My New Year’s Resolution: Read Fewer Books

January 3, 2013 | 2 books mentioned 52 7 min read

This past year I read 56 books. That’s slightly off the pace of 60 books a year that I’ve set over the previous 12 years, but then I did read a lot of very long history books this year—yes, I’m looking at you, Robert Caro—and my wife and I did make a very time-consuming move to Canada late in the year. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. Maybe the real answer is that I’m just getting tired of trying to read so damn many books.

I know how many books I read because I’ve kept a list of every book I’ve finished since January 1, 2000. As of today, my total for books read in the new millennium stands at 776, of which 368 were fiction or poetry and 408 were nonfiction or memoir. Just less than 30 percent of those books, a total of 229, were written by women. At one point, I tried to keep track of how many of the authors I read were non-white, but the racial demarcations became so tangled—what to make of Bliss Broyard, a white writer who wrote a book about her father, Anatole, who concealed his (nearly invisible) African-American heritage until his death?—that I gave up.

As you can see, I’m a wee bit obsessive about my book lists. I’m deeply competitive, too. Because books are long, and because, in addition to holding down a number of teaching and freelance-writing gigs, I am also the primary caregiver for our six year old, my reading time is limited, which means I have to pace myself. I long ago figured out that to reach my goal of reading 60 books a year, I needed to average five books a month, or a little more than a book a week. For years now, reading has been something like training for a marathon. I keep mental tallies of how many pages I’ve read per night, and how many more pages I need to read in the next few days to keep to my average. In 2011, after years of hovering in the mid-50s, when my annual average hit precisely 60—that is, 720 books read over 12 years—I did a private victory lap.

And that, finally, is what is so bizarre about my little obsession: I’m competing with no one. No one even knows I keep the lists. Once, some years ago before we adopted our son, I bragged to my wife that I had read 66 books in the previous year. She was appalled. Here she was busting her ass working long hours at her high-level job at the United Nations, and I had time to read 66 books a year? Needless to say, that was the last time I bragged to her about how many books I’d read. In fact, aside from a few deliberately vague references to members of my family, all my mental gymnastics over how many pages I read in an evening and how well I was keeping to my five-books-a-month pace has remained a well-kept secret.

In an odd way, the fact that no one else knows has made me more competitive, not less. I’m sure serious runners are familiar with this seeming paradox. Maybe nobody else knows that you shaved 1.2 seconds off your personal best time for the mile, but you know—and that knowledge, plus the fact that your achievement has brought you no external reward, gives you a perverse sense of satisfaction. Or no, let’s be honest about this: it gives you a perverse sense of superiority.

Because in the end, whether you’re recording how many seconds it takes you to run a mile or how many books you read in a year, what you are really doing is finding a way to quantify your inner sense of self-worth. For some people, their self-worth is bound up in the way they look, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so physical fitness—the number of seconds shaved off personal-best times, the number of reps at a certain weight, and so on—becomes a convenient proxy. In my case, I care about being seen as smart. In our culture, bookishness is a signifier of intellectual capacity, so the more books I read, the smarter I must be. That no one else knows is not merely beside the point; it heightens the sense of achievement. I’m a genius, I’ve been quietly telling myself for the past 13 years, and nobody even knows it.

This is made all the more complicated, and in a certain way more poignant, by the fact that I am a writer, so far not a terribly successful one. The problem isn’t so much that I’ve managed to publish only a handful of stories in literary magazines and have two unpublished novels languishing in my digital bottom drawer. That is galling, of course, but the real problem is that until very recently, my work just wasn’t very good. Unsuccessful writers tend not to say this aloud very often, at least not in public. It’s easier to blame the cruelty of the market and boneheaded editors, but I suspect that when they’re alone at their writing desk most serious writers are like me: for most of their early writing lives, they read their own stuff and cringe.

covercover It is difficult to describe how painful this is. I became a writer not just because I thought I had something to say, but because I love good writing. I care about good writing. I will go so far as to say that, for me, good writing has a moral dimension to it. A great novel like Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or a revelatory story like James Joyce’s “The Dead” from Dubliners is like some incredibly fine moral scalpel that can slit me open, turn me inside out, and force me to feel the world in a raw, intimate way that only a great work of art can. A clumsy sentence or an insufficiently explored character in a place where that sort of thing isn’t supposed to occur—in a published novel, say, or a reputable literary magazine—feels not merely lazy or bad, but wrong.

