The Case for Reading Fewer Books

I never plan the coincidence of what I’m reading, but the random mixture of my broad-ranging choices often presents interesting outcomes. More of my stories and poems than I can count sprout from a strange mixture of genres. I might be listening to a commercial horror audio book, reading challenging literary fiction in paperback, and slowly paging through a poetry anthology all at the same time. I read nonfiction for research, fun popular fiction to know what’s going on in the industry, classics to understand my genre lineage, funny books, sad books, sexy books, thoughtful books, outrageous books, and even my critique partners’ books. It’s always interesting to see what effects these various concoctions form in my mind, and it’s often delightfully serendipitous.

For the past chunk of time – probably a month at least, I would imagine – I’ve been reading a poetry collection called The Unswept Room by Sharon Olds as well as the long gothic novel The Witching Hour by Anne Rice. This happy coincidence taught me one important thing: the incredible value of reading slow.

  

When I read the opening poem in Olds’s collection, I had to put the book down. It struck me hard, and I wanted to stop and think about it. The next day, I read the second poem, and I swear by the end of it I was breathless. I had the type of reaction a poet can only dream of: wide eyes, pounding pulse, brain whirling. I had to close the book. I might have uttered choice profanity and lovingly clenched the book to my chest. I am honestly not kidding or even exaggerating. She’s that good.

And that was the crazy part: almost all of the poems were make-me-stop good. Over and over I tried to sit for longer chunks and read several poems, but I never could do it. I had to digest each one thoroughly, reread many again later before moving forward. I had to take it slow so I could better savor the work of who has certainly become my new favorite poet.

Switch to The Witching Hour. This book is over a thousand pages long. It’s dense as hell and certainly a commitment to start. Knowing that Anne Rice would take me there (and remembering how it happily took me my entire junior year of high school to read Queen of the Damned), I eagerly sank into the slow, rich, meticulous pace of it. It took me all of a week to realize three things. 1) I had been cheating myself by subconsciously choosing shorter books. 2) Long books can do things that shorter books simply cannot accomplish. 3) There is nothing more magical than getting lost in something you love when you know that something will last.

If you’ll forgive the adult metaphor (gasp! sex!), The Witching Hour reminded me why the height of a book’s plot is called the climax. Shorter novels can have wonderful climaxes too, of course, but it’s simply not possible for them to achieve the amount of sheer momentum and build-up of a longer book. More pay-in creates more pay-off. I knew these characters not just by their most interesting/unique attributes, but in all of their moods and aspects. I knew not just enough backstory to carry me through, but the entire history of them and their family. I knew not just what was at stake for this one couple, but for the world at large. By the time I got to page 900 I felt like I’d lived several lives and the end was nigh, and, again, I was left literally short of breath. It’s been a really long time since a book made me feel like that.

For some reason, it took the coincidence of Olds and Rice to make me realize how much I love this – reading slow – and how much I’d stopped doing it. I think this shift came about around the same time I started using Goodreads. Don’t get me wrong; I adore Goodreads. But keeping track of how many books I read each year makes me naturally number-hungry. I’m a very goal-oriented person, so even if I don’t set a concrete number I want to read each year, I still find myself subconsciously ticking off a checkmark each time I finish something new. The ramifications of that are that I choose easier, shorter, faster books almost without even thinking about it. I want more numbers, more checkmarks, and that made me quietly reluctant to pick up Tolstoy or The Historian.

What a loss.

At least now I’m aware of it, so I can stop letting quiet hesitations influence my reading choices. (And for the record, it’s not as if I was reading bad quicker reads; I was and will still read really amazing shorter novels too!) The first thing I did when I finished The Witching Hour was go out and buy the two sequels. Up next after those? I don’t know. Maybe Tolstoy or The Historian. 😉

There’s so much value in reading slow, reading thorough, reading thoughtfully. Hell, why not re-read? I’ve always heard writers talk about reading a book again right after finishing it the first time: once for story and once for craft. I’ve re-read books, sure, but not back to back. I think maybe I will now. Why not? It isn’t about the number of checkmarks I get. It’s about how much pleasure reading brings to my life, and like all good things, if it’s worth doing, it’s probably worth doing slowly.

Read less? Never.

Read fewer books? When they’re worth it: absolutely.

