Several years ago, I got pretty into Goodreads, mostly because I like measuring stuff and Goodreads made it fun to set goals for and keep track of how many books I read. It was also a big thing on Twitter — people would share how many books they were reading, and they would set reading goals for the year.
But then I stopped keeping track of how many books I read — publicly and privately — and I don't think I'll ever go back. I can't tell you how many books I read in 2015 simply because I don't keep count. That's not a humble brag, either — no “I've lost count because there are so many” nonsense. Rather, I've found that not counting has given me exponentially more enjoyment and advantage out of reading than I ever realized during the counting days.
Reading books to read a certain number of books
Here are three things that happened to my reading life when I was counting (besides putting me on the road to becoming I Read a Book A Day in My Garage with my Lamborghini Guy):
- Measuring the quantity of books that I read had no clear effect on how smart or wise or good at life or joyful I was. This isn't true for everything, but it's true for reading. When I measure how much money I make and spend, there's a clear effect on how wisely I use my money. Measuring how many miles I ran last year gives me an idea of how well I invested in my cardiovascular health. But from a “Measuring this might really improve my life” standpoint, Number of Books Read was a weak metric. If anything, it worsened my life because…
- It stressed me out and made me prideful. Since there's no detectable correlation between Number of Books Read and Degree to Which Life Has Improved, I think my mind created correlations. I got proud of reading the books; I thought of myself as smart. This is really dangerous from a whole bunch of perspectives. Humility isn't possible when we're impressed with our intelligence. Furthermore, I was stressed — agh, I've got to reach that goal I set! I've got to read three books this weekend. #Why?
- Worst of all, it forced me into an unhelpful legalism, primarily because I had to answer one very distracting, pointless question: What “counts” as reading a book? This question completely misses the purpose of reading.
What “counts” as reading a book?
I could be wrong, but I don't know of any great readers from the past who worried about this, just like I don't know of any great teachers of the past who've ask, “How do I get all the points on my evaluation rubric?” They are less interested in teacher evaluation rubrics than they are in thinking deeply and clearly about teaching itself, doing the thing better. 
- Do I have to read every word of Jim Burke's latest book in order for it to “count” as having read it?
- Do I need to hit every element of the gradual release of responsibility model in my observation lesson in order to be a good teacher?
Reading books on purpose
The degree to which we gain enjoyment, wisdom, and knowledge from our reading of books depends on how clear our purposes are. The clarity of purpose with which we read significantly affects what we get from a given reading, and if you multiply that difference by the tens of thousands of minutes you'll spend reading over the next decade or so, the difference in who you become grows exponentially. 
I'm not alone in advocating for the power of purposeful reading — it's the central premise of Adler and VanDoren's 1972 classic How to Read a Book. In short, Adler and VanDoren spend a book saying this: how we read should flow from why we read. 
In my next article, I'll boil this down into a “Non-Freaked Out Approach” to reading better as a teacher. Hypothesis: if we think more clearly about reading, our reading instruction will improve, too.
- Granted, they had the major advantage of not working in today's high stakes, standardization-crazed environments.
- Says the Definitely Not a Math Teacher.
- Kind of like how we annotate should flow from why we annotate.[hr]
Thank you to Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, whose classic How to Read a Book has been hugely influential on my thinking about reading. Perhaps because it's old or perhaps because it's long and dense, this is one book that even most English teachers seem to be unaware of and far fewer have ever read. I hope this post helps remedy that a bit.
Denise Ahlquist says
Thanks for another great post. I’ve often wondered why I haven’t gotten more into/ out of Goodreads and you may have helped me clarify that I am not interested in counting the number of books I read either. I like tracking what I’ve read, because I like lists and I don’t like forgetting things. I also like seeing what others are reading.
Have you heard of Great Books programs and Shared Inquiry™?
If you or other readers have realized how useful much of _How to Read A Book_ can be, I’d invite you to learn about the work of the Great Books Foundation (GBF), one of Adler’s other projects from the late 1940’s that is still in existence today. Check out http://www.greatbooks.org
GBF’s mission is engaging everyone in thoughtful consideration of the big questions that have been asked across cultures and history; we do that by identifying great texts for Shared Inquiry discussion by learners from kindergarten through mature adults. I’m fortunate to help facilitate professional learning for teachers who want to use an inquiry-based approach in their schools, as well as lead Great Books discussions with folks of all ages and backgrounds. Our programs have been extensively field-tested and refined over the years, but Adler’s work is definitely a core text for us.
With appreciation for all you do,
Thank you, Denise — Adler has a strong legacy. I appreciate this information!
Denise Ahlquist says
I’d be happy to speak with you (or anyone) about the work we do and the resources available support folks who might be interested in bringing higher levels of reading, thinking and discussion to their students. Our team has worked in a wide variety of settings and we have loads of practical ways to help. Keep up the great work!
Together Academics - "mytutoringspace" says
Well, I am one of the Educators who has read and reread and shared “How to Read a Book; also do agree that for any type of reading to be “useful” as well as enjoyable it needs to be applicable for the individual reader- that is each reader must personally find a use-value for the material- even if only to get through it for a particular course 🙂
Myndel Miller says
It’s sort of scary how alike our thinking is. Lol. Thanks, in part, to your posts I’m on the path to being less freaked-out, and that’s a beautiful thing. Keep doing what you have clearly been called to do!
Myndel, thank you so much for saying hi — I was thinking of that topic of calling yesterday and your comment is very timely. So thank you!