And here I was doing it myself, year after year, story after story, book after book. For years, I had to come at my writing desk sideways, creep toward it inch by inch while pretending to be doing something else—reading the newspaper, checking my email, staring out the window—because I knew that once I sat down and opened up the file of whatever I was working on, it would suck. Worse, I had no idea how to make it not suck. I spent hours and hours—years, in some cases—fiddling with stories and parts of novels, and when I printed them out to read them afresh, they still sucked just as bad as they always had.

Through all those long years, reading—compulsive, competitive reading—was my balm. Early on, when I was in grad school, I told myself that an hour spent reading was as important to my progress as a writer as an hour spent writing. At the time, this was almost certainly true. I wasn’t one of those kids who read books by the bagful and had plowed through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky by the time I was 15. I probably read more books than the average American teenage boy, but I also played a lot of sports and watched a lot of TV. If I’m being honest, I’d also have to admit that I spent a fair amount of my adolescence too high to do anything but crank Pink Floyd and stare at the bedroom wall.

This became a real handicap in my 20s when I started to get serious about being a writer. My earliest attempts at fiction were all transparent knock-offs of early Raymond Carver stories. This was in part because I was in many ways a sad, confused character out of an early Carver story, but it was also because Raymond Carver was one of the very few contemporary writers I had actually read.

This is one of the reasons I started keeping the reading lists in the first place. I told myself I just wanted to keep a record of what I’d read, but, really, I knew myself well enough to know that I would turn it into a competition and start reading more. And I did. The first year I read 40 books. The next year I read 66. After a few years of steep dips following our son’s arrival, my averages boomed again, and by 2011 I had hit 74, my personal best. Keeping a list forced me to read more widely, too. Because I kept track of how many women and non-white writers I was reading, and because I was appalled how many white male writers I found I was choosing to read, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and discovered great women writers like Julia Glass, Kate Christensen, and Edwidge Danticat that I might not have read otherwise.

But that was 13 years ago. I’m in my 40s now, and I don’t feel nearly as much a literary rube as I once did. There will always be people who have read more than I have and who have read more deeply than I ever will, but that doesn’t bother me as much as it once did. I’ve read enough to know what a good book is, and I’ve read widely enough to know that there are many different kinds of good books. More importantly, I think, I don’t hate my own work with same secret passion I once did. True, I’m getting paid to write again for the first time in decades, and serious people are taking my fiction seriously, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about being able to scroll down to any page of my own work that I consider finished and say, “Okay, a writer wrote that.” I still have to approach my writing desk crabwise, because this thing we do, this making magic out of words, is hard, no matter who’s doing it. But it no longer seems impossible to me. I no longer feel like I’m just fooling myself.

So in this new year, I am solemnly resolving to read fewer books. I’ll probably still record them because it’s habit now, and it is kind of nice to be able to look back over a year and see what I’ve read. But I won’t be aiming for 60 books a year anymore, and if I see a nice, fat doorstop of a novel I want to read, I won’t stop to check whether I’m far enough ahead for the year to give up the two or three weeks it’ll take to read it. I’ll just read the damn thing.

Image Credit: Pexels/Negative Space.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. I read 54 books this year, and I didn’t worry about how fast I read or how many books I had planned to read. I just took them as they came. Don’t have a goal other than just to enjoy what you are reading.

  2. I read 42 books this year and I can safely say that I struggled through all but one of them. I’m still in my 20s, struggling to write well and I also find solace in reading. Like you, I keep telling myself that all the time I spend reading will help me be a better writer, but I’m beginning to wonder if it’s just something I tell myself so I won’t get too upset about not actually writing. In the meantime, reading is becoming tedious and I find myself abandoning books midway.

  3. “…what you are really doing is finding a way to quantify your inner sense of self-worth.”

    I began keeping track in 2011. I read 52 books in 2012 and 75 books the year before. My boyfriend and I are both avid readers. He probably read about half as many. We don’t have cable or children. We’re in our forties. We would rather read than watch the schlock on television. In the summer we prefer to ride our motorcycle or read than watch the schlock on television.

    I keep track of my books with Goodreads; he does not. I don’t think I’m trying to quantify my self-worth. I’m nurturing my ability to think, not retarding it by watching bad television.

