Better Reading with Reading Lists

We would all like to read more, but life always seems to get between us and our books. Kids, jobs, and yard work conspire against our best intentions to read more. And when we finally get some time to read we’re so tired that we opt for a more mindless activity:  TV, Facebook, or sleep.

What can we do? How can we get more reading done with such frenetic schedules?

Photo Credit: » Zitona « via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Zitona via Compfight cc

One technique that experienced readers use to stimulate their reading is to make a reading list. Book lovers are addicted to lists. They have lists for books they want to read,  books they have read, books they should read. Reading lists are such an intimate part of the reading life that good readers can’t imagine life without lists.

If you want to become a better reader, then begin by making a reading list.  Write a simple list of the ten books you most want to read. Include a short reason why you want to read it. For example:

  1. The Odyssey—A classic, want to understand references to cyclops, sirens
  2. The Killing Floor—Liked the Jack Reacher movie, want to see how this character develops
  3. The Complete Calvin and Hobbes—Because it’s Calvin.  And Hobbes.

The Benefits of Reading Lists

This reading list will do three things for your reading:

1. Get you unstuck. At some point in every reading life, we get stuck in a book that we thought we wanted to read.  One third of the way in, we begin having doubts. We have two choices when this happens. First, we can heed Samuel Johnson’s advice to never finish a book just because you started it. We can shelf the book and move on to another one. The second option is to soldier through to the end.

Both are legitimate responses, but if we choose the first option too often, our reading never really improves. We never develop a taste for other genres, never expose ourselves to reading that stretches us beyond our abilities. And worst of all, we begin to judge books based on whether they immediately appeal to us—the most narcissistic criterion of all.

A book list can help you choose option two. It can keep you motivated when you bog down in a book. Looking at what you get to read next can give you the push you need to finish. Reviewing the reason you wanted to read the book in the first place can urge you on to the end. Ultimately, to become a master reader, you will have to push through some difficult books. When you do so, you will usually find that beyond the bog lay the treasure. At the top of the difficult summit, the horizon extends all the way to the sea.

2. Give you multiple perspectives. When writing your reading list, place books with similar themes or concepts next to each other. This enhances your reading of each book by giving you multiple approaches to the same topic.

For instance, this summer I had a hankering for some spy novels (as I do every summer). Looking through my shelves I found three that I hadn’t read before: Kipling’s Kim, Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and John Buchan’s Greenmantle. Now as I read through The Secret Agent, my understanding of Conrad’s story deepens by comparing it to Kipling’s. When I get to Greenmantle, I know it will deepen my reading of all three books considerable.

Each author presents a different take on this tragic period of history.  Reading them in close company gives a clearer picture. You could do something similar with novels of the French Revolution:

  • Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities,
  • Emmuska Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel
  • Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche

By grouping our reading in this way (what Mortimer Adler called “syntopical reading”), we can place the authors in conversation with each other. And with attentive reading, we can enter into that conversation and learn from the masters.

3. Strengthen your reading muscles. Many readers fill their first reading list with nothing but classic books—the books that everyone must read. After all, serious readers only read serious books, right? Wrong! Don’t fall into this trap.

The purpose for the reading list is to motivate you to read more and read better. The classics are essential reading, and you should work your way through them. But you shouldn’t restrict your reading only to the classics. Read non-canonical stuff, too. Throw in an Agatha Christie mystery, a Wodehouse comedy, or the Dummies’ Guide to Saltwater Aquariums (if that turns your fancy).

Populate your list with a good variety of books: classics and non-classics. Chase your interests and pleasures, but be sure to do some heavy lifting as well. You won’t be able to bench press 400 pounds unless you add weight to the barbell. If you want to be a master reader, add some weighty books to your list: Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, James Joyce and Augustine, John Calvin and Italo Calvino.  Then balance it with some lighter stuff to prevent reading fatigue.

Most of our goals are attainable by taking simple action right now. If you want to be a better reader, take a moment to make your first reading list. Turn your must-read stack of books into your have-read stack.

Begin the reading life now. There is no other time to start.

Question: Do you have a reading list? Does it help you read more?