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Why Summer Reading Lists Bum Me Out

I’ve been thinking a lot about reading lately. I suppose it’s because it’s that time of the year again. You know, when everyone...

I’ve been thinking a lot about reading lately.

I suppose it’s because it’s that time of the year again. You know, when everyone starts posting their “Summer Reading Lists” – a selection of books that you can and should devour when you have those mythical four weeks of lolly-gagging around the pool/beach/barbecue…you name it.

(Me? I tend to spend my summers lolly-gagging around the Talacre Sports Centre about a half-mile from my home, desperately trying to squeeze in some work in between lugging my kids to their various camps. But I suppose “there’s always tomorrow,” as Annie once said….)

If you’re like me, summer reading lists don’t inspire excitement or inspiration. They merely inspire dread and a looming sense of failure. And that’s because they remind me how very many books I wish to read and how very few of those I’ll ever manage to actually get through.

On my bedside table right now I’ve got two books open which I’m mid-way through – Tea Obreht’s award-winning The Tiger’s Wife and Hans Fallada’s haunting holocaust-era thriller, Alone In Berlin.

Buried underneath them are, in no particular order: Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side (which is relevant to my own-novel-in-progress), Lorrie Moore’s A Gate At The Stairs (because Book Snob Katy Keim recommended it) and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. (Yup, it’s true.)

(I do give myself credit for finally donating Eternal Message of Muhammed to the library. What can I say? Old habits die hard.)

If you glance at this list, you may be wondering: Does she really plan to get through all of these books this summer – let alone in her lifetime?

And therein lies the dilemma of reading. I love to do it and try, most nights, to read before going to bed. (Unless, of course, I’m watching our box set of The Wire.) But it’s a sisyphean task because no sooner do I knock one book off of my night table, another slides in to take its place. And I’m left feeling…behind.

Which is why I was so delighted to happen upon an article on the NPR website by Linda Holmes entitled “The Sad Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything.” Holmes’ basic point is that in today’s world, there are an infinite amount of good books/movies/artistic treasures to consume. ( I would add that in light of technology, there are also a never-ending barrage of reminders about their existence, as well as how easy it is to access them. (Click here!))

And yet, we can’t possibly consume everything out there that we’re told is worthwhile. Which leaves us, according to Holmes – with two options: to “cull”  – i.e. to self-consciously decide what’s worth our time and what we should ignore – or to “surrender” – i.e., to accept that we can’t possibly make it through all of these great works, but that failing to do so should not threaten our sense that we are ‘well read.'”

The second option is painful, but oddly liberating. As she writes: “It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you’d have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.”

Such sage wisdom. Not only for reading, but for life

I love this idea. To view reading not as the summit, but as the mountain-climbing itself. And to recognize the sadness – and also the relief – embedded in that journey.

Whew! I feel better already.

Which reminds me – I really need to get my summer reading list out…


Image: get my hands on by mrsexsmith via Flickr under a Creative Commons license

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  1. daryl boylan June 14, 2011 at 12:59 am #

    So many . . . books! So little time.

  2. Patricia June 16, 2011 at 5:44 am #

    I truly have to say that was a liberation experience for me in my 50s – that reading was and always has been a journey for me not a destination. I read everyday and I no longer have lists or bucket lists of books – or have to’s. I have read so many self-help, boomer manuals lately, I just said no more to the publishers because I need a fiction or two under my belt. I also do not need to finish books any more, unless I want to and feel like it.

    I do enjoy reading blogs but have to keep changing niches – and that makes me enjoy Stumbleupon and the random reads.

    I think this is a milestone decision – I say Bravo!

  3. delialloyd June 16, 2011 at 6:27 am #

    @patricia-thanks for the affirmation! No more to do lists, I say! (Well, not for reading at least!)

  4. Cecilia June 18, 2011 at 4:55 am #

    Great post, Delia. I needed that too. I have a *high school* reading list posted on our fridge, with titles that I want to read circled. On my shelves are literally 3 years worth of reading that I wonder when I will ever get to. I like the idea that there is no destination, that in this case it is only the trip that we should be going after. At the moment I am taking a leisurely stroll…need to remind myself there’s no rush!

    • Delia Lloyd June 18, 2011 at 9:11 am #

      oh that makes me feel so much better, @cecilia. Love that it is from High School! I recently saw a bookmark in Waterstones with “50 books to read before you die” and felt like I needed to drop everything and run home and read them all that very day. We all need to remember that reading is meant to be fun, not a job!


  1. my summer reading list | gloria marie - June 15, 2011

    […] growing up i read way more books than i read now. and i am okay with not being as well-read as others. love the piece on realdelia called why summer reading lists burn me out. […]

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