Assigned Reading, Reading

What I Learned From 7 Terms of Self-Assigned Reading (+ Why I Finally Quit)

Self-Assigned Reading Books

I’ve always known I’m a little on the unusual side when it comes to my reading life–I’m a bit obsessive about tracking my books, I’ve kept pretty much every recommended reading list ever given to me (including some given to me in high school around 15 years ago), and I basically have to read multiple books at the same time in order to not go crazy.

So I’m sure some of you thought I’d maybe taken my insanity to higher levels when I announced back in 2017 I was going to start assigning myself three books every “term” and giving myself grades on it.

And perhaps it is a bit of an extreme strategy, but there was no denying that it was effective, at least most of the time–books that I’d literally put off reading for years (but intended to “get around to”) were being finished at a pace of 12 per year, and my long-held goal of reading all the books off of the 100 Most-Recommended Classics list (as well as other goals on my 101 in 1001 list) were within striking distance.

I also learned some (somewhat) surprising lessons along the way.

Note: There are some affiliate links in this post to books mentioned, which means I get a small commission on any purchases made at no extra cost to you. All opinions are my own.

1. The anticipation (and sometimes dread) of reading a classic is often much worse than the actual reading of it.

Okay, you’d think I would have learned this one while I was getting my degree in English, but because I usually didn’t have *too* much time to anticipate which reads were coming up, I didn’t have too much time to dread slogging through something that just seemed hard and slow and not at all interesting to me.

Planning out a significant section of my reading life a year in advance, however, meant I had time to dread certain selections coming up, and it made it so that I pretty much always procrastinated those books until the very, very end of my self-imposed terms.

But you know what I found?

Classics are read a page at a time, just like any other book. And sure, many WERE kind of a slog to get through–but they pretty much all have stayed with me long after I finished them. Basically, by the end, I could ALWAYS see why something was considered a “classic,” even if I didn’t enjoy my experience of reading it.

So if you’ve put off reading a certain classic because it intimidates you or because you magically think you’ll be smarter in 5 or 10 or 15 years and will therefore then want to read it, just try reading it now. Read the first page, and then the next. Complain about it on social media if you must. But if you keep going, you’ll discover that classics are just books, and nothing to be afraid of.

2. “Someday” usually means “practically never” when it comes to books unless you have a plan.

I literally have had many of the books that I assigned myself for this experiment on my TBR list for well over a decade (some for almost two decades). I kept telling myself that I would read them all “someday,” but something I started to discover after I graduated from college was that someday somehow never seemed to really come (or, if it did, it came about once a year, if I was lucky). In other words, if I didn’t have a plan for when/how I was going to finish these books I claimed were important to me to read someday, I was never really going to do it.

So I tried setting New Year’s resolutions, which I only did okay with. I added several reading goals to my 101 in 1001 list, which I’m steadily working on (so the verdict is still out on that). But by far, the thing that was the most effective in making sure “someday” became “soon” was doing the self-assigned reading because it gave me a very specific plan and a deadline. I no longer could use the excuse that I didn’t know which book to pick up next. I also could no longer keep putting off the reading anymore (because apparently meeting self-imposed deadlines is important to me).

If you have a lot of books you plan to read “someday,” try putting an action plan together. You might just be amazed at how quickly you can make “someday” fit into your “now” when you actually try.

3. It’s hard to prioritize reading the old classics when you keep getting distracted by the shiny and new.

There was a period of about 6 or 7 years (mostly when I was going through college) when I was obliviously unaware of most new titles coming out year by year. My major left me so saturated in the older texts that I didn’t have time nor desire to go seeking out whatever title was the latest hit on the New York Times list or the latest Pulitzer Prize winner.

Since graduating, however, and especially since discovering the existence of book blogs, I have become pretty mesmerized by all the new-and-shiny titles. And guess what? THERE ARE ALWAYS MORE COMING OUT. Miraculously, there never is a year anymore where I’m like, “Oh, there’s nothing good coming out this year reading-wise, so I’ll have all the time in the world now to read all this backlist stuff.”


So I try to have a system (on top of assigning myself books). It’s an imperfect system, but it is *kind* of working–I usually make myself read older stuff (often books I own but have never read) while I’m waiting for my holds to come in at the library. Of course, this system is imperfect because I’m almost ALWAYS working through my library holds, but occasionally fate will throw me a bone and give me a few days here and there when I can just read the older stuff without all the distractions.

