A couple of months ago I got a wake up call, although I realized I’d been hitting the snooze button on this issue for years. I learned I only get to read about 6000 books in my lifetime, and I had to ask myself: how many bad books do I want on that list?

Look at it this way: the average human lifespan is 80 years. If you start reading at 10, and do a book a week for 70 years, that’s 52 x 70 = 3,640 books. The high achievers might clock in at two books a week for 7280, and the overachievers might do three a week for 10920, but that assumes a non stop flood of reading material and time, so that’s not terribly realistic.


Now, it’s taken me years to come around to this realization: that there’s an upper bound on what I get to read, and that a $30 flash drive can store more books than I could read in a hundred lifetimes. When I was younger, and had a lot more time and a lot fewer books, I felt compelled to finish reading things, regardless of quality. Being done was somehow important, although a lack of access to a good selection of books really helped with my can-do attitude.  As I got older this changed, mostly because of having a job, online shopping, and the general tendency of older people to have a lower threshold for nonsense.

Sure, I’d hate read the odd book so I could tear it apart with conviction. To be able to say, “No, this is garbage, and I do know what I’m talking about because I read the whole thing”. In fact I was recently discussing books with a woman at a writer-centric convention, who had read six books of a series she hated. Really seriously hated, just to be able to tear it apart. Younger me would have thought, “Wow, that’s some conviction.” Older me was left pondering who the real winner was in that scenario, and wondering what other stuff she could have been reading instead.

Personally, my list of hated books is short, and largely comprised of stuff I had to read for a class. It should be longer, but I honestly can’t recall most of what would be on that list, as garbage books don’t tend to be memorable. What does easily come to mind, though, are the great books.  That, coupled with my awareness of the 6000 book limit, has really helped me direct my reading. However, it turns out that tossing crap is one thing, and finding the good stuff is something else entirely.

I hit this problem after becoming a parent. For the first five years of my children’s lives, I really didn’t read anything that required a commitment. Short articles and magazines for the guy with the circles under his eyes, please! Nothing with much plot or many characters to remember so I could read it all in one sitting before my sleep-deprived self had to be up and parenting.  When I started having the time, and most of all, focus, for reading again, I had no idea where to start. I’d read just about everything by my favorite authors and it didn’t seem like there was anything new and cool out there, but I needed to start filling in this five-year gap somehow.

The first obvious step was to get recommendations from friends, but here I got stuck in a rut by counting on a consistent overlap in taste, or lack thereof. For example, I’ve got a friend who loves long complicated fantasy novels, and I prefer books that jump right into it. The best recommendation we can give each other for a book is “Yeah, that sucked,” because if he hated it, I’ll probably love it.

Online reviews helped, but tended to spoil the plot. I’d spend the first third or so of the book waiting for the plot to get to the point that I knew was coming because I’d read it in the review. Besides, those reviews tended to focus on new releases, which wouldn’t really help me to find a really good author who had been writing for decades who I’d somehow never heard of.  This brought me to another realization: what I’d consider to be commonly known books may not be that commonly known.

At the end of the day, what I needed to find was a resource that could:

  • Tell me why I might like a book, without saying a lot about it.
  • Cover something beyond the latest releases, since I know there’s good stuff that I’ve missed.
  • (And what would be nice would be to) include a writing sample that gives me the flavor of the thing without spoiling it. I’ve gotten great sounding books where I got three pages in and found the writing so aggravating I had to toss them.

So, what’s the solution to all that? Well I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that I still haven’t found anybody providing these kinds of reviews. The good news is that after complaining about this for years, my wife told me: “Look—do you want to see this? You’re going to have to make it, because apparently nobody else will.” And, as is usually the case, she was right.

Which gets me to the latest and perhaps final thing that’s helped me stop reading garbage: writing a column for a website you’ve probably heard of, because, man, nothing helps prevent wasting time on a crap book like a deadline.  When reading (or re-reading, because not everything holds up like you remember) a book for a column, I have to honestly ask myself: “Can I recommend this?” because if I can’t, I’m not only wasting my time in preparing for a column, but I’m wasting my reader’s time as well.

Now to be fair, this is just what’s worked for me to improve my reading experience, but even if you don’t want to go this far to decide if you should toss that book, do keep in mind a couple of things. There’s little return on hate reading. It’s okay to pick up something else. Authors you would recommend should get your support. And if all that fails, justify moving on by knowing there’s only so much room left on your list of 6,000 books.

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