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Making a Book List and the Paradox of Choice

Earlier this year, a friend and fellow book lover Rebecca Schinsky wrote a piece for Book Riot about her “radical reading (unplan).” In it, she argued that the best way to decide what to read is to throw away all of the book lists:

Delete the anxiety-inducing, peer pressure-based apps. Break up with the social networks and the reading challenges and the book clubs we like attending because the people are great even though we never finish the books. We kick prescriptive reading plans to the curb. We remind ourselves that there are no “shoulds” in the reading life, that there are myriad reasons for reading, and that we can read whatever we want, whenever we want, for whatever reason floats our bookish boats. We are not beholden to the list of hundreds or thousands of want-to-read titles we’ve been tracking for years. We are not the same people we were when we began those lists, and it is not only okay but actually good for us to do some culling.

When I read Rebecca’s piece I wanted to throw my hands up into the air and yell, “Hell yes!” She inspired me to delete all of my wishlists and to read lists and start over fresh. It was a liberating, exciting moment and I haven’t looked back.

But the one thing I haven’t done is stop making a monthly reading plan. I’ve found that developing a flexible short list of books to consider for the month helps me read more and read more efficiently because it eliminates the paralyzing paradox of choice.

The Paradox of Choice

In 2010 I read a book that changed the way I thought about how we make choices: The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar. Iyengar is a business professor at Columbia Business School in New York City. Her research on choice has been featured across disciplines, reaching into economics, psychology, management and marketing.

One of Iyengar’s most famous studies is the Jam Study, which illustrates the hazards of having too many choices. To complete the study, Iyengar and several graduate students posed as representatives of a British jam supplier in a San Francisco supermarket. At a booth near the entrance of the store, two graduate students offered an array of jams for customers to try, switching every hour between a selection of 24 flavors or a selection of six flavors.

Another student assistant took up a post behind an assortment of cookware to note how many people opted to taste the jam. About 60 percent of shoppers sampled from the large assortment, but only 40 percent tasted when there were fewer options.

Another graduate student was working incognito in the jam aisle, noting the behavior of customers who had taken a taste at the booth. He observed that “people who had sampled the large assortment were quite puzzled. They kept examining different jars, and if they were with other people, they discussed the relative merits of the flavors. This went on for up to ten minutes, at which point many of them left empty-handed.

“By contrast, those who had seen only six jams seemed to know exactly which one was right for them. They strode down the aisle, grabbed a jar in a quick minute – lemon curd was the favorite – and continued with the rest of their shopping.”

At the end of the study, Iyengar and her students discovered that 30 percent of the people who had seen the small assortment of jam made a purchase, but only three percent bought a jar after seeing the large assortment.

Her conclusion was this:

The expansion of choice has become an explosion of choice, and while there is something beautiful and immensely satisfying about having all of this variety at our fingertips, we also find ourselves beset by it.

Having too many choices can be paralyzing, and it can make us feel dissatisfied by the choice we end up making.

Making Reading Choices

This is how I feel about my reading. I have hundreds of books on my shelves and access to thousands, millions, more through my local library or ebooks. The prospect of choosing my next read from that huge number of books paralyzes me.

Rather than make a choice, I’ll flit between several books, trying to read ALL THE THINGS without feeling satisfied by any of them. Or, I’ll just give up entirely and spend the evening watching television.

The thing that makes the book list work for me is that I don’t feel bound to stick with it. If my mood pulls me towards a book that’s “off list,” I go for it. If a library hold comes in that I want to read immediately, I do that. Books with upcoming release dates often get added to the list, but I don’t feel obligated to read them (even if it’s a review copy, which is an entirely different post).

But when I’m not sure what I want to read next, having the list makes my choices better. It’s easier to choose from a smaller set and I usually feel more satisfied with the choice that I got to make. Reading without a plan works for some people, but I know that I’m a person who can be paralyzed by too many choices, which makes a flexible list work for me.

Some of this piece originally appeared in a column that I wrote for the newspaper that pays the rent. 

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Shannon @ River City Reading March 3, 2014, 6:10 am

    This is similar to how I end up reading, too. I’m usually reading about a month ahead of the review copies I have coming up, so I have enough wiggle room to not read them right away if I choose to, but I have the four or five books roughly laid out as my plan. I’m a very, very finicky reader, so I’ll usually end up straying a bit, but at least I know what is on the horizon so I don’t go too far.

  • Sandy March 3, 2014, 11:20 am

    Ever since I stopped being aggressive about my book blogging (no more challenges, no more review copies, etc.) my life became so much more flexible. I do have a small shelf where I keep books I’m more interested in reading short term, so they don’t get lost on the bigger shelves. But I basically flit around, and often just pick something out of the blue off my Kindle or on the shelf. With the exception of a book club read, I have no agenda. It’s nice.

    • Kim March 5, 2014, 8:16 pm

      Emotionally, this idea of flitting from book to book is really appealing to me. In practice, it just doesn’t work! I need some flexible structure or I end up just losing track of my reading.

  • Kailana March 3, 2014, 1:53 pm

    “Rather than make a choice, I’ll flit between several books, trying to read ALL THE THINGS without feeling satisfied by any of them. Or, I’ll just give up entirely and spend the evening watching television.”

    This is so me the last couple years and I don’t really know why because nothing has really changed for me… I didn’t have any commitments last year and I had one of my quietest reading years EVER. Some months I didn’t finish anything… So, this year, I added commitments back in and I have all ready read about half of what I read last year entirely. But, I still have about 10 books each month that I start and never finish. And, not because I don’t like them… I just am indecisive and want to read everything.

