The Other Columbus: Stop hate-reading that book

‘Read what you like’ is not just a statement of freedom

Scott Woods
A pile of books

As a librarian and a writer I am here to tell you that it’s OK to stop reading a book you aren’t feeling.

One should derive engagement from reading. Some people use “joy” or “pleasure” where I have used “engagement,” but as a writer I can tell you that authors don’t need that kind of pressure. We are perfectly content with you Marie Kondo-ing our book out of your rotation if you’re not enjoying it. I speak for all writers when I say that we’d rather you stop reading halfway through our books and say, “It wasn’t for me,” than finish in order to confirm whether or not we suck.

Contrary to the annual reading clubs hosted by libraries, reading is not a contest. You are not a better person for having read 1,000 more books than your neighbor. You are simply more well-read. And without consideration of what you may have read, even that is up for debate. What is most important about reading isn’t how much you’ve read, but the way books have affected you. Do you think differently about the world after a book? Do you better understand a feeling? Are you motivated to do something different with your life, or just the next day?

Sometimes we are not ready for certain books. I do not mean we do not understand the words (though sometimes that is true). I mean we do not understand their meaning.  Do you know how many times I had to have my heart broken to be able to appreciate William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways? Answer: three. And I will probably need to have it broken once more to be able to write like that. 

Of the millions of books bought each year, we exist at a time when most of those titles only sell hundreds per title. In 2019, more than 4 million books were published in the U.S. (That includes on-demand reprints of public domain stuff and other assorted nooks and crannies of the publishing world that aren’t traditional publishing channels.) Mind you, that was on top of the 20 million or so books still available in print for purchase. 

That is the ocean you’re swimming in as a consumer, let alone a reader. Do not get caught in the churn of wave after wave of available books. Start reading any book you want, for any reason you want. When you lose interest, put it down and pick up another one. Don’t worry: they’ll make more.

Still a proponent for sticking the landing at all cost? Here is some book math I like to drop into cocktail party conversation whenever the opportunity arises:

  • In 2013 the U.S. book industry published more than 304,000 new titles. (Some figures run in the millions annually, but again, those statistics include books with multiple ISBN codes, reprints, etc. We’re discussing raw, new content here.)
  • That means that America produces approximately 800 new books per day. With the advances in self-publishing and printing in the last eight years, this number is certainly much higher.
  • If just 1 percent of these are great books, that would mean eight books per day were great.
  • That’s 56 great books per week.
  • That’s 2968 great books per year.
  • You probably didn’t read any of them because the average number of books (equivalent, meaning the stat includes audiobooks and online reading) read by Americans per year is 12. That, or you’re Socrates.

Note again that these figures are conservative. America publishes between 800-1000 books per day, and you’re out here slogging through one that you don’t like as if there’s a cookie in the back cover. Stop it.

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote: 

There's a mirror that's seen me for the very last time,

There is a door that I have locked till the end of the world.

Among the books in my library (I have them before me)

There are some that I shall never open now.

In light of the sheer amount of books that exist, I think we can all learn to live with that. 

“Read what you like” is not just a statement of freedom. It is also a guide as to how we should read. As someone who has spent a couple of decades working in libraries, I promise you: There’s another book waiting for you.