On the infinite expansion of reading lists

Abstract digital art. An oblong shape on a dark blue background.

Over the past two decades, I’ve read fifteen hundred books. I’m not including newspapers, magazines, online articles, or sources briefly consulted. I mean books with ISBNs that I’ve read cover-to-cover. Over the same period of time, I’ve listed an additional two thousand books that I’d like to read but have not, to this day, yet read.

The “to read” list usually presents itself as a “to-do” question: When and how will I acquire copies of each book and sit with it? Won’t it take more than two decades to read them all? The “to read” list seems to prompt goal-setting. It’s an achievement that lies in my future. It’s an ambition. We are so often taught to think that way: Something we want to do is necessarily something that we are supposed to do, or else others will interpret us as disappointed, ineffectual, unhappy, and therefore pitiable.

There is a better way of understanding this phenomenon: I add books to my “to read” list at more than twice the speed that I read them. If this week is typical, I’m likely to add five books to my list, yet I can only read two. This is a permanent condition. I can’t catch up with my own list. This is not a problem. The only problem is in imagining that I can read five books a week. I can’t.

One solution is to want less. Just delete books from the list. Don’t tell people that they exist. Downsize my imagination to fit my capacity. This would make other people more comfortable around me because they would remain blissfully unaware that there are things I want to do that I will never do. I wouldn’t be giving them the terms by which to interpret me according to my unrealized potential.

But what’s wrong with having unrealized potential? The list does not have to be a source of frustration. Instead, it can represent abundance. It is the abundance of my own imagination regarding what I would like to do with my time. I may never cross everything off the list. That just means I will never run out of things I’d like to do.

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