Too Much To Read? Here Are 5 Steps to Conquer Your Never-Ending Reading List

When it comes to reading, my hunger outsizes my appetite. I run a criminal law practice, write, raise two lovely daughters, and am a serial volunteer at 826 Valencia. I wish I had more time to read. 

When I really started thinking about being a writer three years ago, I read a few tomes to initiate myself into the profession:

  • Portrait of a Lady. Check.
  • Moby Dick. Check.
  • Free Shakespeare class on edX where I read six plays. Check times six.
  • Sartre - half check because of the huh?-factor.

As I finished each "must read," the list of what else I needed to read multiplied exponentially. No, I haven't read Marcel Proust's books in their entirety. I mean to read Lolita, I really do, but I keep putting it down.

There are the Pulitzers, the Man Bookers, and the National Book Award winners to contend with. There are the fantastic independent press books waiting to be read too. Magazines trickle into my mailbox weekly, monthly, and quarterly. I try to scan the newspaper every day. Online publications make excellent writing free and accessible. I read every essay, memoir, novel, and blog post my writer friends publish so that I can support them on the page. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Now let's pause here and acknowledge that this much output is a good thing. We are inundated with much, but because of that we have more voices of different textures, flavors, and colors lending their imagination to the public forum than ever before. The more that is out there, the more democratic our collective literary voices are.

To help manage the never-ending stack of things to read, I've put together five simple steps that have worked well for me. I hope it helps you, too. The good news? If you read the paragraph above, you've already accomplished step 1.


STEP 1: Acknowledgement

Acknowledge that even if we don't read it all, this volume of great writing is a great cultural phenomenon. We should feel blessed to be a part of that, even if we can't put our eyes on all of it.


STEP 2: Title-Scan

One way to reckon with all the great reading out there is to peruse through tables of contents and reviews to see which pieces I really must read. For me, that always lands on anything related to the law and to ethics, as my studies and work pull me into both of these fields of interest. But sometimes, an article about pediatric oncology or a historical piece about the development of Central Park will snag my interest. Some tools here that really help me with title scanning are podcasts like Fresh Air and book reviews in the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and literary magazines like Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and The Rumpus. I also subscribe to three blogs that I treasure for their curated recommendations: Literary Hub, NextDraft, and Brain Pickings. I, of course, visit Carve to read the “Books, Magazines, Authors” section.


STEP 3: Don't Get Fatigued

Reading well for me requires non-literary stimuli, so I take time away from the page, too. I like to engage in some other art forms. To prevent word fatigue and prune my love for literature, I book time to visit museums and art galleries, to take in a dance class or performance, and to teach writing to kids at 826 Valencia. I treat this like rehab for my brain. Engaging in art from a different perspective, as an observer or a participant, brings fresh enthusiasm to my job as a both a reader and a writer.


STEP 4: Read Faster

I took a break after a dozen years of lawyering to go back to graduate school and asked a professor how she suggested that we read all of what was assigned in her class. The volume, even by law school standards, was staggering. "Read faster," she replied. Pithy and excellent advice. I move through reading much faster than I used to, looking not for memorization or detailed analysis in what I am reading but for inspiration. I am panning for gold. That gold may be buried on page 245 or in the 8th paragraph of a dense book review, but if I know the subject interests me, I hang onto the text for it.


STEP 5: Indulge In Your Favorites

This step is what I call the chocolate mousse principle. I sometimes sidestep step 4 to savor what I really love. I pick up the favorite magazine or book I am dying to finish and take myself out on a date to a coffee shop. Over a cup of mint tea, I switch my phone onto silent and sit there for an hour or two just to devote myself to my literary companion. It's an uncomplicated and wholly satisfying love affair, really. And when I go home, my stack of unread books and more is slightly more scalable.


What methods have worked for you? I'd love to know if you have your own system or tips for managing the stack of unread books, magazines, and articles. Share in the comments section below.