Shoulda Woulda Shoulda

Free Your Mind for Reading

Woman reading a bookI would like to talk about psychology for a moment—I promise it relates to libraries.

In 1981 David Burns, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, published a book that changed the face of cognitive behavioral therapy. His book, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, introduced Burns’ own drug-free approach to treating depression and anxiety, and set fire to the blossoming early self-help market. During an especially dark winter years ago, someone gave me this book and I was moved by many elements of Burns’ methodology. One lesson regarding self-coaching and self-sabotage stuck with me over the years—it has to do with “should statements.”

I should be reading.
I should be applying for jobs online.
I should be revising my résumé.
I should be at the gym.
I should be doing something other than what I’m doing.

Burns says that all these jabs create guilt but don’t really improve anything. We want to avoid laziness, but we should recognize that carrying self-imposed guilt is counter-productive. Since internalizing this guideline, I have tried to help others avoid this habitual self-flagellation by exposing “should statements.” Below are some literature-related “should statements” you may have heard or thought:

I know I should like The Fountainhead, but I just can’t slog through it.
I’m told Infinite Jest is a masterpiece, but it puts me to sleep.
The Brothers Karamazov should be blowing my mind, but right now it just blows.

It happens to all of us—we start a book, read part of it and, despite chiding ourselves for not being captivated like we should be, we never finish. Nancy Pearl, author of Book Lust, gives us a marvelous rule to follow any time we are not enjoying the book we are reading, regardless of whether we should be. She calls it The Rule of 50. The idea is, if you’re just not enjoying a book after 50 pages, then put it down and move on. Time is too precious to waste on a boring book. Pearl continues:

"Believe me, nobody is going to get any points in heaven by slogging their way through a book they aren't enjoying but think they ought to read… Time is short and the world of books is immense. If you're 50 years old or younger, give every book about 50 pages before you decide to commit yourself to reading it, or give it up.”

There’s also an interesting addition to the rule for those over 50:

If you're over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100. The result is the number of pages you should read before deciding.

Since mood has so much to do with how we read, we may want to come back to a book we once lost interest in. This is especially true if someone whose opinions and tastes you respect has recommended the book.

Even then, in our culture there is the silent understanding that you are not a true reader unless you read certain classics. Sometimes that should voice leads us to mock ourselves for being feeble-minded because we didn’t like Moby Dick or Crime and Punishment no matter who says we ought to find it life-changing.

Mocking ourselves? How absurd is that. Not only is it hurtful, but it’s also an obstacle to self-development. If there is anything we should be doing it is remaining open-minded and accommodating to our own psyches. It is simply impossible to read every book recommended by every friend in just one lifetime. Let’s take it one book at a time.