how to choose a great book to read

The Hell Yeah Test – How to Choose a Great Book to Read

Between the ages of around four to fourteen, I pretty much read anything within a ten-metre radius that had pages and a spine. I read trashy spy thrillers next to Lord of the Rings, and then jumped straight into non-fiction survival handbooks and guidebooks about spiders. I chewed through David and Leigh Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean series in weeks. It became a point of pride with me that when a new Harry Potter book came out, I’d sleepwalk through a day of school and homework just for those magic moments where I could eat it up in the early hours of the morning. In short, I never understood those people who bemoaned their lack of time to read books.

Until I became one of them.

At some twist in the undefinable path of growing up, my reading slowed. I had to force myself through the books assigned to us in high school, the ones that somehow seemed especially selected to crush 99% of the students’ urge to ever reading a book again. Then I hit university and started reading for my law degree and my arts majors and minors in international studies, politics and history. I discovered the joys of fandom and dove tirelessly into finding the 5% of amazing fanfiction out there. But other than that, I essentially stopped reading books. For years.

Unread books piled up in my bookshelves. After all, friends and family who knew me best for my near-magical ability to read on the go without crashing into obstacles still thought I was reading. I got books for birthdays, books for Christmas, books when I was sick, books when I was recovering from surgery. I occasionally broke free of whatever demon was tangling with me and finished one, but it was a rarity. In general, I faced an odd sort of hopeless dread when I looked at the books on my to-read list, one that increased in proportion to the width of their spines. Books over four hundred pages suddenly seemed too long. Too ponderous. I had no patience left for ten chapters of beautiful writing where the protagonist mused about his or her place in the universe. Or even for five chapters of essential world building. I just… had no time.

That’s not to say I stopped reading. For me, that would be like stopping breathing. No – instead of reading books, I retreated to the comfort of short stories and fanfiction where I knew the worlds and could sift through thousands of stories online, looking for one that would give me wings.

But no books.

Slowly, I started to hate myself. How could I not be reading books? Something that was so core to my identity? Why was it so bloody difficult to bring myself to pick one up? My neck started curving. I felt like I was carrying an invisible book around with me on a chain. Or rather, all the books on my earnest to-read list that I knew would never be opened. I was hauling around a library by the time I finally sat down and forced myself to confront what was going on.

And like most things, it ended up being both frustratingly simple and annoyingly complex.

1. No Time to Read Books No Trust

No time to read

Everyone always talks about having no time to read. For some that’s true, but I think for most of us it’s not. What we’re really saying when we say we have no time to read is that we’ve decided other things are more important to us than reading. After all, I had weekends to dive into fanfiction and early mornings to snack on short stories and articles. So it wasn’t time per se. It was my mind unconsciously analysing the economic return without my consent and rejecting it as too risky.

I mean let’s face it. Committing to a book or a series is almost like committing to a relationship. You’re giving a collection of words hours, perhaps even days or weeks of your limited lifespan in the hope that the end result will be magical. That puts a lot of pressure on us to choose a great book worthy of our time.

It also means that when you’re forced into a string of uncomfortable arranged marriages with books that are clearly not the right one for you, like I’d wager most of us had to suffer through at school, you start to get a little relationship-shy. Why invest all that time when experience has told you recently that all you’ll get is a faceful of bleary-eyed regret? And maybe awkward moments down the track, like spotting a crazy ex at the bookstore?

You can even become jaded enough to start having affairs, based on the promise that there’s a better book out there. And when it turns out to be just like the other ones, you move on disappointed and – depending on how good the blurb, the marketing or the recommendation was – feeling slightly betrayed.

2. Pressure
 to Read ‘Improving’ Books

chosing a great book

For the record, highlighting/making notes on books = desecration.

The second factor was more insidious. I had a lot of amazing conversations at university and at work with super-intelligent people whom I respected who would recommend me books. I would read articles about classics that I HAD to read, and then would find myself struggling unhappily through dense walls of text about characters I intensely disliked. I felt a lot of pressure in my limited time to only read books that I suppose would Improve my Character, Boost My Intelligence and Allow Me to Smugly Tell Other People I had Also Read These Famous Books and We Could Bond Over Them While Privately Hating Every Page.

This stopped when a new book subscription service I’d first signed up to in order to read through its catalogue of classics glitched, leaving only the titles of the books. At the time, I was looking for a tensely written thriller that I could study to feed my muse while I worked on my science fiction novella Dissolution. I found something with a promising title and dove in.

I realised about ten pages in that I was reading an amazingly trashy romance-spy book.

I hesitated for a moment, and then devoured the rest of it in about three hours.

It was Terrible. It was Not Enlightening. But it was Damn Enjoyable. And suddenly, a concept I’d stumbled across previously reared its beautiful head.

Applying the Hell Yeah / Fuck Yes/Fuck No! Test

The dual titling of this test depends on whether you’re looking at the original test by investor / entrepreneur Derek Silvers on how to spend your time / focus your attention, or its further application to deciding on relationships by advice guru / entrepreneur Mark Manson. Or how much you like to swear. But fundamentally, the concept boils down to this: we all have limited time on this earth, so if we’re faced with a choice of whether to do something or not, we should ask ourselves the following:

Does this make me go “Hell Yeah!” or “Fuck Yes!”?

If not, don’t do it.

Or in our case, don’t read it.

I started trying to apply this to books and the result was immediate relief from a huge pressure I’d mostly invented inside my head. It was fantastic. I had a personalised formula now for my decision-making, to choose a great book for me to read. I was able to nose a few chapters into a book, ask myself how I was feeling, and then put it down.

As groundbreaking as this was to me, I felt immediately cautious. I didn’t want to lose touch with books that would challenge me simply because I had an easy excuse. I had to separate out boredom or indifference from the terror of the new or confronting. So it became a two part test:

the hell yeah test to reading
It’s not perfect, I know. It’s not even much – just a tiny shift in perspective (and a recognition that I can’t code), realising that it’s not necessarily the book’s or my fault, it’s just that I might not be the target market. But still, even just figuring out the above and finally pushing myself to read some rare classics that actually spoke to me (Fahrenheit 451 and Slaughterhouse V) allowed me to commit to reading again for good.

And it’s been incredible.

I’ve been on and off since then – reading nothing in a month, and then three books in the next. It depends on how many books I stumble across that give me that “Hell yeah!” feeling in the first few chapters. But I know I’m also lucky that I’ve found chunks of time I can dedicate to reading. A few minutes at lunch. The bus ride back home after a day of work. They’re not the same for everyone. A friend of mine cuddles up to her books when she goes to bed and will read a few minutes before she goes to sleep, and in this way manages to get through a book every few months. Another reads books in the morning on the weekends when she doesn’t want to get up. Whatever works.

It’s worth it. I’m reading again. Perhaps not with the joyous, unrestrained vigour with which I devoured books when I was young, but it’s a start. And even though my to-read list is still a virtual library, the weight feels lighter somehow. A little closer to joy.

Now excuse me. I’m off to read amazing fanfiction and maybe dip my toe cautiously into a book.

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