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When the To-Read List becomes Too Long

There was a time when the known world was so small that a person could actually hope to read ALL of the books ever written (or at least that they knew of). Imagine that. 

I so badly want to be that person! But no such luck. There were about 1,000 new books published today and I only read one chapter of my current read. The math does not bode well.

With millions of titles available and thousands more coming every week, there is probably a mathematical formula to prove how books that could change your life will instead slip right by you, never to be read. And that’s just sad. But as Morrissey once sang, there’s more to life than books, you know. (But not much more. Not much more.)

I need a to-read list. Awards help. They let other, better-read people sift through the bulk of the titles. Let’s see, there’s the Nobel Prize, Booker Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Giller Prize, National Book Awards, Governor General’s Awards, Whitbread Awards (now Costa), PEN/Faulkner Awards — lordy, that’s a lot of awards and the list has barely begun. Each gives me a respectable to-read list of winners and nominees from past years. So that`s a few hundred books to start me off.

Books and websites help build my list. (Check out the Lists of Bests site.) Just one book, The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer, provided me with 5 lists of absolutely essential reads selected from the historical canon. (I only made it to 1781 – there were just too many books after that. I liked the ancients best, anyway. I put my lists aside with my dusty copy of Harold Bloom’s Western Canon and read The 5-Minute Iliad instead. Time well-spent.)

I gave up on my highbrow aspirations and joined Goodreads to learn from avid average readers like me.  Not only can I crib from existing lists like “Best Books Ever” and “Best Books of the 20th Century”, but I can generate whole new lists, tailor-made for me. (I joined the Best Teen Books group and posted a question about mentally unbalanced characters – group members responded with recommended books that make a list right up my alley. Love it!)

As a children’s writer, I like to immerse myself in the best of children’s literature. This is not hard. Parents, teachers and librarians all want to promote the best books, so kazillions of “best books for children” have been written. Each with its own list of 100 or so. Gotta read them all.

But I write for teens, too, and I knew I could still be missing out on my top 0.01% of titles. So I recently read The Ultimate Teen Book Guide. Wow, I didn’t know how much I didn’t know until I read that British book with its recommended 700 titles. I narrowed it down to 100 must-reads that I haven’t read yet, and I’m working my way through that list. (One down and 99 to go.)

So did I really need to open the mail and find the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s Best Books for Kids and Teens 2011? With 325+ new books for preschool, elementary and high school? (Okay, yes, because my book Walking Backward is in there with a nice red star beside it, and that made me feel good.)

But I am yet again overwhelmed by the mathematics of the thing. I figure altogether I have a to-read list of about 3,000 books. That’s the cream of the crop for as many years (leaning heavily toward the last ten). That’ll take a while. 

It will take especially long because I visit the library weekly and come home with a bunch of books I chose because their covers were cool.

Should I stop that and stick to the lists? No way. Not even to earn a well-educated mind. There’s nothing like discovering a great book that isn’t on any list I’ve ever read. No matter how many lists there are, there’s that nagging suspicion that the book that could change my life will slip by me unless I venture offlist every now and then.

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