- The American Conservative - https://www.theamericanconservative.com -

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 [1].) 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.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Reading Without Lists"

#1 Comment By Russell Arben Fox On January 9, 2013 @ 10:05 am

So I decree that this year will be the Year of Small Genres, AKA the Year of No List.

This declaration (of which I approve, by the way) should go on a list!

#2 Comment By Steve Paschold On January 9, 2013 @ 10:21 am

I keep an annual list of books read through the year, but only those read all the way through. I don’t list individual stories, essays, selections from anthologies, and so on. Without that list I would feel my reading was missing something., the record of having read the work, I suppose. Also, I regularly consult English department course reading lists and syllabi — and garner tips from blogs such as this one — for recommendations. That practice is a small effort to limit the vast potentiality in reading to “best” or worthwhile selections.

#3 Comment By Nick On January 9, 2013 @ 10:29 am

Good luck with this! 2012 was the first time since college that I kept a log of the books I read, and I’m surprised at how satisfying I found it (perhaps Eco is right). I don’t think keeping a log necessarily influenced my choices of what to read, but it imposed a sense of order and discipline on my usually totally inchoate reading habits. Looking over the list (and the letter grade I gave each book) helped me anchor the year’s reading and helped me identify patterns I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed.

#4 Comment By Frank OConnor On January 9, 2013 @ 11:31 am

I can be humbling to keep a list of books read during the year. I will occassionally review the list of books I’ve read in the past few years and realize there are titles listed of which I have no recollection whatsoever. I don’t even remember reading them.

It can also be humbling to make a list of proposed reading for the year. This month I listed as writers whose works I would read extensively: Rene Girard, John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton and Albert Jay Nock. Currently, however, I find myself reading a book on Jack the Ripper.

#5 Comment By Geoff On January 9, 2013 @ 11:44 am

I completely understand the nature of the list outgrowing its intended function. I have found that it is easier not to keep a list when I own the works which I am reading, however. I am a low budget reader, meaning I use the library more than my own collection, and if I don’t write things down I tend to have trouble recalling what it was I read at times.

#6 Comment By Matthew Milliner On January 9, 2013 @ 11:45 am

The word listless regrets this missed pun opportunity.

#7 Comment By Binx On January 9, 2013 @ 1:06 pm

Wait a minute. Didn’t you just make one? I guess it isn’t books you have read, but a list of certain authors and genres you want to tackle in 2013.

Ken Myers has been mentioned previously. His recent interview with Marilyn Chandler McEntyre prompted me to reread The Scarlet Letter, a book I hadn’t touched since college days. That wasn’t on my list.

#8 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 9, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

The list of books become as irrelevant as The Book of Lists?

#9 Comment By sean carlson On January 9, 2013 @ 4:12 pm

Must disagree. Probably the best value of my book list, year by year, is being able to go back & re-read an already read book. Without my list I would remember none of this.

#10 Comment By Gerard On January 9, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

Reading without lists. Alan Jacobs living life dangerously. It’s a slippery slope. It’ll only lead to swearing off schedules and alarm clocks.

#11 Comment By Bryan On January 9, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

I don’t keep a list, but I usually do keep the books themselves. Now I have a Kindle, so that part’s a lot easier. I’m on a military history bender right now, I suppose, reading Shelby Foote’s Civil War narrative & hoping to make time for Henryk Sienkiewicz’s “With Fire and Sword” when that’s done.

#12 Comment By Frank OConnor On January 9, 2013 @ 8:53 pm


“With Fire and Sword” is a compulsive page turner. Great characters and lots of action; not as lowbrow as “Gone With the Wind” nor as high-brow as “War and Peace” but you’ll be too busy rapidly flipping the pages to worry about any of that. I was never really sure who I was supposed to be rooting for, but somehow that didn’t seeem to matter either. Enjoy.

#13 Comment By AK On January 10, 2013 @ 7:43 am

I used to be a voracious reader, but these days find it a slog to read anything more than a blog post (yes, it’s the Internet’s fault!). I’m not even sure what I do is properly called “reading,” rather than simply consuming words as a consequence of web browsing.

To help me regain my love of true and deep reading, I plan to keep a list of the fiction and non-fiction I read this year. I hope that by keeping a list, I become more intentional in the act of reading, that the accountability and the pleasure of filling out a list will keep me motivated.

All genres are up for grabs – I’m a vegetarian as far as food but an omnivore in reading.

#14 Comment By Ed Furlong On January 10, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

Re: Lists vs. no Lists.

My name is Ed and I am a birder. For many listing defines a birder, but there has long been a strong anti-list minority in the birding community. For a long time I was of the anti-list minority, and accordingly smug and superior about it. I was there for more than another checkmark, experiencing the bird as fully as possible, blah, blah, blah.

About 5 years ago, I started keeping notes of what I saw on various outings, as a means of better learning bird IDs, and in the last year or so, I began keeping a list, first on paper, then electronically, all as part of an world-scale effort to document birdlife more accurately using the existing population of avid and interested birders (if interested see ebird.org). I found that the life list, and all the data associated with it, helps me tremendously with recall of birding events and experiences, and I regret not having started listing years ago.

Perhaps then, the listing instinct, whether books or birds or whatever, helps less with staving off death, as Eco suggests, but makes recollection and experience fuller and more grounded, and extends the experience and fullness of the life lived thus far.


#15 Comment By Steve Paschold On January 11, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

I resonate with Frank’s comment about looking over past years’ reading lists. I do that too, and also see titles whose themes or content draw a complete blank. This year my aim is to read fewer books, perhaps more slowly, with “time and space” in between. To go with recommended books is fine, but it is also great to allow myself some serendipity to discover new authors and titles, fiction and non-fiction. And above all, to enjoy the process.

#16 Comment By Geoff On January 15, 2013 @ 11:16 am

I thought of this post again last night when I sat down to read. In particular, I recalled your comment that poetry and short works were the likely victims of your list mentality.

I had picked up the novel I was reading and noticed in my stack of books John Donne, whose Holy Sonnets I had recently revisited but hadn’t finished as I’d hoped to savor them over a week or two; yet here I was ignoring them despite my desire to read them, because my novel was in progress. Similar to your list that you believe dictates the kinds of things you read, it strikes me that my book, because it’s in progress, dictates what else I might pick up. Its movement has begun and since I don’t have unlimited time to read, I dare not halt it for an evening to read poetry.