I've come across this topic enough times in the last few days that I feel obliged to write about it.
So apparently, according to a popular writer on Medium, Nik Goeke, reading lists are bad. He's not the only one with such an opinion though; this thought came up in some discussions I had with two very different friends recently, and have warranted my present rumination on this issue. Now, this issue may seem trivial, but I like to take reading seriously. Plus, I like lists. So here's my measly attempt, to summarise both sides of the argument as I see it:
For reading lists
- Keeps me on track;
- More goal oriented;
- (If chronological and well thought out) covers books which later authors on the list draw refer to and are inspired from
- I'll read things I would not have otherwise
The last two are really why I would prefer to stick with a reading list, rather than pseudo-randomly, organically exploring literature, philosophy and history to the whims of my interests at the time. On the flip side, however,
Against reading lists
- Zeigarnik effect (stuff I leave unfinished will bug me);
- Exploring books informed by bibliographies, cross-references etc... more naturally explores the literary network (more on this below);
- Can take people's book recommendations (instead of slapping it on a list somewhere);
- Synchronicity doesn't work through lists (usually)
In the second point, I refer to how the literary corpus of humanity may be thought of as a network, where the nodes are books, and edges refer to direct references or indirect inspiration from another author. In nonfiction, the bibliography is an obvious way to make this concrete. In fiction, however, it is style, similar motifs, characters inspired from previous characters and so on, which might define such links. A linear progression through such a network is not obvious, and whilst chronological publication date may be a guiding principle, it is slow, and perhaps an unnecessarily cumbersome one.
The last point on synchronicity is worth a bit of a digression. I'm not much of a believer in the supernatural, although admittedly I have witnessed and experienced remarkably strange things, to say the least. But synchronicity (ie. meaningful, acausal coincidences) is one of those things that I can never quite shake from my life, despite my scepticism. The relevance here is that books are one medium through which such events make themselves evident. Someone might recommend a book, or I might haphazardly come across a reference to a book in a movie, a text, or in a library, which seems weirdly relevant to my current place in time. This has happened several times in recent memory, including yesterday. I had just got back into listening to Carl Jung's autobiography on Audible, and he mentioned that one chapter in his book Psychological Types was heavily influenced by Spitteler's Prometheus und Epimetheus. It's difficult to explain why this was a rather meaningful synchronicity for me, but nevertheless, it was - and I promptly rushed off to the nearest library on campus to print out the chapter. Such digressions necessarily stand in conflict with a reading list to which I wish to direct a steady, daily and disciplined reading habit.
But perhaps, there is a compromise.
I've met a similar issue with regards to scheduling my time. Often it is the case that I will figure out a daily to-do list, set up a daily schedule so that I know what I ought to do every hour...and meet it only 60% (if that). The reason is not the difficulty of the schedule itself, or even my strategy for scheduling time - it's the lack of flexibility. There's a sweet spot between knowing what I must do during the day, and outlining precisely how I ought to. The reason being, of course, is that tasks in real life do not necessarily lend themselves to discrete, predetermined chunks of time. I can't precisely define when I should be hungry, or tired. But nevertheless, a to-do list is useful and important. The compromise for scheduling (for me personally) is thus to schedule my time insofar as it can be determined, and no more. Some tasks may take more or less time. Something of interest or unexpected importance may come up. I can't plan for such things, and I shouldn't try to do so.
In a similar way, I think I can reach a compromise on my reading list. I'll stick to it as best as I can, but if something of interest comes up, I'll let myself be drawn in.