Read fewer books, feel better about it
📚 New Year resolutions, Goodreads and dopamine, a French blueprint for not being a dictator over yourself
It will be 2024 tomorrow. The new year resolutions season is in full swing. For years the top of my list has been “To read more books”.
The reading challenge
It's easy to pick up the idea that we should be reading more. Friends and family give us books they think we really should read. (That’s how I received a copy of Emotional Intelligence 2.0.) Magazines publish handy articles on “How to (Actually) Read More Books in 2024”. Everyone around you and their mother is joining a book club.
The worst offender in the social pressure to read books is the website Goodreads. They invite you to join a “Reading challenge”, where you pledge how many books you’re going to read next year. Then you track what you read in the site and get to watch the completion bar fill up:
Once you start caring about the progress bar, you’re hooked! Your dopamine-driven brain sees each book as a little trophy of the mind and you want to keep going.
My peak “Reading challenge” year was 2022. For some reason I thought that it would be very cool to read 40 books that year. I don’t remember why I thought that’s a good idea, but it had something to do with books representing knowledge, growth, insights, etc.
I read a lot that year across all mediums (paper, Kindle, audiobooks). By November I had a moment of panic when I realized I’m still way off track. Then I read a lot of short books back-to-back and baaam, on December 27 I finished the 40th book (Solaris), completing the challenge.
I happily went to Goodreads to record my success, I looked at all those icons and I felt … exhausted.
This was supposed to be the moment of fulfillment. Instead, I looked at the list of books, half of which I didn’t even enjoy reading all that much, and I realized I read all of them for the wrong reason.
Reading for the wrong reason
I didn’t read all those books because I wanted to read them. I wanted to have read them.
I was reading because I wanted to see myself as a person who reads a lot.
I made up an arbitrary goal of reading 40 books to prove to myself that I have a reading habit. To make things harder I even convinced myself that I need to read the famously unreadable James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Joyce’s famous comment ringing in my head: if Ulysses is not fit for reading, life is not fit for living)
The bill of rights
Shortly after this realization I stumbled upon Daniel Pennac’s declaration of the “rights of the reader”. It’s the antithesis of my previous approach to reading. It includes:
🙅 The right not to read. Reading should be a choice, not a chore. To truly enjoy it, you need to first give yourself the permission not to read.
🚀 The right to skip pages. There are no “rules” of reading, you own your reading experience. Skip pages, skip chapters, read the book out of order if you like.
🥱 The right to not finish the book. If you’re finishing every book you start you’re doing something wrong: you’re probably finishing books not worth your time.
✨ The right to read anything. Don’t shackle yourself to one genre, whether it's the NYT bestseller list of modern non-fiction or the complete works of Tolstoy. There is wisdom and joy and beauty out there, and it's hidden everywhere.
The grapes of joy
Armed with a more chill reading philosophy, I enjoyed reading much more in 2023.
I found a few new favorite authors, tried new genres, abandoned a bunch of books halfway through and enjoyed not caring about my Goodreads profile.
Surprisingly, I also got the most of my reading this year, despite not even trying to be “productive”. There’s some ancient wisdom hidden in this experiment. Shakespeare knew this:
“No profit grows where is no pleasure ta'en. In brief, sir, study what you most affect.”
📚 Reading list
Books I liked the most in 2023:
😇 East of Eden. The roads to good and evil are always within us, and this is the perfect novel to remind you about it.
🪑 Sit Down and Shut Up. I love Brad Warner’s books popularising Buddhism and its concepts. Works great as an audiobook. (Probably best to start with Hardcore Zen).
Postcard from San Marino
Broke the Christmas protocol with a Christmas Eve day of sightseeing in “the most serene republic of” San Marino.
Thank you for being part of this newsletter in 2023 ❤️.
In 2024 let’s all be a better, kinder version of ourselves 💫. Happy New Year!