As readers, we enjoy all sorts of stories and often take great pleasure in examining the plot or characters or structure. We’re not afraid to be critical on occasion or to shower praise on a book that captures our imaginations. Yet for all our bookish love, there’s one story we tend to avoid questioning or considering at all. It’s the story we tell ourselves about our reading lives.
“I’m a mood reader. I don’t plan ahead.”
“I only like new releases. The classics are boring.”
“I never read romance novels.”
“I don’t like that author.”
“I prefer historical fiction over everything else.”
“I will definitely read this 600-page book that’s been on my TBR list for the past two years.”
While there’s nothing wrong with liking a particular author or having delusions about the feasibility of your TBR list (don’t we all?), the problem is that many of our beliefs about our reading lives are outdated, inaccurate, or contradictory. We’re our own unreliable narrators.
I’ll give you an example from my personal story. I will tell you without a hint of hesitation that I don’t read much Science Fiction or Fantasy. I will say it’s just not my thing. I will then go on to tell you that I thought The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was absolutely spellbinding. I will also tell you that I loved the careful and elaborate world-building in books like the classic Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Does this make sense? It does not. Do I believe this nonsensical story about my reading life? Yes, I do.
You likely believe things about your reading life that fail the reality test. You may have sworn off a whole genre of books because of one bad experience. You may claim to adore one author or time period when in truth, you’re kind of bored with it. But we stick to our stories because we’re convinced that’s who we are as readers.
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While recently reading Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by organizational psychologist Adam Grant, I came across the concept of identity foreclosure. This happens (paraphrasing here) when someone commits to an identity prematurely, often accepting the role or values others have chosen for her or him or them without question and without fully exploring alternatives.
I think many of us do the same thing with our reading identities. We accept and believe the preferences handed down to us by family, teachers, and friends. We commit to a certain view of what makes a book good or bad before we’ve read widely enough to really know for ourselves. Before we know it, we’re convinced we don’t like a certain genre or that only certain books work for us.
The danger in clinging to these obsolete versions of our stories is that we end up restraining ourselves in our book choices. These false narratives narrow our reading lives to limited options that no longer reflect what we like or would enjoy trying. Our reading identities become shaped by what we think we should do or what we always do rather than what we could do.
Instead, we can attempt to turn to a new page in our stories. There’s more to consider than just “What do I read next?” We can ask ourselves, “Who am I as a reader right now?” Get to know yourself all over again. Contemplate the story you’ve been telling yourself about your reading life and then pick it apart in ways that would make your old English professors proud.
It may be time to break out of some old reading habits and to try something new. Experiment! Through a little trial and error we can edit and update our story. We may find some of our preferences still intact, but we may also discover our tastes and tolerances have changed since we settled on our reading identities long ago. I suspect we’ll realize a wider, fresher view will enrich us in ways we didn’t expect. I may even read more Science Fiction and Fantasy.
As for the length of your TBR list… well, some parts of our reading identities are more ingrained than others.
How could you update your reading life? What titles or genres would you like to try? Tell me in the comments. Best wishes for further reading!
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