Reading plan (ˈriːdɪŋ plæn): A system of methodically working one’s way through a self-selected list of books; formerly derided, but now heartily endorsed by Greg Brook of brookandthebook.com
Before I give you my 3 tips for creating a pleasure-filled reading plan, I need to make a confession: doing an English literature degree destroyed for many years any desire to build a reading plan for myself.
Oh, I loved doing the degree! I was exposed to so many incredible works of literature from Beowulf to Billy Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Charles Dickens to T.S. Eliot to … actually I can’t remember getting much beyond T.S. Eliot in 1922. Within the last hundred years – just!
It was a fabulous time, engaging with the finest writers the English language has produced, but when you’re doing 6 English papers, all with a formidable reading list (“If you can just read these 6 plays before our next class”) time constraints mean that you can only read what you have been told you have to read. Wishing to read anything else is a futile dream.
Now, up until then I’d always read for pleasure anything that has come my way, whether that’s an Alistair Maclean thriller or a football magazine or War and Peace (when I was far too young to appreciate it. There was this woman in it who started raving because the guy she liked didn’t like her back, and 13-year-old me didn’t get her problem – why not just accept what he’d said and get on with your life?)
So, with the degree over, I re-embraced with pleasure reading wherever my whim took me, with one slight difference: I found I could no longer read a book if someone recommended it to me. Some twisted psychological process had taken place inside me, whereby reading what I was recommended was the same as reading what I had been told to read at university, and that spelled restriction, compulsion and lack of freedom.
So, someone might tell me about a book they were reading. “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is the funniest book I’ve ever read,” they might say. “It’s filled with incredible characters, it’s really well written and did I mention how funny it is?” And then comes the death knell: “You should read it!”
And at that point, I know I’m not going to read it. I’m not going to read it for the childish and petty reason that you’ve just told me I should. You mean well, I know, in wanting me to share in the pleasure you’ve received, but I just can’t do it.
I lived like this for many years. Maybe it was the passing of time that helped me past it, for as people left town or otherwise disappeared from my circle of close contacts I might pick up that book they had recommended with less feeling of restriction now that they weren’t metaphorically looking over my shoulder, and I’d find that Aunt Julia or whatever it had been was as wonderful as they’d said.
My First Plan
It was only when I’d taken this step that I could then extend my reading further with a reading plan. I just stumbled into my first one, and it probably helped that it was one of pure pleasure.
I heard of a challenge certain writers had been set, to come up with their list of 10 ‘desert island’ books, those essentials they couldn’t bear to be without. The only rule was that they couldn’t include the Bible or a complete Shakespeare in their list. Perhaps the Gideons had already visited the desert island and left a Bible in the top drawer of the bedside table, and the Royal Shakespeare Company had been marooned there too, or perhaps the aim was to encourage variety in the answers.
The challenge immediately appealed to me. I started a ‘definites’ list and a ‘possibles’ one, making sure that only the very very best, the most indispensable, could be counted as a definite. Both lists slowly grew.
Another time I’ll tell what books ended up on my lists, but for now the important point is that when I’d finished thinking, and checking my bookshelves to make sure I wasn’t overlooking something ridiculous, I ended up with exactly 10 definite books and 25 possibles.
“35 books in total,” I said to myself. “That’s nearly what I read in a year.” I looked at the list again, and realised how long it had been since I had read most of these cherished books.
“I’m going to read them all again,” I said. “This year. Starting now.”
Now, it actually took closer to two years, because other books always come along that beg to be read too. But what a pleasure it was to spend that time surrounded by old friends and find out just what good company they still were. It also challenged myself, forcing me to ask if these books somehow represented the sum of me, and, if so, whether I was happy with that.
After I finished, there were plenty of books to catch up on that had been gathering over that time, but I realised there was something in this idea of reading to a plan. It allowed immersion in one theme or idea over a prolonged time, the equivalent of doing a course of study perhaps.
Another plan was starting to come to me, something that promised to be an enticing journey of exploration journeying beyond some well-known landmarks into new sights, sounds and experiences. 50 states in the USA, 1 book for each state. What would I choose? Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue…
I’ll let you know the 50 books on that list another time. For now, I’ll close with 3 essential tips when compiling a reading plan:
- Read what you want. “You” is the operative word. Don’t make a plan based on what someone else has said you should read. This is your reading plan. Trying to conform to someone else’s expectations is unlikely to give you the pleasure that should be in store for you, and you’re less likely to finish the plan. Also, take a break if you’d like to. It’s your plan; nobody else’s.
- Read what you want. “Want” is the operative word. Coming up with some reading plan of things you feel you ought to read but don’t actually want to will have the same effect on you as it did for Jane Austen’s Emma, who never finished any of her lists. I want this to be a pleasure for you as it was for me!
- Be creative. What area is it you want to be immersed in? Maybe you want to go with one of the plans I mentioned above, but look around. Find what you’re interested in. Your 10 favourite books from childhood. Novelists from Africa, or China, or the Pacific. Hilary Mantel’s trilogy. Wellington poets. The entire set of Jack Reacher thrillers. Birthday presents you’ve been given by your mother. Authors who share your first name. (Go for it, John!) All the books you can find with orange on the cover, or with ‘house’ in the title. A book for each city that’s hosted the Olympics. (A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe would be my Atlanta one.)
I look forward to hearing what you come up with!