  4. Excellent article – too many writers forget to read. Yet one needs to read to reach that level where you know the difference between a good and a bad book, between commercial literature and literary excellence. And I agree that once you’ve reached that stage you can slow down in your reading and start doing some serious writing. Your inner editor knows the difference and will help you improve your drafts!

    But the inner editor also needs to be turned off when you write your first draft (sure it sucks, first drafts always do!) Then, for subsequent drafts, turn it on again and make sure you’ve forgotten about what you’ve read. You’re not going to imitate anyone, you’re going to be you. And to achieve that “voice” is only possible once you’ve “forgotten” everything you’ve read, all those hundreds of books that have only left vague traces in your subconscious…But without them, I’m convinced you can be a good commercial writer, you can’t ever be a great writer!

    So good luck, Michael, can’t wait to read that masterpiece!

  5. I’ve been keeping the list since 1967(with the same self-competition to hit 52 – my best is 80, having had many years at it, with steep dips). The list itself becomes sort of biographical after awhile – don’t stop!
    It’ll begin to reveal subtle changes in interests and attitudes. I now find it also saves me time and money, allowing me to recall that I already read a book (sometimes a few times).

  6. While I understand the overall point of this post, you lost me with this: “At one point, I tried to keep track of how many of the authors I read were non-white, but the racial demarcations became so tangled — what to make of Bliss Broyard, a white writer who wrote a book about her father, Anatole, who concealed his (nearly invisible) African-American heritage until his death? — that I gave up.”

    You’re kidding me, right?? Why not just admit that the race of the authors just wasn’t that important to you? Of course, that could lead to the question of just how many nonwhite authors you DO read, and what that really says about your own literary credentials.

  7. Thank you for writing this post and sharing that sentiment. It was like reading about myself. I’ll be looking out for more of your work.

  8. I totally know what the author means in this piece- I spend HOURS on Goodreads, pruning my virtual bookshelves, painstakingly arranging and categorizing my books read and such. I feel the same way- that private glow of joy coming from knowing that you read a great many books this year, regardless of whether anybody actually knows or cares or whether or not it helped you as a writer.

    I’m thinking, for the record, that maybe there’s nothing really wrong with that. Reading a lot, having the ambition to read a lot, being proud of having read so damn much, conscientiously choosing to expand and refine one’s reading….I’m just not seeing a downside here.

    Writing is always going to be torture, certainly, but reading a lot is a fine way of enriching one’s writing without the expense of one’s patience or self-esteem. Everything influences you, right? No matter how small or ephemeral the reading experience, it seasons you.

    Didn’t Roberto Bolano say that “reading is more important than writing”? I’ve wondered whether or not he was putting us on but I’m starting to think he really meant it….

  9. When I started writing heavily in 2006 the number of books I read slipped from about 49 to almost nothing. I did not want to let what I read creep into my writing process. I also wrote a great deal more in the last 6 years than I had planned to. Now, I am working on two books simultaneously and my writing schedule has dropped to a snail’s pace as most of my time is spent promoting the other books. I have also dropped self-imposed deadlines which were once based on the standard publishing schedule followed by traditional publishers. I finally realized that writing as I find the time and the mood is better than making my work suffer with haste. As a matter of fact, I have left one book I was reading marked and have not picked it up in about a year, while I bought another and it is still there on the shelf, waiting to be read.

    A for Robert Bolano, I think he missed the mark. Reading is AS important as writing, but if there is nothing written, one cannot find anything to read.

  10. I really appreciate your honesty in this piece, Michael. I too have always kept obsessive track of my reading “stats,” and it’s pained me to have read fewer books this year and last because I’m now a mother as well as a writer and a reader (and a teacher, etc.). This year, I’d like to try to read longer and more challenging books, and not pay attention to numbers.
    Good luck to both of us!

  11. I loved reading this piece. I see so much of myself here, from the competitive, frantic way that I read, to the fear and loathing I have for my own writing. Lately, I feel that my reading is hindering my writing rather than helping it, simply for the fact that I spend so much of my free time reading instead of sitting down to write. Thanks for sharing this–it’s definitely made me think!

  12. I started keeping track of what I read in 1996 with the idea that noting all the titles would be the first step in writing about each of them. That hasn’t happened yet, although I’ve finally moved in that direction the past three years.

