Maybe I Should Read Less

If you’ve spent more than 20 seconds on this blog, you know I love to read and read a lot.  My to-be-read list is a mile long, and despite my freakishly fast reading speed I still lose a little sleep knowing that I’ll never get to them all. (I’m joking. A little.)

As a book lover, I’m happy to see that reading goals are popular this year. Many readers are resolving to read “more,” aiming to polish off 50, 100, even 200 books this year.

I get the appeal of these big-number goals: I love the idea of reading piles of books. In fact, I do read piles of books.

I’ve even been wondering if I read too many books.

Deep or wide?

I love reading widely, but lately I’ve become more aware of what I’m giving up when I do. When I try to plow through my to-be-read stack as quickly as possible, I know what happens:  I don’t give the words time to sink in. I skip the time I need to think and reflect. And I lose out.  

Francis Bacon on reading
“Some books are meant to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. That is, some books are to be read only in parts; Others to be read, but not curiously; And some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” – Francis Bacon

When I’m trying to get through my ever-growing book stack quickly, I tend to put off the books that deserve being read wholly–the ones that demand my diligence and attention. Those books are harder to read. I have to read them s l o w l y. I have to think.

I love to read widely, but I’m reminding myself of the virtues of going deep. When I choose books that beg to be read wholly, I won’t be able to cross as many titles off my list. But I will have read.

Good books take time. But they’re worth it.

Ways I’m helping myself slow down.

Since my natural inclination is to read as much–and as many pages as possible–I have a little checklist I turn to when I need to slow it down.

Do you read widely or read deeply? (Or both, or neither?) What books do you love to read over and over again?

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  1. Good thoughts Anne. I’m BIG on going deep with my reading. I mark my paper back copies of the classics TO PIECES. (Literally. The back cover just fell off of my copy of The Portrait of a Lady — when I started the book a few weeks ago it was new.)

    I think there is something to be said about turning toward deeper, slower reading in our thirties. I get MUCH more out of reading this way now than I did when I was younger. Perhaps I needed some personal seasoning/life experience before the classic tomes could really sink into my heart!

    • Anne says:

      Adriana, I thought about you when I was writing this 🙂

      Your thought about turning toward deeper, slower reading in the thirties is so interesting. I’d never thought about it like that, but I think you might be onto something…

  2. Rebecca says:

    Read less? Nah. I read most books once, quickly, and decide whether they are worth another/deeper read.
    ~Most novels get one read, although I may come back to a classic much later in life. If a person is clever enough to disguise a theology book as a novel, it will be read repeatedly (Chronicles of Narnia, Stepping Heavenward)
    ~How to books generally get one read with a lot of highlighting/underlining so I can reskim the good bits quickly. Most self-improvement/how to books lend themselves well to a one page “cheat sheet” in the back fly-leaf.
    ~ Bible and theology books (my personal fave, whether straight or practical theology) get multiple readings/study.

    I keep coming back over and over again to We Would See Jesus by Roy and Revel Hession. Short, sweet, and life changing.

  3. Jamie says:

    Great point! I too have faced this dilemma. Currently, I’m handling it with a pragmatic but uninspiring approach: what I read depends entirely on my mood and the season. Sometimes there is so much going on in life that I just don’t have the mental space deep books deserve. I use those weeks to blow through easier, lighter things and very much enjoy the sense of accomplishment and progress that comes with checking them off my list. When I find myself with enough mental space, I pick up something deep and intentionally take it in small chunks, giving myself time to digest and ponder in between.

  4. Oh, I am so guilty of this! I have set a goal for how many books I want to read a month, which is fine because it keeps me accountable and away from the TV, but then I also end up choosing shorter books so that I can actually finish them in time. I’ve skipped reading lots of classics recently for that reason, but I’m trying to stop being so numbers focused and just enjoy what I’m reading. It really doesn’t matter how many books I actually finish a month.

  5. I agree, Anne. For me, I want to walk away having learned something, or at least be happy that I spent my time reading THAT book. If it feels like I’m rushing from one book to another, simply to mark them off a list, then I think I’m wasting my time. Some books are easy to read, and I don’t need time to think about them. Other books, like “Kisses from Katie” (which I finished earlier this week) stick around for a while – working themselves through my thought processes.

    Personally, I’m pushing myself to read more books this year because I think I can. I think I should. I’m aiming higher because I know that if I don’t set a goal, I’ll end up getting to the end of the year and thinking, “How can I call myself a reader…I only read 3 books!” But that begs the question…what if I read 103 books, 100 of them being trash which did nothing to improve my mind, my faith, or my time, and 3 of them being worthy of staying on my nightstand forever because they caused me to think and grow as an individual. They created discussion topics and helped round me as a person. Would it not be better for me to only read 3 then?

