Our Reading Lives

Why My Resolution is to Read Less in 2024

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Leah Rachel von Essen

Senior Contributor

By day, Leah Rachel von Essen is the editor-in-chief of Chicago Booth Magazine at the University of Chicago. By night, she reviews genre-bending fiction for Booklist, and writes regularly as a senior contributor at Book Riot. Her blog While Reading and Walking has over 10,000 dedicated followers over several social media outlets, including Instagram. She writes passionately about books in translation, chronic illness and bias in healthcare, queer books, twisty SFF, and magical realism and folklore. She was one of a select few bookstagrammers named to NewCity’s Chicago Lit50 in 2022. She is an avid traveler, a passionate fan of women’s basketball and soccer, and a lifelong learner. Twitter: @reading_while

Almost every year of my life, I’ve set a reading goal. Some years, I’ve set a numerical goal: to read 150–200 books. Other years, I avoid doing so, preferring to let myself enjoy reading and let what happens with the numbers happen. Not this year.

My New Year’s resolution for 2024 is to actively force myself to read less.

Not just reel myself back. Not just take my Goodreads goal down from 250 to something realistic. No — this year, I want to set a maximum. I want to limit my reading. I want to force myself to slow down. And shed my own expectations of myself in the process.

It all started when I received a COVID-19 diagnosis after coming down with a frightening fever on a vacation in the Bay Area. I was frustrated, sick, and near tears (as a fervent masker). The pharmacy was taking an extremely long time to fill my Paxlovid prescription. And I was looking down a tunnel of six long days in isolation in a hotel room, ordering takeout and nervously checking my bank accounts before I would be able to safely consider flying home.

In that moment, I realized: I was out of books. For once, I’d packed appropriately for the trip I was going on, and I had just one half of a book left, which I had been supposed to finish on my plane ride home. I was about to be put into isolation for a week with no books? Just…my thoughts? That was unacceptable, so I secured an emergency stack of books from Barnes & Noble, chosen in a haze.

Stack of books with flowers draped on it
My stack of books from Barnes & Noble!

For the next six days, I read that stack from top to bottom.

And I realized that it had been a long time since I bought a book and opened it right away. Nowadays, I buy books, happily, but then I add them to my towering to-read stack. I get piles of review copies in the mail from publishers. I try to read all of the books in my books in translation lists. I have stacks and shelves of books that I need to read.

During the pandemic, I had more time, and I filled it with books, and my productivity and quotas went way up. I made commitments that were no longer realistic. I thought I could keep pumping out the same number of reviews and books-in-translation pieces, but then I would look at my monthly reading list, and I would need to read 15 books to just fill my own quotas. I haven’t been writing, I haven’t had time, and life has been chaotic and emotional.

Pandemic time left (though the pandemic continues), but the frantic pace followed me into everyday life. I hold myself to the same standards. I got stressed when a book by Elena Ferrante took me a whole week to read, and so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have.

So that week of reading a stack that was new and unconsidered while I was sick and isolated and literally couldn’t do anything else was actually kind of liberating.

And then, a few weeks later, I walked into a used bookstore, and the smell hit me with rich, full nostalgia. When I was eight or nine, my great-aunt would take me to a used bookstore in New Brunswick that smelled just like it and set me loose. Every book was under $5, and I would hunt and gather and hoard, going home with a stack. It’s how I discovered the Fear Street books by R.L. Stine, how I stumbled into some classic fantasy, how I first acquired some classics. I didn’t do that same process of discovery anymore, I realized. I didn’t feel like I had the time.

Something had to change.

I might not be able to walk back the clock to when I was eight and could read anything and everything just to find out. I am still a book reviewer and blogger, and I love what I do. I have a to-read pile that I have to give priority.

But this year, I’ve received hotly anticipated new releases and not had time to read them. I went to a Zadie Smith book signing and idly wondered when I’d actually have time to read The Fraud. I don’t want that to be my life anymore. I need to recapture some of the wonder of it — I need to let myself walk out of that event and immediately open the new Smith to its creamy first page.

So, in 2024, I’m not just going to be easy on myself or lower my reading goal number. That’s not enough because my internal clock and expectations are demanding way too much of me. I am actively going to make myself read less. If I have a hyper-productive month, I’ll push back next month. I’ll limit the number of review copies I read and prioritize the backlist sitting on my shelf or the new discoveries I pick up. I’ll reread without the pressure of a book stack weighing on my shoulders.

I’ll let myself recapture the joy of finishing one book and genuinely not knowing which book might come next.