How to read freely

Let go.
Let go.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Kelly
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It’s mid-August, which for season-blessed Northern Hemispherers, means a heap of summer guilt: Guilt that you only made it to the beach twice this summer, that you haven’t eaten enough watermelon, that your kid’s farmer’s tan is barely noticeable. And perhaps for some, guilt that your summer vacation book stack has sat largely untouched, gathering pollen.

Don’t stress. Summer reading, as I’ve written previously, is a sham. Pleasantly arbitrary seasonal-reading categories do serve a function: They provide a framework to help you navigate a sea of unread books, like lightly caffeinated stories of transformation in spring, or very long reads that crush your soul in winter. But summer in particular, despite the breezy-sounding category of “beach reads,” can carry a sense of duty, bringing back memories of daunting “summer reading lists” from school days.

Productivity-focused approaches to reading—gunning for 52 books in a year, or listening to audiobooks on triple speed—rely upon shame and panic as a prompt to pick up a book. This is a form of motivation that can certainly work, but it rewards speed, brevity, and completion, rather than curiosity, diversity of ideas, and depth of engagement.

Once again, I say: Forget your reading checklist. Free yourself from book FOMO. Embrace illogical, inefficient reading habits. Be unrealistically ambitious in packing your holiday book stack. And even if you get home and find several books still unread at the bottom of your duffle, be glad you still have so much good reading left to discover.

This is actually the best way to read more: with abandon, instead of with resignation. Read something that surprises you. Make a list and then lose it. Don’t force yourself to finish a book you don’t like. Read the books people give you as presents, even if they seem to have completely missed the mark. Think of reading as a very long, meandering stroll—not a scavenger hunt. Next August, instead of feeling shamed by an imposing stack of unread books, you might find yourself pleasantly buoyed by a summer spent reading freely.