    I’m still a work in progress…a work in progress who has an addiction to books. 😉

    • Anne says:

      Carrie, I’m right there with you: a work in progress who has a bit of an addition 🙂

      Also, it can be surprisingly hard to sort out the good stuff from the trash without reading it. When I land on a bad one my consolation is that at least I read it quickly. (Sigh.)

  6. Jillian Kay says:

    Yeah, I’ve never had a problem with not reading enough either. Life long book worm here.

    I have to mix things up. If I read too many deep books in a row I can’t pay attention to them any more. So, if I feel myself zoning out I’ll read some sort of fluff book to get back into the swing of things.

    I do have books I read every year: Emma, Jane Eyre, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Little Women, and a few gardening books. Mostly though I’m one and done. There are so many books on my list all of the time I’m always eager to get on to the next one!

    • Tim says:

      Yay for Emma, Jillian! You must be familiar with Mr. Knightley’s younger brother John, Isabella’s husband. Move him forward 200 years and you’d be looking at me. When I read the passages with him in them, I feel like I’m looking in a mirror!

      • Anne says:


        I finally saw the BBC version of Emma with Romola Garai last month and it has me itching to read the book again! I’m working through Sense and Sensibility (again) myself right now.

        I’m all for reading fluff to get back in the swing of things 🙂

          • Tim says:

            You like her better than Gwyneth as Emma? Hmm. I might actually have to get my hands on this version. It’s about the only JA adaptation I’ve missed, well, along the Olivier P&P from 1940.

          • Anne says:

            I agree, this version is fantastic! I remember liking Gwyneth as Emma–though it’s been a while since I’ve seen that versions–but Romola Garai’s Emma is played much straighter, less caricatured. And the BBC version is a bit longer, but it’s worth it!

            True story: last time I watched Emma (two months ago?) I was engaging in heavy matchmaking schemes, without realizing the connection 🙂

            Also, I’m not a fan of the 1940 version, but maybe you’ll disagree, Tim?

          • Tim says:

            All I’ve ever heard about the 1940 P&P is that it is such a poor adaptation that it’s on;y for those who want to be able to say that they’ve actually seen it. Is it worth the time it takes to watch it?

            On Paltrow’s Emma, one thing I really appreciated is that she captured the spirit of the Emma Woodhouse that I read on the pages. That scene at the strawberry picking party in particular is perfect, I think.

          • Anne’s guide to the 1940’s P &P is fantastic, Tim. But, for the record, yes, I think it’s worth the time to watch it – especially if you like Austen in general. Oh sure, they change a few things and the costumes are laughable, but even as an Austen fanatic/purist, I still found it to be an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. 🙂

          • Tim says:

            On liking Austen in general, does reading all six novels several times, reading her juvenalia and being halfway through LaFaye’s edition of her letters count? Because if it does, then I think I might qualify as liking JA. Perhaps.


          • Tim,

            I think you qualify. 🙂 Watch the 1940 P&P, and just be prepared to sit back and laugh.

            Also, you should absolutely watch the BBC “Emma”. The one with Paltrow came out when I was in high school, and I loved it, watching it more times than I can count. However, I believe I might like the BBC version better still. 🙂

          • Tim says:

            I just read your review of the 1940 P&P, Ann, and you’ve piqued my curiosity sufficiently that I might have to see if I can borrow this from a library or something.

            On Emma adaptations, you’ve seen Clueless haven’t you? I think it’s very faithful to the spirit of the original, and Applegate is a hoot!

  7. Delphine says:

    I’ve actually been thinking about this as well. I recently came up with a little system for myself (because I just love systems!):

    Subway reading – should be a book that gets my blood and brain going, but is a fairly easy read. Quiet by Susan Cain really did this for me. It got me thinking about possibilities even with noise and crowds distracting me.

    Bedtime reading – something to quiet my mind. I like Barbara Pym for this.

    Study – I’ve devoted every other Saturday to read slow and deep, as you say. For me this would be something like art theory.

    Great post!

  8. Heather says:

    I’m definitely a deep reader. I unabashedly read things more than once, sometimes even every year, to get more out of them. Pride and Prejudice on its fifth reading at 26 is very, very different from its first reading at 15, or even its third reading at 24 (guessing at the ages here!).

