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On Letting Go of the Idea of “Keeping Up”



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On Letting Go of the Idea of “Keeping Up”

“So, what have you read lately?” It sounds like an innocent question, but it came with a pile of expectations.

By Molly Templeton

Published on March 28, 2024

Photo by Jean Vella [via Unsplash]

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Photograph of a bookshelf, looking up at an angle. A ladder leans against the shelf.

Photo by Jean Vella [via Unsplash]

The first time I felt the tiniest spark of competition where books and reading are concerned, I was probably eight years old, thrilled to bits by a librarian’s instruction to put a gold star inside a construction paper folder—one for every fairy tale I read. There were at least two long rows of stars by the time I was done. I was only competing with myself: I wanted as many stars as I could possibly get, and given my love for fairy tales, this wasn’t particularly difficult.

But lately—and by lately I mean the last decade, give or take a few years—I’ve noticed a different sense of competition about reading. And competition isn’t even exactly the right word; it’s not like people are jumping online to yell about being first to finish the next Brandon Sanderson tome. (If they are, don’t tell me.) But there’s no word that means exactly what I see and feel. It’s a combination of obligation, social performance, genuine curiosity, love of books, and a desire to be involved, plus a dollop of early-adopterism and cheerleading. 

All of these things are good, in balance. But they’re also easy to knock out of balance, shifting the vibe of talking about books online from “this thing I want to do” to “this thing we wind up feeling like we have to keep up with.”

Reading itself should be productive, in the sense that it produces ideas and feelings and thoughts and empathy and a lot of other things, too, across the whole range of human experience. The kind of productivity I mean is the quantifying kind, the kind that wants to get to a certain number of books read, or tick all the bingo boxes, or simply read more books than someone else did. Sometimes it arises in the form of a complaint: “Ugh, I’m so behind on my Goodreads challenge.”

For one thing, this is just a branded way of saying “I’m not reading as much lately as I’d like to be.” This is Goodreads inserting itself into your reading life and reshaping the way you talk about books. But it’s also more than that. It’s turning reading into a task, a tickybox, a number of pages or books. It’s setting a productivity framework around something that doesn’t need it. Yes, you set your own goals, but even if you’re entirely self-directed and pay no attention to the norms or the huge numbers of books other people read, some of us aren’t quite so independent. Those numbers influence people. They make reading very fast, tearing through book after book, seem like the norm. 

If you read slowly, that’s okay. If you read very few books, that’s okay too. The secret truth is that there is absolutely no reason to care how many books you read in a year, unless you like stats and numbers and tracking things and in that case, might I suggest a spreadsheet and doing your own tracking, far from the Goodreads crowd.

About a decade ago, I had only just discovered that a person could stumble into rooms where people hung out, discussing books. They were also discussing authors and gossip and how bad the box wine was and how long the subway ride home would be, but they were there because of books, because these rooms were bookstores during author events. I had moved back to New York, which had a lot more bookish events than the college town where I’d been living. I got myself a bookstore job and became part of the book ecosystem, delighting in access to galleys and trying to find just the right book for customers.

It was a world I had not expected to find myself in, and I loved it. I loved the conversations and the enthusiasm and the lit gossip and the people, and I loved feeling like part of it. But there was a weird side to it, sometimes. There could be a sense of just having to hold opinions about certain books or authors, or having to have already read new books. And then the weirdest thing happened: I found myself in a situation where I simply did not want to talk about books. At all. 

This was an extremely strange experience, anathema to everything I’d ever felt where books were concerned. But in the basement of a bookstore, a friend’s friend asked, an intense gleam in their eye, “So, Molly, what have you read lately?”

It sounds like an innocent question, but it came with a pile of expectations. This person kept up with everything. This person wanted to know what they could tick off the list with me. Had I read Big Book X? Had I gotten my hands on an advance copy of Massive Novel Y? Did I have opinions about the books a person in my job “ought” to have opinions on?

I did not, and what’s more, in that moment, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to talk about what I’d been reading in the way this person wanted me to respond. I suddenly wanted to hold my cards, and my books, extremely close to the chest. Reading felt gamified, like a thing where you went down a list of titles and got points for which ones you’d read. This was no longer gold stars inside a folder. This was something else entirely.

This vibe has crept into so much online book discourse. People stress about not having time to read—a fair complaint, but one that has a different tone when the subtext (or text!) is “I’m getting behind.” Behind on what, and to whom? Who is served by all this stress, by reading challenges and goals and lists and shelfies and book hauls? What is it for? What are we getting out of it? What difference does it make if you read a book that came out last week or one that came out last century?

If these things bring you joy, by all means: continue. If you just don’t even notice them: Bless you, I envy that ease! But if, like me, you find both that you can’t ignore the social-media side of reading and find it sometimes overwhelming, and depressing, and makes you feel like there’s a right and a wrong way to read a book, please: Give yourself space. Step away from the internet. Ignore the websites that want you to rate and review art like it’s a toothbrush or a new pair of sneakers. Don’t even keep a list of books read, if you don’t want to. What we get from reading is not quantifiable, not a statistic to earn or an item to collect. It’s an experience, a process, an education, a gift. You will get something out of it whether you read 10 books a year or 100. And no one has to know, either way.[end-mark]

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