The Unexamined Reading Life

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Socrates was recorded to have said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” We could probably have a long discussion about that statement and some would argue that life is worth living, examined or not. And probably we might think of our reading life in the same way. Reading is worth it, whether examined or not. But might it be that some examination of our reading life might enrich that life and make it worth more?

That seems to be the premise of a post on Book Riot yesterday titled, “How to Audit Your Reading Life” by Kelly Jensen. She contends that “reading audits” free her from reading goals, feeling bad about what she is reading or not reading, and to make good choices about the roughly 2500 books she will be able to read in her life.

She follows five steps in her reading auditing process:

  1. Collect all your reading logs, tools, and notes.
  2. Assess your reading.
  3. Determine your reading life values.
  4. Set some goals.
  5. Determine future audit timeframes.

Her process is very detailed, making me wonder if she is a real auditor or accountant. At very least, I got the sense that she could be. She admits that not everyone might want to go as granular as she does. I suspect that is most of us, but her article has a number of helpful tips and ideas for your own reading audit, however informal or analytical you may choose.

There were a number of valuable takeaways that rang true for me. First is the realization that not only can’t I read everything, I can only read a very small portion of all the books that are out there. The question is whether I’m reading the ones that reflect what is important to me, and the answer to that is unique as each individual.

Looking at what I’ve been reading via Goodreads or my blog posts is valuable (steps 1 and 2). It’s why I started using these tools in the first place–to remember what I’ve read and what I thought about it. But it also reveals my reading patterns–the types of books I read, the publication books, etc. My Goodreads shelves are actually pretty revealing. Lots of biographies and theology and mysteries and history. Not many thrillers or popular fiction or health. Given my age, a few more books on health might be helpful!

I don’t think I’ve ever consciously determined my “reading life values” distinguished from interests. I think my values in the rest of life continue to shape what I read. Jensen suggests identifying in various ways what has brought you joy. Perhaps my version of that is that the pursuit of what I care about in life brings me joy–whether it is the knowledge of God, understanding better how to care for this world, or to learn lessons in life and leadership from others who have led well (or sometimes not so well!). Place matters to me, both where I grew up and where I live. A growing value for me is to read and commend some of Ohio’s great authors from James Thurber to Wil Haygood to Hanif Abdurraqib. I also like stories–whether good fiction or historical narratives, and when I find someone whose writing gives me joy, like Louise Penny, I want to read more of what they have written.

My “Bob on Books 2021 Reading Challenge” was actually a personal attempt to set some reading goals reflecting what I value. I’ve actually met every goal except–you guessed it–the health one! I have a month left–at very least, I ought to check my book stacks and see if there is something on health just waiting in my TBR pile or Kindle. This article sparked my thinking about other kinds of goals. I want to be more intentional about supporting some indie bookstores I care about and our local library, which does great work. I may put something along these lines into my 2022 Reading Challenge.

As to “future audit timeframes,” setting reading goals at the beginning of the year and revisiting them midyear seems to makes sense for me and again at year end seems like a good rhythm, with the year end serving to spark thoughts about directions for the coming year–something writing this post is helping me to do! Like the author, I’m not compulsive about number goals. I set a Goodreads challenge, but always below what I actually read in a year.

I liked the positive framing of this article. The purpose of this kind of audit, however loose or granular your approach, is not to beat yourself up! The focus is not failure but what is working and what you value. As we approach the last month of the year it is a good time to look back on this year’s reading, what worked and what didn’t and start thinking about what some of what you’d like to read for next year (I always leave room for serendipity!). If you are like most readers, you may already have some of these books on your TBR pile–after all, there was some reason you bought them!

I like to think of life as a seamless whole, in which my reading life is congruent with the rest of my life. Sometimes my reading life shapes the rest of my life. And the rest of my life shapes what I read. I don’t know about Socrates, but I can say that an examined reading life certainly makes life richer, and that is of considerable worth.