My puppy Stanley is obsessed with leaves on the ground, especially when they’re brought to life by the wind. As the breeze animates the crackly remnants of a Florida “winter,” Stanley perks up at their aliveness, zones in on one like it’s a mouse and he’s a cat—and pounces. But once he’s got one and realizes it’s just a leaf, he moves on to the next, just as excited, hoping this will be the one that is truly alive.
It’s fun to watch, but annoying when we’re trying to walk—a constant start, stop, start, stop, start, stop.
And that is exactly what has happened to my reading life.
I’ve been obsessed with books since my very first Dr. Seuss ABC book. The library has always been my favorite place—the kind of place that makes you feel alive, like a kid in a toy store again, like magic is real.
Now my library is inundated with fliers about all the ways I can “check out” e-books, and the first thing I see in bookstores are big bright displays of e-reader cases. But I walk right by with a pile of books in hand, anyway.
I love getting stacks of books from the library and working through them, book by book, so much so that I’m not ready to give it up. The smell. The pages. The sense of progress that I can feel in my hands, knowing how far I’ve gotten in a book and how far I still have to go. It makes me feel grounded, satisfied.
But then my overdue library charges start racking up as I have less and less time to make the biweekly trip, and I’m not always finishing the stacks of books I’d intended. And as I travel more and my suitcases are starting to creep past the weight limit. So I break down and buy an e-reader.
The thrill is instant and I wonder why I waited so long. The libraries and bookstores are in my hand, accessible from my couch. Leaves! Wind!
I pounce on a book hungrily and then curiosity leads me to another, and then another, and then another. I ping pong within this flurry of e-books in a joyous frenzy.
It is truly joyous.
Until it isn’t.
In December, I count how many books I read that year and compare it to the previous year, something I started doing a few years ago. But this year is the first that I have not read more books than the previous year. I read less. I look on my e-reader and see I have 17 books in a collection I’d titled “Currently Reading.” Somehow I’ve gone from reading one book at a time to 17 at a time.
I feel weirdly unsettled about this. I know no one cares but me, no one is watching—there are no rules for how you’re supposed to read. But suddenly I know that this isn’t working for me. The joy is gone.
Something needs to change.
I go through each of the 17 unfinished books and ask myself the following questions:
1) Why didn’t I finish this?
2) Does it still interest me now?
3) Why haven’t I let it go yet?
I wonder to myself, Am I allowed to not finish some of these books? Am I allowed to admit that some things just don’t interest me anymore?
I do something that, for me, is drastic: I give myself permission to not finish the books that no longer interest me (or help me reach one of my most important goals).
And the biggest change of all—I decide not to feel guilty about it.
I spend more time walking my puppy and less time reading. I let go of the books that truly don’t interest me any longer. I take a break from reading for a few days. I think long and hard about the following questions: Why do I read? What do I want to get out of the books that I read right now?
After my reading break I open a new word document, title it “Reading List,” and type out the answers to those questions at the very top, a kind of criteria to help me choose my next books.
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I make a short list of the books that fit my new criteria and make a rule for myself that I will not start the next book on the list until I finish the one above it: a reading experiment.
I do really well. I focus on the Jim Henson biography only. It’s magical.
About three fourths of the way in I relapse; I take a quick three-page peek into another book—an autobiography of Warner Brothers cartoon animator Chuck Jones that Lin-Manuel Miranda (writer of the Grammy-winning Broadway sensation Hamilton) says is one of the best books on the creative process and inspired him as a kid. Leaf! Wind! I stray for a second.
But three pages in, I’m satisfied—yes, this Chuck Amuck is going to be a good one. I place it in the number two spot on my list and return to the Jim Henson book.
I continue Jim Henson’s biography without any other interruptions. As I read the book every morning, Jim Henson is alive, sitting at my breakfast table—striving, creating, teaching me something. I get to the end of the book—his untimely death, the memorial service with the paper butterflies—and I weep like I haven’t wept after a book in years.
It’s a full, satisfying experience. It reminds me why I read in the first place.
I slow down. I realize I will never read all the books I want to read. I am too curious of a person. Every book opens up 20 more books I want to read. I’ll never finish. And somehow just saying that out loud makes me feel better.
I move the Jim Henson book to the “Finished” collection and begin the Chuck Jones autobiography. A few pages in, Stanley rings the bells on our door letting me know he needs to go out. I put the e-reader down and take him for a walk. It’s another windy day and as thousands of leaves come to life and Stanley begins his chase, for the first time I notice that he never gets frustrated with the leaves that flutter out of his reach, but delights in each one he grasps.
Related: 6 Ideas to Embrace Your Curious Side