Reading Lists Literally (Almost) Ruined My Life

reading lists

To start, I should make one thing clear: I love lists. In fact, here’s a list of people who can verify that:

1. My editor, who has seen me make literally hundreds and hundreds of them

2. Manufacturers of junior-size legal pads

3. Newell Rubbermaid Inc., makers of the Sharpie Pen

4. My fellow Saturday afternoon errand-runners

5. Anyone who has ever given me a task in my life

Lists are an important part of my existence. They keep me organized. They keep me on task. They give me a goal toward which my undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive self can work: Cross everything off. Finishing a list means a) a whole lot of stuff got accomplished and b) I’m most likely feeling pretty good about myself.

So all lists are good, then, right? Wrong. I’m currently recovering from what I refer to as “Reading List Shock Syndrome” (OK, so I just came up with that, but bear with me; I’m traumatized). RLSS can affect anyone living with these four listed conditions:

1. A love for the written word

2. Not enough free time to express said love

3. A semi-serious obsession with lists

4. Access to the Internet*

*RLSS is a first-world problem

So there I was, just sitting there living, browsing the Internet on a lazy summer Saturday. And then I read a tweet: 11 Books You Should Read If You’re A Woman In Your 20s, from Thought Catalog (who has been fueling my obsession with lists since 2011).

Hey, you’re a woman in your 20s, I thought. You like books. Actually, you really like books. So, I clicked. And my life changed.

Stage 1 of RLSS: Underestimation Of Task Ahead. Eleven books isn’t so bad, you might say. That’s what I said, too, after I read that list. The problem is that Stage 2: Realization That There Are Lists Everywhere sets in almost immediately.


All of the sudden, the Internet was full of reading lists. What’s more, so many of them were specifically tailored to my interests: classic British/American literature and science fiction/fantasy/horror (SFFH). Oh, you want a list of those lists? Can do!

= 681 books (I left out the 847 non-SFF books from the Guardian list, but it would total 1,528 books with those included.)

And these are just the ones I kept track of.

So, those original 11 books are totally doable, right? Absolutely—but only if you quit the Internet and the real world until you’re done! (Which you won’t, because, chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re a millennial, right? And all us millennials do is Instagram and tweet and tap on our iPhones and our brains are melting and we’re all gonna die? But really: You won’t quit the real world or the Internet because this is the 21st century and that isn’t really possible.)

Stage 3: Extreme Feelings of Being Overwhelmed. What do you mean 681 books? At the rate of one book per day, it would take me almost two years. One book a week? MORE THAN 13 YEARS. One book every two weeks? Double that. 26 years! And there goes my youth.

When I expressed my bewilderment to my father, a fellow book-lover and nerd like me, he said this:

“It is not possible to catch up. A hopeless task. Give up. Stop reading. Be a regular American. That is what reality TV is for. Join the teeming masses.”

And when I told him my compulsive need to finish the lists, he said this:

“It will ruin you. You will end up desperate, homeless, hungry, huddled in a back alley with a shopping cart full of unread books. Free yourself.”

And so, wanting to prove him wrong, I entered Stage 4: Futile Attempts To Get Started. I decided my best option was to pick a few of the lists, print them out and keep them in my little Moleskine notebook (Yes, I’m a writer and I have a Moleskine. Yes, I’m a cliché.) I highlighted all the books on the lists that I had read. (This ended up being more disheartening than helpful.)

I was all ready to get started, before I remembered that my bookshelf has at least 20 unread books on it (maybe I should make a list called “23 Unread Books from Haley’s Shelf” and start there?). Maybe only two or three of those were on any of the lists I’d printed off.

Beyond that, I was already in the middle of a book: “Embassytown” by China Miéville. I was loving every page, but that book wasn’t on any of the lists (wrongfully, I think!).

So, after much fretting/sweating/weeping/gnashing of teeth, I made up my mind to begin Stage 5: Acceptance. I realized that just because someone out there recommended those books doesn’t mean I’m obligated to read them all, and especially not read them all in order starting today.

There are probably a hundred or so out of the 681 listed books that I’ve had in mind to read for some time. So here’s what I’ll do: The next time I’m at a used bookstore, I’ll scout for some those. The next time I’m looking at my shelf, wondering what to read, I’ll flip to my Moleskine’s pocket and pull out a list. I’ve already checked out Project Gutenberg for some ePub versions of listed classics for my Nook, just in case.

But here’s the thing: Obligation takes away so much of the joy. Putting down “Embassytown” to pick up one of the listed books might have made me feel like I was accomplishing something, but you know what? So will finishing “Embassytown.” So starting now, I’m promising myself no reading lists just now—no more stress, no more desperation, and no more fears of homelessness and a shopping cart full of unread books.

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