    Keeping track of the number of books I read has been an interesting byproduct of that effort. I realized that I average a bit over 100 a year, and I’ve started to use that total as a goal, only because I’ve realized I’ll never be able to make a dent in my shelves otherwise. If I can get through 1000 books a decade (and there are many more books worth reading than that) I can justify owning 5000 or so.

  13. I have kept a list of books read since 1976. Title, author, number of pages (so I can remember why it took a long time to finish a big book), and the date completed. I am an accountant and lawyer by education and profession, so keeping track of details comes natural, but over the years I wondered why I kept it up. Then one day 10 years back or so I looked over the list, and was amazed at how much of my past I could relate to the books I had read. I could not only remember the books themselves, but also the places where I read them, events in my life that were happening at the same time, and events in the world around those dates in general. I then understood that the unintended consequence of this obsession with detail was the opportunity many years on to remember and reminisce. I have continued to keep the list, and intend to do so until the end.

    Thanks for your story and for the comments of other “listers”.

  14. Enjoyed the perspective. I’ve kept my read-books list since 1986 and read 124 books in 2012–my best by a decent margin (still way less than some people, but I’m competing with myself, not with anyone else–plus I insist on having a life that includes other things than just reading and writing). So I understand the obsession. And I’ve recently been questioning its impact on my reading enjoyment, too. But I have 600+ books on my OTHER list, my list of books I want to read, and it keeps growing all the time, so there is significant pressure to continue.

  15. Great post. I can totally relate to your issues, and now that I am also an author I read considerably less than I was. A paltry 37 down from my high of 56 per year. But I’ve backed away from the numbers game and will now stop reading a book half way through if I’m not enjoying it. Bring on the doorstops next December – it won’t phase me. Glad you’re feeling better about your own work. Enjoying the process is really the only thing that matters.

  16. I am an obsessive lister as well. But I also write briefly my impressions of each book, what format (Kindle, library, my book), number of pages, date finished, title an author. I find that ‘total number of pages’, which I compute at the end of the year, tells more about quantity than number of books.

  17. I’ve kept a list since around 2000, including title, author, date started, and date completed (or in some cases, date abandoned). Like Randy Atkinson, I’m not a professional writer, in a literary sense, but a scientist. Most of my writing is, therefore, rather straightforward, following a specific format. And like Randy, keeping these records is a bit second nature. I started keeping the list as a method to gauge and improve my reading speed. I’m mildly dyslexic, which reduces the speed at which I can absorb and understand what I am reading. As such, my record—which occurred this past year—was a paltry (by everyone else’s standard) 18 books. But that is a vast improvement over my days in graduate school nearly 10 years ago when my average hovered around 5 non-work-related books. The self-competition has been a great strategy to train my brain to absorb faster!

  18. Jorge Luis Borges always considered himself more of a reader than a writer and said his life had been, “”dedicated less to living than to reading.”

    It looks like a lot of people shoot for the goal of reading one book a week., which is what I have always done. This year I read 56 books but have resolved to read much more and to cut down on how many films I watch. IN 2012 I saw 323 and have decided that is way too much. Besides, after watching 200+ a year for a few decades I am down to completing the oeuvres of the likes of Richard Dix and Helen Twelvetrees.

  19. I can definitely relate to the list-keeping. I’ve recorded my books read since 1997, and do my own private victory lap in years I read more than 52 books. I was short in 2012, but I comforted myself by saying those two Stephen King books had enough pages to count as more. It’s nice to read that others look at reading as a private competition as well.

  20. “Because in the end, whether you’re recording how many seconds it takes you to run a mile or how many books you read in a year, what you are really doing is finding a way to quantify your inner sense of self-worth.”

    I googled “life’s short too many books” and it’s funny how that works. I’m trying to find a quote — and I landed on your page. I usually don’t comment on any articles that I’ve read but that line above actually made me step back and think.

    You’re right. I’m relating this to one thing that I honestly felt applicable to me, aside from reading that is. I’m a pediatric nurse at a government hospital (and you should know how hard the conditions our hospital have and in my area, the number of really sick children being admitted there) — and since I started my career 3 years ago, I’ve handled 84 deaths during my shift alone. (Not just my patients but my other co-workers’ too — just the same shift.)

