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Reading Without Lists

I usually keep a record of the books I read each year, but I’m thinking that this year I won’t. Lists are funny things: they have real effects on human behavior. (Umberto Eco thinks they are ways of — mentally — staving off death.) It’s very satisfying to cross items off to-do lists, and to add items to lists of accomplishments. Maybe too satisfying, because over the years I’ve read some things I didn’t really want to read just because I liked the thought of adding something to my “books read” list.

Recently it has occurred to me that if those lists have encouraged me to read some things, they may have discouraged me from reading others. In particular, while I love poetry, essays, and short stories, I suspect that I tend to read less in those genres than I would if I weren’t keeping track.

So I decree that this year will be the Year of Small Genres, AKA the Year of No List. I want to read (or in some cases re-read) stories by Chekhov, John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Lydia Davis; essays by Montaigne, Charles Lamb, Scott Sanders; poems by Czeslaw Milosz, Wisława Szymborska, Scott Cairns, Linda Gregerson. And whatever else comes to mind, including book-length works if I have the inclination. But no lists.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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