    I get my quick, wide reading from blogs and essays while my toddler plays. I get my deep, thoughtful reading during his nap times. It’s nice to know a bit about a wide variety of topics, but I think it’s also crucial to have a deep understanding of a few things. Right now I’m reading Anna Karenina for the first time. It is taking forever, but I can’t remember the last time a book made me think so much. I’m pondering it all day long, and I think it’s helping my own personal, intellectual, and moral development.

    • Anne says:

      “It’s nice to know a bit about a wide variety of topics, but I think it’s also crucial to have a deep understanding of a few things.” Yes and yes! Well put.

  9. Angela says:

    This is so timely for me. Last night, as I looked at my towering stack from the library, I realized that I would probably not enjoy half of them and maybe I should just return them and focus on some more productive reading. I mean, really, will my life be transformed by the latest best seller? (Ok, it could be, but by every best seller?) I want to re-read a few Christian books that have touched me over the years, and I want my plate clear for when the new biography by Joni Eareckson Tada and her husband arrives in mid-March!

  10. Johanna says:

    I like to mix things up. I read quickly on some things, but I usually always have one or two books that I’m moving at a slower pace with. Also, I tab and then write up notes after every book so it helps me keep track of things. I also have a quote book.

    I totally agree. Both are important. The going deeper and the reading more. I’ve gained huge benefits from both. I think the key is balancing it and knowing that are some times I focus more on the reading more and other times where I focus more on reading deep.

    Great thoughts!

  11. Jennifer H says:

    I admit to reading this post because of the shock of the title, but you really make sense. Most non-fiction books I just skim through pulling out the info I want, and some non-fiction books I skim through because it’s a fun story, but the writing is not “great”. Then there are other NF books I buy, and underline, and make notes in the margin, and refer to time and again. And fiction where the writing is so rich that I don’t want to miss a word.

    • Anne says:

      “There are other NF books I buy, and underline, and make notes in the margin, and refer to time and again. And fiction where the writing is so rich that I don’t want to miss a word.”

      Yes! I’m with you 🙂

  12. deborah says:

    I have well-loved books that I’ve read again and again. When I was younger I read mostly novels. Now, I prefer to read deeply. Most of the titles I choose, are books that will motivate me or inspire different areas of my life. I seldom read novels, though i have nothing against them! 🙂

  13. Caris Adel says:

    Have you read The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer? She talks about reading the classics and how to do it, and how hard it is – and that it’s supposed to be hard. So she suggests using a notebook, and writing down all of the characters, quick summaries, and quotes or anything else you want. But that way you can keep everything straight, and as you work your way through the book, if you put it down for a few weeks, you can pick it back up and not be lost. I started that a couple of years ago with Brother K, but I really need to get back on it. I have 3 big books I want to read this year and haven’t yet.

    And somewhere else – I think maybe Kelley N suggested it – is to be mentored by an author. That’s a way of going deep. I’m taking Buechner this year and am just going to slowly read through most of his books, and hopefully write down quotes that I like from it.

    • Anne says:

      Yes!! Susan was actually a college professor of mine, and I have so much respect for her and her work. I’ve been thinking I need to re-read that one. I remember an intimidating reading list in it, too–those are definitely books to go deep with!

      I love your idea of being “mentored” by an author. I think I accidentally did this last year with Madeleine L’Engle when I couldn’t stop reading A Circle of Quiet and Walking on Water. Buechner sounds like such a good one to slowly read through. I have a soft spot in my heart for Whistling in the Dark, but it’s been forever since I’ve read that or anything else by him.

  14. Kelly Lange says:

    Love your thoughts here, Anne. And that’s a fantastic quote from Bacon. I think I will frame it for my 11-year-old, who is a voracious reader! I find that my wide vs. deep reading focus changes with the seasons of life. Postpartum I wasn’t capable of thinking too deeply and favored many reads that I can’t even remember now. At other times, particularly when I’m craving an intellectual life that may be difficult to nurture in the throes of motherhood, I can only read deeply, then analyze endlessly (my poor husband who listens to it all) and embark on life changes to incorporate what I’ve learned. The constant, however, is simply reading itself, whatever my eyes find.

    • Anne says:

      Kelly, great point about our reading habits changing with the seasons of life. I read a novel every 3 days when I was breastfeeding because I spent so much time parked on the couch (but then I probably read a lot of In Style postpartum, too!)

      “The constant, however, is simply reading itself, whatever my eyes find.” Same here 🙂

  15. I do both! I have my “deep reading” books for school (classics and philosophy) and when I’m feeling especially motivated, and I have the ones that I just read for plot as an escape. I think my mind benefits from the stretching of the former and the relaxation of the latter, so I feel good about how I’m going at it right now.