    I didn’t know why I was actually counting at first, all I know was that those 84 children who died was the ones I was trying to save but fail. And if I just really think hard enough, there were more those that I actually saved and were discharged – -and whenever I think about that, it really feels good.

    So thanks to you because while reading this post, I realized why I’m counting those deaths. It’s because I’m trying to “quantify my inner sense of self-worth.” Which I think is actually true.

  21. Library due dates tend to determine my reading schedule, and when I do buy books or receive them as gifts they tend to sit on the shelf for months.

    I don’t have a per week goal so much as a goal to finish most of the library books I have out at any given time. It rarely happens.

  22. Joel,

    I agree, the library due dates are a good discipline for forcing me to plow through my reading list. Those books I buy or receive as gifts tend to linger on the shelf until I lose interest.

    Nice essay. As for the competitive spirit, this is a race you can never win. Every week, you can find as many new books on the display table at Barnes & Noble as it takes you to read in a year.

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  24. I solved this problem by reading Edward Gorey. Presto! 50 books in two weeks, each slowly read and savored.

  25. I mimic your exact behavoir though at significantly retarded level of 20 books a year. I recently read novellas (a technicality I allowed) to meet the quote after sacrificing to read Infinite Jest, Matterhorn, and Mason & Dixon. The fact that I have the same sentiment/anxiety from making the lists really connected with me. This year, I still think i’m going to read more, but have the attitude you have. Thanks for this. I wrote down your name next to my authors to follow. Hopefully, there will be more soon.

  26. I know this is missing the point, but I am curious what you use to document the books you read? Seems like you’re able to keep some sort of tagging system to determine those percentages.

  27. Unit bias is the psychological term for counting pages and pushing yourself to “good stopping places” like the ends of chapters. In food, it means you drink a 20oz bottle of Coke when all you really wanted was 8oz. But in books it means you read more, (because you can’t go to bed until you’re on page 162, which is exactly three-fifths of way to the end of book, etc.) I love creating arbitrary unit markers and then forcing myself to achieve them. X books a year, means Y books a month, means Z books a week, means A pages a day, means B pages every hour, so I need to read at a rate of B pages/hour to achieve X books per year. Does that make me geeky?

  28. Unit bias is the psychological term for counting pages and pushing yourself to “good stopping places” like the ends of chapters. In food, it means you drink a 20oz bottle of Coke when all you really wanted was 8oz. But in books it means you read more, (because you can’t go to bed until you’re on page 162, which is exactly three-fifths of way to the end of book, etc.) I love creating arbitrary unit markers and then forcing myself to achieve them. X books a year, means Y books a month, means Z books a week, means A pages a day, means B pages every hour, so I need to read at a rate of B pages/hour to achieve X books per year. Does that make me geeky?

    Incidentally, I racked up 120 books last year. How? Well, as some were as long as Crime and Punishment and the Brothers Karamazov, some where as short as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Also, I download audiobooks from the library and play them back at 2X speed while I do the house hold chores. I also listen to books on tape in the car, read paperbacks in the evenings. I do not kindle or nook. See you on goodreads.

  29. reading the ” My New year resolution: Rear Fewer Books….” me, it´s all you can help to read it.

  30. I read 265 books in 27 months as a Peace Corps volunteer, keeping a careful log that included prime quotes (no tv, long train rides). It totally changed my relationship with reading. I pushed myself to read more, but I didn’t like it as much.

  31. I loved your article and I wish you were my neighbor. I’ve kept a list of every book I have read since 1982. It is my favorite list as I can see what was happening in my own life by the titles – mysteries became interesting to me when I was going through a divorce – they seldom have much romance and feel like real life, which is suddenly actually a mystery in itself. I’ve had years where I read short happy novels to relax and up my annual numbers and years where every volume was deep and long. One year I went so deep into Henry the VIII and Cleopatra that I could teach college courses. And one year it was all about time travel. My best years are the ones that include a world of new subjects by authors from all over the world.

    Two years ago, after four moves in a year I became a fanatic of the Nook – I thought paper and fonts and the beauty of books would make it impossible to love a Nook, but the fact that I can read without a light in bed, choose my own font size and page color makes my ‘over sixty’ eyes happy and instead of ten boxes of books, I have 200 on my nook. I’m in love.

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