Why You Should Set Reading Goals

Life is too short to read anything except what you want to read. That said, how do you decide what to read? That’s a serious question. How do you decide what to read? We all have different decision-making criteria. I like hearing the preachy, pushy excuses people assign to their book choosing methodology. Like, do you remember a few years ago when anyone carrying the vaguest pretense for literacy went through a phase of giving all the rest of us the eye of disgust because we haven’t read Infinite Jest? Not that any of them had either, but that’s what Infinite Jest was: the most recent intellectual gavel used to support the superiority complex of a subset of particularly vocal intellectuals.

Every few years another book like that rises from the swampland that is modern literature and gives a new generation of hipsters new ammunition for making us all feel dumb.

It’s probably unfair of me. It has left me with a certain attitude toward book recommendations delivered in a certain tone.

I don’t recommend books often for that reason. So don’t consider this a recommendation of either a book or a group of books, although it sort of is.

This is more of a recommendation of reading in general.

This will sound like a generalization:

Everyone in the world is paralyzed by choice. Nobody knows how to pick what they want. I include myself in that, and it’s awful. I don’t know how to figure out what I want. Nobody knows how to figure out what they want. We all think everyone else does, and it’s all a huge lie.

The closest thing we can do is submit to peer pressure. That’s why those Infinite Jest hipsters are a necessary evil in society. They might be superior jackoffs who’ve never read the book they’re hitting you with, but they did buy a book.

I like knowing that people are reading. I don’t care what you’re reading. I just like knowing that there are books being read.

I don’t know what I like to read. But I know what I’m reading right now. I’m not going to recommend it to you, because you should make your own damn mind about what you read. I will tell you what it is, though, because I am finding the experience rewarding. Maybe you can learn something. Not from me, but from the story.

There is a small liberal arts college outside of Chicago. It’s called Roosevelt University. In its infinite wisdom, that school employs a man called Gary K. Wolfe to teach literature course. One of his courses is a survey of the entire genre of science fiction. In recent years, the company once called The Great Courses and now called Wondrium (a stupid name) employed Professor Wolfe to deliver a twenty-four-part lecture on the same subject. The course is a more or less chronological study of the whole genre of science fiction, but it’s more or less chronological because it is, in fact, organized thematically. In Professor Wolfe’s experience, the nature of science fiction as a genre that tackles the world as it is, a thematic study of science fiction ends up being a more or less chronological study at the same time. Pretty cool.

Now back to me for a second. I like being an amateur authority in things. Not to win arguments — the ability to incisively destroy badly made points is just a perk. I like knowing enough about things to carry on an interesting conversation.

Every now and then, I like to ask myself: hey, man, what do you like?

You should do that too. It’s not always as easy a question as you think.

For my whole life, one of my consistent answers has been science fiction. I have always claimed to be something of a science fiction fan. Although, every now and then I did reflect on myself and notice that, for a fan of science fiction, I sure hadn’t read much of it.

Yet the fact remained: I am a fan of science fiction.

Or am I?

Back to Professor Wolfe. I watched his whole Great Course about science fiction. And, my god, I want that guys job. He has read everything, and apparently that’s all anyone ever expects him to do: read books and have opinions about them. I want that job.

During his Great Course, he had recommended reading — novels that he suggested as good examples of this or that development in science fiction — you know, treatment of aliens, or robots, or developments in the Space Opera. It was cool.

Guess what I did?

I wrote every single one of those book recommendations down. Not only that, I put them into a spreadsheet.

And now, I am working my way through that book list.

Why?

Because it is damned cool to have a mission. It’s exactly like a long, slow game of Pokémon. Every book I finish off the reading list is a little flash of, “Yes! I am a little less than half a percent more competent at this! I’m so cool.”

There are more than two hundred books on the reading list. Each book is a little less than half a percent of progress. But that’s fine! It’s a long-term mission.

As of this writing, I’ve finished a bit more than twenty of the books on the list. Lots of interesting novels. A few lame ones. None I regretted reading. And the whole experience feels like it nurtures something I like about myself, and that is no bad thing.

I recommend it. Not this book list, of course — although I will show you my book list, if you ask nicely. The strategy of finding a reading list that appeals to something you care about, though: that’s a good idea. Because then you can be cool like me and be in a position to rise to an even higher level of superiority and not recommend books to people, but do so in a sure sense that you’ve read some bangers lately.

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