    • Kim March 5, 2014, 8:17 pm

      I start quite a few books and put them aside too. I think it’s just a matter of reading, a book not clicking at the time. I know when I’m into a book that I really love, and I love that feeling.

  • Teresa March 3, 2014, 5:53 pm

    I’m not sure why I maintain a reading list sometimes because I don’t hold myself to it. I think I just like having something to browse in. Once in a while, I just like to look over my list to see if there any books calling out to me that I’ve forgotten about. But generally, I mix it up between reading from my list and letting my whim guide me.

    I agree that too many choices can be paralyzing. That’s one of the reasons I like smaller grocery stores with fewer brands to choose from 🙂 I’ll have to give some thought about how it applies to reading. Maybe having a system for making a choice from many helps. Like you, I don’t limit myself to my list, but when I look at it, I try to start with books that have been on it the longest to see if any of those appeal to me. If one does, I go for that and just think about whether it’s suiting me well enough for now, rather than whether it’s the best possible book I could be reading.

    • Kim March 5, 2014, 8:18 pm

      The idea of a paralyzing number of choices really hit home for me when I returned to living in a small town. I didn’t realized how paralyzed I get when I can get anything that I want 🙂

  • Ciska @ Ciska's Book Chest March 4, 2014, 3:23 am

    I do have a huge TBR shelf with books I might want to read. Every other 3 months I go trough and throw things out. At the top of my shelf are books I will read in the upcoming period. Usually ordered with review books by release date. If I feel like reading something else I just stuff it in between. I am now down to 8 review books for the rest of the year for now and after I am planning to read a lot of backlist books I have on my nightstand. Just picking one out of that pile is going to be so much fun.

  • tanya (52 books or bust) March 4, 2014, 4:04 am

    I’m constantly writing down books to read later …. and later rarely comes. I’m trying to be more flexible with my reading lists. I plan about 2 weeks in advance but leave lots of room to wiggle. Inevitably i will pick something up at the library or a bookstore that i have to read immediately.

    • Kim March 5, 2014, 8:19 pm

      I love the feeling of bringing a book home and reading it immediately. It’s satisfying!

  • Jennine G. March 4, 2014, 7:30 am

    Very good points! This is the first year I joined a reading challenge and I was very careful about it. I joined two challenges that had books that overlapped and no other demands attached. So it helps me form a monthly list like you mentioned, but I can completely ignore the list too if I feel like it.

    • Kim March 5, 2014, 8:20 pm

      I’m just pathetic at finishing challenges. They appeal to me, but I just can’t do them. The list ends up feeling too limiting, I think.

  • Bryan G. Robinson March 4, 2014, 10:26 am

    Excellent article and similar to what I do with my own TBR lists and piles from the library. Sometimes I toss things back into the pond and that’s okay.

  • Charlie March 4, 2014, 1:23 pm

    I started making a list of sorts just recently when I knew I wouldn’t have access to all my books. I created a pile of about a dozen books that at that moment in time I wanted to read more than others and now I’m halfway through it. It means I’ve read books that would’ve languished for a good while longer otherwise, and it meant that I read few bad/average books. Like you I also let myself pick something else (in my case it was the odd ARC I needed to read). A list is good, and choice is good, but neither extreme is particularly helpful.

  • Athira March 4, 2014, 7:04 pm

    You raise a good point. When faced with too many choices, the pressure to pick the right one is higher because you may not get to try all the choices in future. A smaller number of choices does make it easier to pick something because part of you may be open to trying other choices later.

  • Trish March 5, 2014, 11:06 am

    Oh I absolutely agree that to much choice is overwhelming and paralyzing! I’ve faced that many times and it’s funny how we don’t ditch the undesirable choices (I’m thinking of those clothes in my closet I never wear) for more appealing ones. Now that I’m reading a bit more but not participating in any more challenges I tend to just stare at my shelves when I finish a book. With hundreds of choices where does one go? I’ve decided that I’m going to pick a book from each shelf and move down in that rotating fashion to help narrow the choices a bit. I guess that was one of the nice things about reading challenges–the list of books to look forward to on the horizon! Great thoughts here Kim.

    • Kim March 5, 2014, 8:21 pm

      I like that system! I’ve got some books that I want to try and read “soon” pulled out on a separate shelf — I like pulling from that one when I can or if I’m stuck on what to chose next.

  • susan March 5, 2014, 2:34 pm

    Oh I like picking what to read next. That’s one of my favorite parts. Usually I go with intuition or what I feel like next. If I’ve just read a dense book then I want something easy and fast. If I’ve read something dystopian or whatnot then I want the opposite. If I read a few books of fiction then I might go with nonfiction. I veer in differing directions but it maintains my interest. cheers.

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey March 5, 2014, 7:00 pm

    I’m still struggling to find the right amount of choice for me when selecting my next book. Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed by always having a book I need to read for a scheduled review. However, on the rare occasions when I don’t have a book to read next, it feels strange and overwhelming by comparison. I think I might like to adopt a strategy more like yours, where I have a list but don’t have to stick to it because of a scheduled reviews. I’ve realized that part of why I do challenges is because I’d like to be more thoughtful about reading specific types of books. I think making a reading list could help with me actually meet those goals, as well as striking the right balance between too many and too few reading choices.

    • Kim March 5, 2014, 8:22 pm

      One of the reason I backed away from doing book tours is that scheduled reviews were driving me nuts. I just can’t do it. I try to read books ahead of their release date, but if I don’t make it I don’t worry about it anymore.