Making a Reading Plan

I spent a couple of hours yesterday making up a list of 20 books to read in fall 2023. I’m defining “fall” as the three months September, October, and November. This follows up on my participation in the 20 Books of Summer challenge. I found setting up and (almost) meeting the summer challenge to be a good exercise, so I’m going to continue it at least into the fall.

Yesterday, as I pulled the list together, it occurred to me that this is by no means the first time I’ve spent hours in July and August pulling together a list of readings. In fact, it was pretty typical for me to spend such time both in the mid to late summer and in October into November putting such lists together when I was selecting texts and supportive material for the classes I was teaching. Those times – like this time – were interesting and exciting, as I pondered the best (or at least not the worst!) combination of readings that would support and challenge students finding their way into an area of study.

Of course, there are several significant differences between those earlier projects and the current one. A big difference is that I’m designing a reading program for me, rather than (also) for other people. A second big difference is that each of the text lists I assembled earlier had to fit a particular structure implied by the course and the larger academic program. In putting this reading list together for myself, I find the freedom offered by the lack of structure and captive audience to be both liberating and problematic – out of all the books that I’ve thought I might like to read, how do I come up with the list of books that I commit to read at this time in my life.

Another difference between then and now is that all (or at least most – see below) of the books on the list I’m making now are books that I’ve not yet read. I should admit that occasionally I put a book on a course reading list before I’d actually read it (Have I read that book? No – in fact, I’ve not even taught it!) But in those cases I’d read enough about the book to persuade myself that it was well worth my reading it (and the students’ at least pretending to read it) over the course of the semester. There are all sorts of reasons books make their way onto the lists I’m making now. In some instances, they’re books that have long been on my TBR list and on my shelves. In other instances, I’ve read reviews that persuade me to read them. Some of them come recommended by friends and family.

To make some order out of the freedom of choosing only for myself in the life I’m living now, I’ve imposed some constraints. First, following the spirit of the Books of Summer challenge, a significant (but, thankfully, unspecified!) number of books will be ones that are already sitting, unread, on my bookshelves. Second, I’m pushing myself to read a variety of genres. The variety isn’t as broad as some (say, my wife) would like – I’m not (yet) willing to include poetry in the list. (Much to my wife’s dismay, I remain rather tone-deaf in poetry.) Third, I’m pushing myself to read more in areas well outside the areas in which I have any claim at all to expertise. Fourth, I’m going to continue to read in philosophy, including not only books I’ve not read but also others that I’ve read, when my earlier reading left me with the conviction that they’re well worth reading again.

I’ve found it strangely comforting to have the terrain of my reading laid out in front of me. Before embarking on the challenge this past summer, I found myself rather haphazardly jumping from one book to the next, sometimes without finishing an earlier book, and sometimes picking up a book only on a whim. There’s a lot to be said for whims, but I’m using them now to get a book into the selection basket rather than to sit down to read it.

The time yesterday yielded what I’m thinking now is a good mix of books. If my experience this fall is anything like my experience of the summer, I’ll find connections between texts that I did not see coming. I’ll find passages that I struggle to make sense of. And I’ll make at least one change in the list after beginning to tackle it, simply because I stumbled on something else that I absolutely have to read. (There’s that whim again, but at least it’s under some semblance of control!)

Speaking of that, I should admit that a couple of hours after settling on a list, I found myself in a used bookstore. And on the shelves of that used bookstore, I found pristine copies of two books that have been on my “I really should read this” list, but not on my personal bookshelves. I took that as a sign from the other side (not the dark side) that I should consider putting them on my list for the fall. So, do I push myself to read 22 books this fall? Do I bump a book or two off of the current list to make room for one or both of these? Or do I put these new (to me) books on my bookshelf so that they’ll be there for the picking when I assemble the list of books for Winter 2023-24?

So many challenges here. I need time to think. And I have time before posting that list here, so I’ll think.

Oh – about that list for the summer – I’m getting close to the end. Perhaps after I finish this last book on that list, I can spend the rest of August reading the two books I just purchased.