Or, another strategy to prioritize reading the older stuff is to actually check it out from the library, because that gives me an actual deadline. It can become all too easy to take months to get through something when I own it, but when I check it out from the library, I more often than not will read the whole thing in the pre-allotted time of 9 weeks (one check-out period plus two renewal check-out periods).

Having a hard time checking out anything written pre-2010? Try coming up with a system to make yourself step out of your comfort zone! Maybe designate every October to be “backlist” month. Maybe tell yourself that for every new book you read, you need to read an older one. Maybe only put older books on your electronic devices and just read newer books in their physical format. And when you come up with a good strategy, share it with me! I clearly need some help in this area 🙂

4. I’m more motivated to read harder things in the fall and winter than I am in the spring or summer.

I actually knew this one back from my school days, but I didn’t realize it would carry over after graduation, too. There’s just something about the warmer weather that calls for lighter, more entertaining reads.

But during the winter?


5. In the future, I need to be more careful about which selections I make at certain times of year, as well as which books I’m assigning together.

As mentioned above, I should make sure in the future NOT to assign big/hard/intimidating titles during the spring and summer terms (so Invisible Man was not a good choice for this last term…). I’m often fairly careful with the length of books (in other words, I was careful not to assign three books that were really long during the same term), but it would have been good to do more background digging on the titles to see if certain ones would work better at certain times of the year. Sometimes I got lucky (like reading Ethan Frome during the winter), but other times, not so much.

Also, I was rather excited for my first year’s selection of titles, and I had no trouble motivating myself to read them all. But my second year (this year), I think I got too ambitious and simply went down the list of titles I wanted to read someday and just picked the ones that had been on there the longest or picked them based on their length alone. So, I wasn’t really that motivated by many of the selections, and therefore had a hard time staying on top of the reading.

Self-Assigned Reading

Why I’m Quitting Self-Assigned Reading (For Now)

As I mentioned, there has been a LOT of good that has come from this not-so-little experiment of mine—I have finished 18 books (the majority of which I’d intended to read for many, many years), and I have gained a new appreciation for the fact that when I give myself a deadline and a fun (to me) assignment, I will usually follow through.

In fact, I fully intend to do this again in the future.

But not for the rest of this year. Not now.

The reasons were many, but they basically boiled down to a few key points:

  • I have significantly less time to read this year than I did last year, mostly because we added another child to our family. It was getting pretty difficult to read the 3 assigned books PLUS my book club’s monthly pick PLUS all the books I was getting from the library (that I was more excited about anyway) PLUS the books for my 101 in 1001 goals.
  • I didn’t do a great job at picking books this year that excited me. Sure, the whole purpose of self-assigned reading was to make me read the books I’d been putting off forever, but as I’m only human, I still need to mix the harder slogs with ones I’m enthusiastic about. And this year, I just wanted to make ALL the books on my self-assigned reading list “count” (mostly towards being able to cross off titles from the many recommended reading lists I rotate through). Last year, I had a pretty good blend between ones I was just excited to read in general (but which I hadn’t picked up yet for whatever reason) and ones that I probably would keep putting off indefinitely without some kind of push.
  • It was starting to feel less like a fun self-motivated project and more like, well, homework. And while there are times when I make myself push through times of flagging motivation, I’d basically been pushing through that for months with this. I’m sure much of this would have been different if I’d been better about my selections for the year.
  • Finally, I needed to let something go. I’ve had a lot on my plate for awhile now, and between the baby not sleeping well (for months on end) and my health getting worse (don’t even get me started), I just needed to let something go.

So there you are. I freely admit defeat, but without any guilt whatsoever. This project did what I needed it to do for quite awhile, and it gave me a good direction to go in the future when I’m ready to pick it up again.

If you want to see what I did read (and what I had assigned myself for both years), you can see all posts that are tagged “Assigned Reading” by clicking here.

P. S. Have you taken the 2019 Reader Survey yet? Even if you took the first one I did (back in 2017), this one is totally different, and I would love to get as much feedback as I can! There are some series I’m wondering if I should continue or not on the blog, and that will be totally dependent on the surveys I get back, so the more feedback, the better! You can take that survey here. Thanks in advance!

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