How to manage your reading list when you want to read everything

With so many great new books around, plus several centuries’ worth of classics, it’s not surprising our reading lists can get a little crazy. Here’s how I’m trying to keep mine under control…

photo of girl in a bookshop to illustrate post on reading listPhotograph by Klaye Morrison

Every December the book-of-the-year round-ups appear and I feel frustrated and disheartened because I won’t have read a single one. And in this content-driven world there are now dozens of them – the book department’s list and the famous writers’ list and the readers’ list and the teachers’ list and on and on it goes. We have the best novels, best factual books, best debuts, best books about talking animals, or whatever. Then comes January and it starts again – the books to look forward to, the new writers to look out for, the comebacks, the sequels, and the books-to-read-before-the-film-comes-out.

And although such lists are catnip to me, I force myself to ignore them all because, obviously, I already own dozens and dozens of books that I’ve not yet read, plus a reading list that runs to several sheets of A4. I have unread books from my student days that I do honestly want to get to, as well as a heap of modern classics and contemporary novels that I haven’t been able to resist buying. I wrote here about the challenges of finding time to read, and although I’ve got a bit better at prioritising I’m still prone to two-pages-and-I’m-asleep syndrome – so progress remains slow…

For that reason I try to only add new books to my reading list if they sound totally unmissable (in the past couple of years, “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald, “The Girls” by Emma Cline, “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang) or they’re by a favourite author (“How be Both” by Ali Smith, “The Blazing World” by Siri Hustvedt, “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt). But I often come across mentions of classics that have always intrigued me, or I feel I should have read, and it’s hard not to put them on the pile, too. And so the list keeps growing, and I never seem to get anywhere near the end of it. Which drives me crazy because I know I am only scratching the surface of what’s out there as it is. And I want to read all kinds of books – friends’ recommendations and random things that happen to catch my eye and foreign bestsellers and cult classics – and anything else that draws me in.

But if I still haven’t read “Great Expectations” or “Vanity Fair” or “War and Peace” (I know, I know), how can I justify picking up some random debut that may or may not be worth it? Part of my problem is that I have an obsession with context and the idea that, to really appreciate something, you need to know and understand what came before it, too. A good book is rarely a solitary work of art – it has a whole hinterland of influences that might affect its meaning or at least the way you react to it or interpret it. Which means I am always berating myself for not having read every significant work of literature – even though that’s kind of ridiculous.

So… I need a plan. A plan to get through a good sweep of the classics without restricting myself solely to books of the past. I need to power through the books both on my shelf and my reading list and then, THEN, reach the ultimate utopia of being able to pick up any book I fancy and just say, “Yeh, I’m going to read this next.” It’s going to take years, literally, but oh my goodness, how good would that be? OK, so here’s what I’m going to do:

1. Alternate classic and contemporary fiction
Due to the way my bookshelves are organised, I have pre-1940s fiction on one side and post-war books/non-fiction on the other. So I’m trying to switch between the two for variety, and it seems to work pretty well. I reckon that if I keep doing that and stop buying more books for a while, I could read everything by, erm, around 2025?

2. Not worry about “eminent works” I’ve never heard of
At one point in my life it really seemed as if reading all the classics was just not possible. But now, when I think about it, there really aren’t that many. Not many books were written/have survived up to the start of the 16th century, and I’d say I could live without reading quite a few of those – especially the ones that are completely unfamiliar to me. And for the subsequent three hundred years (ie, before the 1800s) we are still only looking at a relatively small number of big names. It’s definitely possible to read everything of major interest up to that point. Admittedly from the 19th century onwards it goes a bit crazy, but we are still only looking at just over 200 years’ worth and you can narrow that down pretty quickly if you discount all the stuff you’ve not heard of plus anything that leaves you cold. I’m not saying you should never read a book you’ve never heard of – just that, in the interest of keeping your list manageable, something that’s been out of your orbit thus far can wait for now.

3. Stick to a writer’s “greatest hits”
It’s like when David Bowie died, and everyone was discussing his oeuvre, and you kept very quiet because you only owned “Hunky Dory” and “Aladdin Sane” and didn’t even realise he was still releasing albums. Does that mean you can’t love your two CDs and appreciate their contribution to the musical landscape? No it does not, and likewise you don’t have to read every minor book a great writer has written to feel like you’ve got a handle on their work. Top three I reckon.

4. Pick a handful of choices to add to my list annually – but otherwise wait a few years (maybe 10) and see what’s still worth reading
Google, say, “most popular books of 1978” and chances are there will only be a few titles that even vaguely tempt you (for the record, I’d consider “The World According to Garp” by John Irving, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” by Milan Kundera, “Tales of the City” by Armistead Maupin and “The Sea, The Sea” by Iris Murdoch. (I’ve already read Ian McEwan’s “The Cement Garden”, yay.) So rather than write down everything new that sounds like a good read, I wait until a book kind of bubbles to the surface and is consistently discussed as one of the best books of the year before it goes on the list. After that, it’s a waiting game. If a book is still making waves years after being published then I’ll want to read it. A case in point is David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”: it actually passed me by first time around (I was young!), but has since become a cult classic and is now spoken of in such revered tones that I’m desperate to read it (despite its, erm, challenging nature).

5. Only choose books that I’m genuinely drawn to or intrigued by
That could be a book that sounds kind of dull but is considered seminal and important and I want to find out why (one day, “Pilgrim’s Progress”, one day…), or it could be something that came and went but always sounded interesting to me – plus all the stuff that is both celebrated and sounds awesome, too. There are loads of 19th-century classics I’ve never read and I’m itching to get into more Dickens, Trollope and Austen. There’s a reason these books are made into Sunday night period dramas – they are fun to read. Meanwhile, there are plenty of illustrious titles that don’t really appeal and I’m not going to feel guilty about letting them go. Much.

Yeh, so it’s a long game, this reading business. But I definitely feel I’m at an age when I should have those “important” books under my belt, have learnt what I like and what I don’t, and be free to read whatever takes my fancy. And that is going to be sooo good.

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