Hitler, pedophiles and public reading lists

I see it on a lot of sites. The first that comes to mind is Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street. Shane has a “What I’m Reading” page that is frequently updated with the latest books he’s perusing. There’s many more examples out there, primarily on notable blogs run mostly by one individual. 

I get it. When you reach a certain level of recognition, it’s just easier to create such a page and refer people to that when they ask you about reading recommendations. But there’s an insidious side to publishing and maintaining a list of what you’re currently reading that goes unnoticed.

Throughout my life, reading has been an intensely personal experience. Growing up, I read a lot because my Dad read a lot. But we didn’t talk about the books we were reading. Or if we did, it was only superficial discussion. In school and college I wasn’t a part of any “intellectual” clubs, or a member of any groups that enjoyed talking about ideas, stories and perspectives. Nowadays, I don’t operate in traditional academia or business environments, in places where what you read is touted like a badge of honour and an indication of status. As a consequence, when I do end up talking—not writing—about what I’m reading I always feel slightly impotent. Like I can’t say what I think. That’s because I lack the practice that others have had at articulating my ideas and impressions while they’re still in development. For me, it’s easier and more comfortable to stay quiet, to not say a thing and write about what I’m thinking further down the line.

Which brings me to the insidious side of making reading an activity you share openly with anonymous others; social pressure.

Consciously or unconsciously, the fact that you choose to publicly state what you’re reading will influence what you decide to read. You’re more likely to read books that are safe (boring), acceptable (popular), easy to summarise (lacking substance, depth and complexity), and easy to describe (belongs to a single category). You’re more likely to choose books that make you seem interesting to others, as opposed to books that you yourself are interested in.

For example, right now, I’ve got four books on the go. I’m reading Keith Johnstone’s Impro for Storytellers, William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and a few pages a day of the gargantuan Zibaldone: The Notebooks of Leopardi. But what if I wanted to read something closer to the edge? What if I wanted to read about where sexual desire originates from in paedophiles? What if I wanted to read book after book after book about Hitler? What if I wanted to read the entire Harry Potter series again? What if I just wanted to read illustrated children’s stories and collections of mystic poetry?

Am I more or less likely to read those things if I keep a public record of my literary wanderings? Won’t I just end up choosing something that preserves the image I’m trying to present to others?

Sure, reading is something we can, and should, share with others. But there’s a difference between sharing with friends and showing off to an anonymous crowd, between pursuing the trails that we find invigorating and putting on intellectual airs for other’s satisfaction. That’s why, now and in the future, I decline to keep a “What I’m Reading” list. I want my exploration and learning to be driven by nothing more and nothing less than excitement, surprise, interestingness and emotional connection.