Do you find yourself reading fast and easy, or toward a goal? When was the last time you let yourself really savor something? Speed-readers and dawdlers alike welcome to the conversation! 🙂

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  • Julia Munroe Martin

    This is so interesting because I had the same experience…reading toward a goal. I also would always finish a book (even if I didn’t like it). I read very quickly, and for a while it was really fun to see how many books I could read, but then it kind of backfired, and I completely stopped reading for a while. I’m now doing as you are, reading more slowly, but I’m also allowing myself to stop reading if I don’t like a book. By the way, I also almost never check into Goodreads anymore. Here’s to savoring and dawdling 🙂

    • I was (and somewhat still am) a chronic finisher too! It’s so very difficult for me to stop partway through a book, even if I’m not enjoying it at all. But one book finally broke me, and ever since putting down that one I’ve gotten better at putting down others. (Incidentally, I’ve also gotten better at giving up on TV shows that fade in quality.) I still love keeping track of all of my books in Goodreads, but now I’m just refusing to let the number be my measure of reading. 🙂

  • Regina Richards

    Very thought-provoking post. I don’t read toward a goal in fiction, but I do in non-fiction. Now I’m wondering how both those behaviors are affecting my experience. Something to think on.

    • Thank you! Ironically, I actually love reading goals–but only for a while. I think they can be a fabulous way to refresh the passion and, like Julia said above, teach us how much we’re actually capable of reading in a week/month/year. The trick (for me at least) is to shake off that “more is better” mentality after the challenge is over and get back to reading to savor.

  • This is a great, thought-provoking post, Annie. I’ll definitely be checking out Sharon Olds. I’m reading slower this year. I don’t think I made a conscious decision to do so. It’s partly because of time constraints, but mostly because I’m rereading books to study the craft. The first book I read immediately after finishing was Divergent by Veronica Roth. It struck a chord in me with the world building and characterizations; I didn’t want to leave it behind (the second book wasn’t available yet). I understand how you feel about Goodreads. I adore it too, but at the end of the year when I haven’t met my goal I want to rush through shorter novels. No more. I want to truly absorb what I’m reading.

    • Thanks Missy! I think you would LOVE Sharon Olds. I started with Satan Says and then read The Unswept Room. I love that you’re rereading for craft. I need to start doing that more often and intentionally. And I never set goals on Goodreads, but I still keep an eye on that number. No more for me either!

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    I agree with everything you say in this post, and the crazy thing is that, just this weekend, I was assessing my own reading habits and thinking about how I’ve been reading only for pleasure lately (due to various life hiccups that make less challenging books preferable). It made me realize how much I miss reading for craft, and how reading for craft, for me, equates to reading slow. When I really digest a book and pick it apart/examine it, I get SO much more out of it. Maybe on some subconscious level, I learned craft lessons from the quicker, easier reads, but I don’t FEEL like I have. Maybe that’s because I haven’t savored them the way I want. And thus I feel less inspired, if that makes sense.

    Another thing I decided a few months ago, is that I am going to do a re-read of a favorite as well. Like you, I do get caught up in the goals I set on Goodreads, and I’ve realized, also like you, that it’s not about the number. It’s about the experience and what I want to get out of the reading, personally.

    • Isn’t it weird how things like this come around? I was looking in my TimeHop app the other day and realized I posted about a similar topic one year ago. It must be the pace of this time of year or something.

      Your take on reading for pleasure vs. craft is really interesting. I realized I feel the same way, but when I stop and think about it I can actually think of lots of things I learned from leisure reads. The *impression* of learning is stronger, I think, when we take the time and do it on purpose, as you said.

      I have a few books I especially love to re-read, but most of them are actually for pleasure reading. I’ve read plenty of books for craft, but they were on the first round, not a re-read. I’d like to re-read Wuthering Heights for craft sometime soon.

  • A. B. Davis

    Great post, Annie! And I love that the epiphany for it came in reading Anne Rice and Sharon Olds. Actually, the last book I took a really long time to read that really hit me hard at the climax was The Passage, and before that The Historian. I think you will love it. Kostova has that sweeping magic that lasts well over 700 pages, but also gets you at all those minor notes along the way. I love writers that can make me completely lose myself in lengthy stories. Isn’t that why we all love reading? I’m going through that now with Night Film. 🙂 But yes, Goodreads has affected me, has made me race to finish books. Thanks for this reminder to take things slow, absorb by osmosis, thoroughly enjoy. (I really need to get to The Witching Hour)

    • Thanks Ashley. Oh, I loved The Passage! It took me a long time, too. It’s a long, complex book with an epic scope. In that way (plus the upmarket style + supernatural element) it actually does remind me a little of The Witching Hour. I think you’ll like that one. I’m excited to get to The Historian. I might read a shorter book or two between for a break, but I’d definitely like to read it this year. And Night Film has been on my list for a while now, as you know! So much juicy goodness to read. 🙂

  • This is SUCH a good point. I for sure read fast with a (self-incflicted) pressure to read as much as I can. People send me books and have expectations, etc–that also adds to my speed. I think slowing down sounds REALLY NICE!

    • Thanks! I have to tell you: it really, really is. Just like reading challenges can reinvigorate the passion in the beginning, slowing down and intentionally savoring reinvigorates it (for me at least) later on. I think it’s well worth trying both.

  • I’ve been on a bit of a numbers deal myself this year. I think, I too, will change that.

