The paradox of reading choice

23:12, Jun 17 2013

Whenever I'm faced with a tidal wave of books, I am overwhelmed by what I call "reading procrastination". It's that feeling of inertia that sweeps over you when confronted by a multiplicity of choices, each of them equally intriguing - with covers and blurbs that scream out "read me", much like Alice's cake and drink in Wonderland.

I get that sensation whenever I'm in bookstores and libraries, or wherever there are plenty of new titles to browse. As much as it brings out the kid in the candy store in me, I will also feel suddenly hemmed in. Claustrophobic. Death by books. 

Home libraries or book collections are slightly different, because then you are surrounded by an ocean of beloved, well-thumbed favourites. Instead of being seduced by the siren call of the new and shiny and unread, you can relax into the embracing bosom of stories you have read a hundred times over, and that you can quote entire paragraphs and scenes from in your sleep or to strangers when drunk.

There is actually a non-fiction book written about this very topic, called The Paradox of Choice. In it, psychologist Barry Schwartz argues that the more choices a consumer gets, the greater their sense of anxiety, which ultimately leads to feelings of depression and loneliness.

While it would be extreme to say that having too many books I want to read causes me to feel depressed or lonely, literary anxiety is something I can definitely relate to. Just like when you're at work and anxiously ticking off the hours till you can get home and do a "second shift" of housework like cooking, cleaning, childcare and washing, I keep a laundry list of books I intend or want to read in my head - counting the hours of tiredness and procrastination that keeps me from reading them.

Like most readers, there are never enough hours in the day to read, and by the time I get around to bedtime, I'm usually exhausted by the burdens of life that we are all saddled with. Thus it means that my "to read" list grows exponentially, increasing my feelings of anxiety and diminishing any feelings of happiness I might get from reading.


You have every right to think this is navel-gazing twaddle, but I think it's a real problem encountered by many dedicated readers.

Of course, you can argue that people make time for the things they enjoy. Or, at least, they should. But generally, I find that my feelings of guilt at having to do things I deem more important than the pure pleasure that reading brings me causes me to let it slip by the wayside, thus worsening the cycle.

Of course, the paradox of choice as it applies to reading actually has many positives. More new books coming out means that more authors have a chance of getting their voices heard, and that there are larger audiences for their work out there.

Reading is a frivolous past-time, and I mean this in the best sense of the term. Imagine if your reading choices has as serious an implication as your choice of life partners, or houses.

The problem of reading procrastination can be solved by simply plucking an unread title off your pile of new books, and opening the cover. The beauty of this method is that if you find, within the first few pages, that your concentration wavers, you don't have to commit to reading a horrible book.

You can simply dance on by, and start afresh.

Do you experience reading procrastination when faced with too many books?

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