    • Anne says:

      Sounds good to me. I’m reading fiction before bed this year–it’s my “escape”–but I have to be careful about what kind of fiction I read then. More Betsy-Tacy, less Gone Girl. Only one of those books is actually relaxing!

  16. Sarah Ronk says:

    Great post! I guess I’d tend to lean more towards deep/slow reading. Since I’ve not always been a reader I started off reading more classics. I thought I was ‘behind’ on reading and figured new releases and light fiction wouldn’t really ‘catch me up’ 🙂 strange logic maybe, but that’s why and how I got to be this way 🙂 I also tend to be cautious of fiction since I’ve been bad at selecting good ones in the past. i have been burned by cheap plots. (I now have a new way to pick fiction… Involving not trusting my own picks w/o a trusted sources suggestion.)

    As far as books I’ve re-read. I don’t have any yet that I can re-read every year, but I have re-read Treasures Of The Snow, Celebration of Dicipline and Stepping Heavenward.

    A new season for me with an infant approaching rapidly I’m excited to have a season of reading some quick light works. My kindle is loaded with a few Lamplighter selections! Plus some of you out there have me interested in a few YA books!

    • Anne says:

      Sarah, I struggle with picking good new fiction titles, too. Your new method sounds promising. How’s it working out so far?

  17. Tim says:

    I’m all over the place in my reading, Anne. Fiction and non-fiction, fluff and substance, classics and new, I even read reference books for pleasure reading (got to blog about that sometime).

    But I have no idea how many books I read last month, let alone last year. I just know that I’m always reading a book or two, and I’ve now learned to freely give up on books that are not worth my time.

    Good topic for reflection on reading habits, Anne.


    • Anne says:

      Yep, I want to hear about reference books for pleasure reading on your blog! We do actually have several food reference books that the whole family likes to flip through for fun. We pull out The Food Lover’s Companion during dinner on a fairly regular basis 🙂

      • Tim says:

        OK, you asked for it, Anne. The reference book/pleasure reading post is scheduled for 4/3. I give you full credit for getting that post written!

  18. I have seen reading goals posted as well, and actually started to feel bad about mine. I don’t read as much as I would like, but what I do read, I now savor. I used to devour books. Now I take my time and choose only ones I am loving and enjoying. Most often in life, it’s about quality not quantity. I reminded myself of this last night and felt much better!

    • Anne says:

      “What I do read, I now savor.” Stephanie, I’m so glad–and happy that you’ve made peace with where you are with your reading.

  19. HopefulLeigh says:

    This is an important reflection. I read widely and deeply. I’m able to do that because I keep books on the front and back burners, according to how they need to be read. This lets me plow through fiction and memoir (with some exceptions- sometimes these need to be consumed more slowly) and focus more on nonfiction and biography at a leisurely pace.

  20. Kate Frishman says:

    I have the same issue. It’s so difficult to remind myself that there’s no possible way I can read every book currently in print (paper or electronic). Unfortunately, it doesn’t always stop me from rushing through books.

  21. I too am an avid reader. I thought I could never transition over to the Kindle because I love the feel of a book in my hand, the smell, turning the pages, putting the book mark in and seeing how much of the adventure I have left. I am a deep reader…regardless of how light the material is.

    I hate flying through books, because as dorky as this sounds books are my friends. I hate leaving the characters in tough places and as soon as I finish reading one I feel like I have lost a friend.

    I was just wondering if you have a “good reads account?” Because I know I would love to see your reviews and reading lists

  22. Katie says:

    Like a number of your commenters, I tend to have a number of books going at any one time, a mix of fiction/fluff for less-focused reading and non-fiction/depth for focused reading.

    I use the same trick for keeping up with reading auf Deutsch, too. Even a “fluff” book, in German, takes as much concentration on a ponderous theological tome (or whatever) in German. But what helps is if I also have a German translation of an English book in the rotation. So if I have a German book I’m wanting to read, I make sure to slip, say, Stolz und Vorurteil (Pride and Prejudice) or a translated Narnia book into the translation, as well. I don’t have to focus to understand the book the same way, but it keeps my brain in the German rhythm and makes it easier to understand the new book. So, in that case, reading wider helps me to read deeper, which is an interesting twist.

    • Anne says:

      Ouch, this hurts! I think it’s come up before that I was a German minor and have a giant stack of German books in the attic–that I haven’t touched in a million years. Or seriously, at least 5. I used to love to read lightweight novels in German–Bridget Jones’s Diary was one I remember enjoying–and you’re right, I had to concentrate so hard even though the subject matter wasn’t “tough.” Maybe what I need to do is try P&P auf Deutsch!

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