and that’s where the prevalence of “read more books” gets interesting to me. 

Before we go any further, let’s agree on a few givens: 

  1. There is value in reading books. You’re subscribed to a deep dive newsletter from a literary publication, so I don’t think I need to cite a pile of evidence for this one, and I’m not particularly interested in it for the purposes of this essay anyway. We feel the value of reading in our lived experiences, and that’s enough for me. While we’re on the subject, though, I will remind you that many of the flashily-headlined studies of the last few years about how reading makes us better people have been debunked.
  2. There is value in identifying what’s important to us and setting goals/intentions/resolutions around those things. Peter Drucker’s axiom that “what gets measured gets managed” is just as true in our leisure time as it is at work. If reading matters to you and you want to set a goal or join a challenge or make a color-coded spreadsheet, go off. 

Okay, now that we’ve established that books are good and I’m not here to yuck your reading resolution yum—a decade and a half of working on the internet teaches you nothing if not how to anticipate the things that will make people write you angry emails—let’s poke at a few things. 

How about some statistics? A Gallup poll released in January 2022 found that the average American read 12.6 books in the past year. If you look closely at the poll, though, you’ll see that it does not equate reading a book with having finished a book, so what we’re actually talking about is that the average American read “all or part of the way through” 12.6 books in the past year. An even closer look will show you that only 27% read more than 10 books in the year, which means that the average was pulled up by outliers on the high end, folks who are probably a lot like you. Put these pieces together, and we can safely assume that most Americans’ reading, where reading = finishing, was somewhere in the single digits. 

So, most people read fewer than 10 books per year. How much do they want to be reading? The best publicly available data about reading goals comes from the annual Goodreads challenge, in which users pledge, “I want to read ____ books in [year].” In 2022, more than 6.5 million readers participated, averaging a pledge of 49 books. Even if we assume—and we should—that Goodreads users are a harder-core flavor of book nerd than the average Americans (yes, I know that not all Goodreads users are American) from the Gallup poll above, those pledges reflect an aspiration to read nearly five times as many books as most Americans do in a given year. That’s a big jump! And it’s made even more interesting by the fact that, as of 2018, only 16% of participants met their challenge goals, with the field as a whole finishing just 21% of the total books pledged. If this year’s stats are anywhere near the same, it seems that most readers’ eyes are bigger than their bookshelves. And that brings me to: why? Why do so many people say they want to read so much more than they actually do or will?

I think the answer starts with something I’m going to call “avocational awe,” cribbing from Fobzai Ettarh’s concept of vocational awe. Ettarh uses the term vocational awe to capture “the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in notions that libraries as institutions are inherently good, sacred notions, and therefore beyond critique.” 

Many of the same ideas, values, and assumptions infuse reading culture, particularly as it appears and is performed online. If there were a Book People’s Creed, it would certainly include a profession of faith in the inherent goodness and sanctity of books and the nobility of reading as a pursuit. More than any other form of consuming art or media, reading is held up as an individual and societal good and a hook on which to hang one’s identity. It’s the kind of hobby you’re supposed to have, an endeavor you should spend your time on. (For a fun side-quest, I invite you to google gift ideas and new year’s resolutions for fans of TV, movies, music, and art, and marvel at how relatively few there are compared to general “Yay Books!” content.)

It’s avocational awe that tells us if some reading is good, more reading is better. It’s a short leap from there to the idea that reading is a moral good, and it is the uncritical acceptance of these notions that is, I think, the reason it’s much more socially acceptable to wear a t-shirt that declares you’re unavailable for interaction with other humans because you’re reading than it would be to rock a “Go away, I’m watching CSI” hoodie. As Book People, we are encouraged to believe that time spent reading any book is better than time spent engaging in basically any other leisure activity, and in a world where the best-selling book of the year can be described as poorly written at best (I read the TikTok phenomenon so you don’t have to), that simply cannot be true. 

Remember, we agreed earlier that there is value in reading books. I’m not here with a hot take that we should all resolve to give up reading. My argument is simply that there is not more inherent value in all reading than in any other uses of our time. Reading in itself is morally neutral; it is something we can do, not something we should do. But avocational awe tells us that it is a should, and I suspect it is the feeling of shouldness combined with a genuine desire to be and do good that drives so many people to publicly set aspirational reading goals.

Remember, we also agreed earlier that there’s value in setting goals and measuring our progress. So what would it look like to right-size our relationship to reading and set a goal that isn’t informed by avocational awe or the one-dimensional identity markers that the Discourse rewards? What if reading resolutions weren’t about should and more but about making a holistic assessment of how we spend our time? What if the goal were simply to figure out the right amount of reading for you? 

In his wonderful book Four Thousand Weeks, which I heartily recommend as we begin a new year, Oliver Burkeman offers a philosophical approach to time management in the grand sense. He frequently reminds readers that our time is finite, therefore every choice we make about how to spend it carries inherent opportunity cost: “As I make hundreds of small choices throughout the day, I’m building a life—but at one and the same time, I’m closing off the possibility of countless others, forever…Any finite life—even the best one you could possibly imagine—is therefore a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility.” 

This isn’t sad or fatalistic, it’s just true. Every hour we spend with a book has its value, yes, and every hour we spend with a book is also an hour we can’t spend doing anything else of value. As the poet Nick Laird puts it, “Time is how we spend our love.” What are the things you love doing? Are you willing to do less of any of them in order to have more time reading? What possibilities will you wave goodbye to? 

Maybe more reading is the right choice for you at this moment. I’m delighted for you! Maybe you’ve concluded that you are already reading enough, that your book time is proportional to where books sit in your life alongside all the other things you care about. What a powerful move, to decide that something is enough! Or maybe, just maybe, you find yourself on the other side of the equation, the one we’re not supposed to speak aloud: maybe in order to spend time with all the things you love, you are going to have to read less. I’m here to tell you that’s allowed, and you don’t have to justify it, even if some of those things carry fewer social rewards or less avocational awe than reading does. 

Books can be a source of education, inspiration, and entertainment. They provide us with new lenses through which to understand the world and ourselves. They are a tool for shaping our visions of life, for doing the hard math of how we spend our love, and for being more engaged with each other and the world. Books are amazing, and books are not life.

Time is a zero-sum game, and there are no do-overs. This is hard math because there’s nothing fuzzy about it. How you do it is between you and your bookshelf.

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