It started with a spreadsheet. Just three columns. Author and translator. Title. Date finished. Looking back, that last column was my first mistake.
The goal wasn’t to read a certain number of books in a year. I wanted to have a list of the books I’d read for the normal reason that people keep lists: so I wouldn’t forget them.
But I liked entering the information next to higher and higher numbers. I liked entering books with consecutive dates finished. Adding books with the same date finished was even better. A few days between entries felt like evidence of my lethargy and impending intellectual death.
Eventually, I noticed I was increasingly reaching for shorter books. In many ways, this was a rewarding experience. I first read exciting work by writers who are now very special to me — César Aira, Renee Gladman, Elisa Gabbert, Diane Williams — through this impulse.
Despite its virtues, it became obvious that a narrow-minded consumptive incentive was having an outsized impact on my reading. Seeking a counterweight, I added page counts to the spreadsheet and tracked the mean length of all the books I’d read so far that year. My goal was to keep the number above 200.
Suddenly, the poets’ collected works were apple pies cooling on window sills. Comprehensive books by Anne Sexton and Rita Dove were my commute companions. The average page count efficiently crept up and up.
Having “solved” “one” “problem,” I tried to solve more through additional tracking. Was I reading enough books from independent presses? University presses? Too concentrated in the 21st century? Wait, too concentrated in the 20th century? Enough books in translation? Gender parity? Racial diversity? I added pie charts, some with indecipherably small slices.
Entering this information was a dreadful chore but the spreadsheet, I told myself, was the key to optimizing my reading life, my version of a pro athlete’s high speed camera.
Except, as would’ve been obvious to everyone except me, it wasn’t. The entry process became so annoying I’d put it off for weeks. In a final ironic twist, I started losing track of which books I’d read.
And so I stopped. Everything but author, translator, and title was kicked to the curb. Stopping was easy once I thought of it but it took so long to think of it. Data was supposed to be good, the information was supposed to make me better!
But reading, as any encounter with art, is not and can never be about optimization. I’d have said that even then, despite doing the opposite. Open-mindedness, curiosity, attention — the things that really matter — those things can’t be quantified. Once you try to measure them, they’re gone.