The Unnecessary Pressures of The “Must Read” List

Even the most avid readers get intimidated by the “Must Read” list. But, do you really need to read it?

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While scrolling through any social media platform, you can’t avoid articles like “25 Must Read Horror Books” or “Books Every Person Must Read at Least Once”. Out of pure curiosity, my finger always ends up swiping to read the article. But only two minutes into reading the list, I almost always have to click of from the article feeling bad about myself. Why?

I’m sure the “Must Read” list started off with the best intentions, giving people good recommendations and highlighting books you might not have picked up otherwise. But with the sheer number of these lists and the prevalence of them through social media platforms, any reader can get overwhelmed.

If you’ve ever felt a little bad reading one of these lists, you’re not alone. As readers, we often put a lot of unnecessary pressures on ourselves to constantly be reading more. It causes us to question our own reading, which can be good at times, but also can get a bit toxic. As long as you are enjoying your reading journey, you’re doing it right. Although this has taken some time, this has been my journey with the “Must Read” list and why I don’t take them too seriously.

Feeling Inadequate

The moment I find one of these “Must Read” lists, I start of incredibly excited. I love finding new books, checking to see what I’ve read, and staying involved with the book community. But by the time I’ve scrolled past the fifteenth book that I’ve not only never read, but never heard of, I begin to feel inadequate. Then starts the questioning…

Maybe I’m not reading enough books? Maybe I’m not reading the right ones? Maybe I’m just not intellectually capable of reading this level of literature? My thoughts then continue to spiral, but not in a way that makes me want to pick up a book. Only in a way that makes me want to watch Youtube videos or rewatch The West Wing for the 47th time.

Reading Paralysis

When I get these feelings of inadequacy, even though I spent the last four years of my academic life specifically studying English literature, I don’t want to reach for a book. I get paralyzed and demoralized. I’m never going to be able to read all fifty of these books on this “Must Read” list, even though the author of the article thinks I must read them.

Although I hate to admit it, “Must Read” lists tend to put me in a reading slump. The entire purpose of these lists is to motivate and excite readers, but for those of who’ve always who’ve felt the imposter syndrome in the literary world, sometimes we just feel like we’ll never be able to read everything that we must read. And if I’m never going to be able to read everything that I must read, what is the point of reading at all? I could just as well use that time to do something else.

Holding Myself Accountable

When I started this article, I had to go back to check my own work to see if I’d fallen trap to this trend. The thought that I had put the pressure and stress that I’d been resenting lately onto someone else was just terrifying. Luckily while writing for Bookstr, I have not. But, no writer is perfect.

In my first ever published article, I made a “Must Read” list for education majors. My very first article. Who was I, a college sophomore who still had a lot to learn about both education and books, to be making a “Must Read” list for anyone? I felt like I could recommend my favorites, but I didn’t have any authority to be telling people what they needed to read. Maybe there’s a bit of imposter syndrome mixed in there, but that’s an article for a different day.

Although I could be unnecessarily hard on myself for this, I like to think that this just shows I’ve grown as a writer. Maybe I used that phrase a few years ago, but I’ve grown out of it. I don’t feel the need to make someone else feel poorly read to get them to click on my story. I can find a different way to capture their attention.

Too Many Lists, Too Little Time

Now, part of my problem is that I read too many of these lists. I know that is more of a personal problem, but most personal problems don’t happen in a vacuum. There seems to be more of these lists, from far more places, than ever before.

Every Booktuber and BookTok star has their personal “Must Reads” as well as every publishing news platform, and book community page. Not to mention the more mainstream book lists from celebrities, awards lists, and the ever-daunting New York Times list.

There is no way to read even half of the books that get put on these lists. It’s great that there are more options than ever and more diverse books than ever, but for those of use who like to stay up on classics and book trends, it can get a little exhausting.

Longer and Longer Lists

In recent years, I’ve also noticed the length of the lists getting longer and longer. A list of five to ten books doesn’t seem daunting. But especially around the New Year, the lists of books are sometimes 50 to 100 books long. Not only do I not have the attention span to read that many books, but I don’t have the attention span to scroll to the bottom of that list.

According to the Pew Research Center, the average American only reads about 12 books a year. The typical (median) American only reads four books a year. Giving a list of 100 books to an average person can just make them feel like there is no point, they could barely finish that list in the next ten years.

Now, some might say these longer lists are for more avid readers, but what does that even mean? Someone with a full-time job and family is lucky (very lucky) to read one book every week. That 100 book list would still take them two years to read. Which by then, so many other “Must Read” lists have come out that they feel behind on reading all over again. There’s just no way to keep up with lists, so where do I go from here?

Enjoy Your Own Reading, However You Like

In struggling to get a handle on the “Must Read” list, I’ve decided that they simply aren’t for me. Maybe I’m too competitive or excitable, but someone telling me what I need to read just doesn’t sit well with me anymore. I’ve decided that I’m going to spend more time reading what I enjoy, rather than what everyone tells me to read.

Maybe I won’t be keeping up with the trends or looking intellectual reading a shelf full of classics, but I will hopefully enjoy reading so much more. Although there are hundreds of reasons to read, joy and happiness should be toward the top of the list.

Although I thought about including some books I wanted to tackle just for enjoyment here, I felt like adding that could defeat the point of this article. I’m not going to even wade into the waters of the “Must Read” list today.

Set Your Own Meaningful Goals

Now, if you are someone who likes to track their reading habits, just ending with a happy-go-lucky conclusion might not be for you. If you need a little more structure, then set goals for yourself, but ones that are meaningful to you. Now that I’ve realized is easier said than done.

To make a goal that is meaningful for you, consider how your reading habit has been unsatisfying lately. Are you struggling to read in your current location? Have you not been choosing the right books lately? Are you a little burnt out on a genre? Are you looking for something new? Do you want to dig deeper into a topic that interests you?

It’s common in the book community to set goals based solely on the number of books you are reading, but there are tons of other goals to make. You can make goals about when you want to read – I want to read on my commute in the morning, try to read an audiobook at the gym, or read a little before bed.

Maybe you want to establish a reading routine or process to romanticize your reading. You can try to read books from new genres you haven’t tried or start reading books in a subject that’s recently obsessed you – I’ve started reading tons of books about the Beatles since writing this article.

Whatever you choose for your personal goals, make sure they are based on your priorities, not the “Must Reads” someone else has set out for you.

Feature Image via Reedsy