  • Carie Juettner

    As you know, I also made it my goal to read fewer books this year. I don’t know if I’m truly going to stick to it or not, but it’s made me look at reading differently and be more at peace with whatever I am or am not reading. Of course, it’s still hard not to go fast when there are SO MANY books on my to-read list. And now you’ve just added another one. Thanks. 🙂

    • I did think of you when I was writing this! I almost messaged you to ask how it was going, but I remembered you posting something about reading as many books as possible for a charity of some kind (?) and I thought, “Probably not well.” Haha! I adore how much you love reading AND how much you read. For the record, I also think it’s totally possible to read thoroughly *and* prolifically, if one has the time. Sounds like maybe that’s your course. Oh, what a burden! 😉

      • Carie Juettner

        But it was for CHARITY! For CHILDREN! 🙂

  • I’m so glad you’ve found books that move and delight you! Yay! There are still a few books where the prose leaves me breathless, where I deliberately put the book down after a chapter or two so I can savor it longer, and I wish it was longer like the giant books I used to buy when I was younger. But most books are “have-to” books for people I’ve promised to review. *sigh* I can now skim a 200 page book in one evening. I imagine I’ll get faster in the next few years as the number of books I read that aren’t in a genre I’m interested in and feature characters I don’t care about increases. Almost makes me long for the days I knew nothing about the craft of writing and was free to enjoy more things.

    • Thanks Lexa! It breaks my heart to hear you talk about reading as a chore. And skimming a 200-page book in one night — my poor, pokey little heart. 🙁 But I do understand the commitments. I wonder if you could maybe schedule yourself one week a month or one month a year (or something) where you make no commitments and only read what moves you for the sheer joy of it? You deserve your good books, too!

      • Don’t let your heart break! I began reading voraciously when I was about 11 and continued for about 40 years. That’s a LOT of reading, and I read great stuff, including lots of Rice, King, Koontz, McCammon, Wilson, Straub, Crichton, Saberhagen, and Herbert. (Not to mention SF authors like Asimov, Heinlein, Anderson, Herbert, Zelazny, Card, and Hamilton.) Most of the newer horror authors aren’t to my taste anyway. I’ve only been caught up in reviewing-commitments for about 3 years. And reviewing-commitments are sort of like social media–a necessary evil if you’re a struggling author. So I grin and bear it! 🙂

        • Well, if you’re cool with it I’m cool with it, I guess. *quietly pouts* =)~

  • I read The Witching Hour 22 years ago and still recollect with jaw-dropping amazement Rice’s sweeping overview of the Mayfair family in the first part of the novel. It was just. That. Good. I also agree with you about longer novels, Annie. Among reader friends, I have a legendary tendency to dive in and get lost in longer, sprawling stories. Pynchon’s Mason & Nixon is a recent example. I still have a friend from college who messages me every time he starts something like DeLillo’s Underworld or, as you mentioned, Tolstoy, almost as though he’s trying to prove he can do it too. LOL! I will be interested in hearing your thoughts on Lasher, since you mentioned you’re delving into the sequels. Happy reading!

    • Yeah, it really is. I don’t think I’ve ever read another author who handles sheer scope as deftly as she does. The only Pynchon I’ve read is his shortest, The Crying of Lot 49, but I loved it, so his longer works are on my “someday” list. DeLillo, too, because I did also enjoy The Names. So far Lasher is also good, but of a much smaller scope, so it’ll be interesting to see where it goes. Thanks, Jay!

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  • Veronica Schultz

    I had the same “problem” with Goodreads. I’m a business analyst. I like to track the numbers. It’s what I DO. People pay me for it. So when I discovered Goodreads, I started reading shorter books. I was even excited when my husband told me about a short graphic novel that I’d like, because I could read it really fast and it counted toward my total. On one hand, this is wonderful. I’ve read quite a few books that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise, and most of them I’ve loved. I had never read comics before. Then there was The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. I might have read it eventually, but it wouldn’t have been a priority. The numbers made it a priority, and I’m grateful because it’s a wonderful book. Before Goodreads, my favorites had always been the long books. The Witching Hour. The Historian. Odd things like House of Leaves where you have to figure out HOW to read it. I put off reading Game of Thrones until recently because I knew it would destroy my numbers. But I’m glad (usually) that I started reading it. I mean, George R.R. Martin should probably be on some kind of federal watch list…but the book is amazing. The challenge will be getting through the series before my friends, the internet, and the TV tell me everything that happens.

    • It sounds like we have similar tastes! HoL is one of my all-time favorites, and yeah… cranking out numbers for Goodreads would definitely have put me off from that one, which would’ve been a tragedy. I wish there was a way to count “time spent” reading rather than “books,” so those of us who are goal-oriented could still read ambitiously AND feel accomplished. 🙂