Lessons Learned From Reading Guilt

Hand holding stack of books against a white wall
How to read more of what you love, ditch what you don’t, and develop a reading schedule that works for you

I am a perfectionist to my core. As an Enneagram 1, perfection to me means that I pick and choose which things in life matter so much that I make them into moral, life and death decisions in my head. Reading — how much, which books, how often — became one of these good versus evil battles to fight.

I realized the way I had come to view reading was making me miserable. I felt distant from the literature I had once loved and confused about navigating endless genres. I kept asking myself: Is there a ‘best’ genre? Which genres should I be interested in? Are there bad ones? I felt stuck reading books I did not enjoy but felt morally obligated to finish even when I wanted to claw my eyes out.

Tip #1: How to Read More

Enter Jenna Fischer (yes, Jenna Fischer from The Office) casually mentioning a new reading trick she picked up from the first episode of Laura Tremaine’s podcast, 10 Things to Tell YouIt was while I listened to Jenna’s endorsement on Office Ladies (the podcast she co-hosts with Angela Kinsey) that I learned about this trick and subsequently headed for Laura’s podcast to hear for myself.

The trick is this: Just read for twenty minutes a day, uninterrupted.

It sounds simple. And it is. It’s understandable if, at this point, you might think: “How is reading only twenty minutes a day going to help me read more? I don’t even have twenty minutes to spare!” But as Laura argues, we all have twenty minutes in our days that we can set aside for reading. We just typically use those minutes to scroll through social media instead.

So to read more books you love, set a timer for twenty minutes and silence your phone once a day. I have used this method myself and have been shocked at how much more reading I’ve accomplished. Often, I have continued to read even after the timer goes off.

This method allows me to read on my own schedule, without feeling trapped in a particular time slot that I have to orient the day around. It’s also important to make sure that the twenty minutes of reading time is uninterrupted. This not only means silencing your phone (and maybe putting it in a different room); it means informing your roommate(s) or significant other that you won’t be available for those twenty minutes.

Tip #2: How to Decide Which Books to Read and Which to Toss

Now, to the part where we discuss reading books you like (and ditching those you don’t).

Kendra Adachi is the host and curator of The Lazy Genius Collective, a cluster of resources to help folks “be genius[es] about the things that matter and lazy about the things that don’t”. Kendra has been in my life for a long time, soothing me through her podcast episodes and coaching me on how to let go while focusing on what truly matters to me. She’s also an avid reader.

It was in one of her podcast episodes (I can’t recall which one) that she again reiterated her principle of finding out what matters particularly to you and focusing on those things, rather than attempting to do it all and expect to be perfect. In this episode, she mentioned reading and how the Lazy Genius principle applies:

Read what you like, and don’t waste time on books you hate. — Kendra Adachi

It was like lightning struck me. It had never occurred to me that I was allowed to stop reading a book if I wasn’t enjoying it. I was clenching my teeth through books that didn’t resonate with me when I could have been discovering more books that did. Once I heard her advice, I let myself give up on reading probably five books that I was gutting myself to get through.

The relief was overwhelming.

You don’t have to read books you don’t like. Granted, there are books that could be considered “required reading” due to their messages, lasting quality, or a combination of both. But overall, you don’t need to keep reading a book if you discover you’re not enjoying it. That’s allowed, and it will open up opportunities to investigate and discover books you love instead.

Once I decided to believe Kendra and ditch the books that weren’t bringing me joy, I began letting my curiosity take the wheel. I soon realized that much of the writing I enjoyed consisted of memoirs by interesting people. This surprised me, as I had always assumed that people primarily interested in memoirs did not appreciate fiction (which I now know is not true) despite having always loved fiction myself.

Though surprised, I decided to check out a book from the library that had been on my Goodreads “to read” shelf for a couple of years: Educated by Tara Westover.

I loved it and was soon on a quest to discover more memoirs and biographies unabashedly. I’m now reading a biography about Sandra Day O’Connor as well as Jose Antonio Vargas’s memoir Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.

Final Thoughts

It isn’t always easy to figure out what to read or what you like. Start with letting go of the books that aren’t bringing you joy.

Once you quit the books you don’t love, let your curiosity roam until you land on a genre that interests you. Maybe it’s one you’ve read before or something entirely new. Allow yourself to discover what it is you like, regardless of your preconceived notions of what books make someone a “good reader.”

When you land on a genre that you’re even slightly curious about (just an ounce of curiosity is enough!), check out a book from your local library in that genre and give it a chance. Start by reading for twenty minutes a day without distractions, and see where it takes you.

You don’t have to be a literary genius to be a great reader and student of literature. You just have to be yourself.

Did you enjoy this bookish post? Read more about what books inspired and moved us on our Reading Tips page. If you’d like to join us in raving about our favourite reads, check out our Write For Us page, where you’ll find more details on how to become a contributor. Thank you for reading!

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