Coping with Reading Guilt in 7 Easy Steps

Book Swirl by PixabayEvery year, countless readers suffer from a condition known as Reading Guilt. According to a prominent scientist (or possibly, to no prominent scientists), anxious or time-strapped readers are particularly vulnerable. Sometimes the condition can be so debilitating it actively prevents the reader from reading, which can lead to a dangerous spiral that only further exacerbates the problem.

Signs you might suffer from Reading Guilt of one form or another can include:

1. The pile of unread books on your shelf, be it virtual or real, makes you feel anxious every time you look at it.
2. You occasionally dust off that book your friend loaned you and pretend you are about to read it, knowing in your heart you are just preparing it to collect more nightstand dust.
3. The sight of a bookstore evokes complex feelings of longing and guilt.
4. The book-devouring speed of a well-read friend makes you irrationally envious.
5. The question, “have you read…” elicits an instinctual dread, because whatever it is, you’ve usually never read it.
6. When someone recommends a book to you, you smile and make enthusiastic noises to cover the sinking feeling in your stomach, because it’s just another to add to the endless list and you’ll probably never get around to reading it anyway.
7. You are so behind on that reading goal you set that it just serves to depress rather than motivate you.
8. You have a vague but pervasive feeling that you haven’t read enough of the “important” books.
9. The hunt for bookmarks depresses you, because you realise they are all wedged in half-finished books and you can’t bring yourself to remove them.
10. You participate in online “How many of these books have you read?” quizzes, even though you know the results will not cheer you up.

Fortunately, Reading Guilt is a very treatable disorder, and if you are exhibiting these symptoms, you are not alone. Here are seven easy steps to help you cope with Reading Guilt, and prevent it from getting in the way of your bookly enjoyment.


It’s important to identify whether your Reading Guilt stems from not reading enough, or merely from the perception that you’re not reading enough. We each have our own individual Reading Capacity determined by an equation with many variables:


It is sometimes difficult to tell if you are at maximum RC. If you think you aren’t, and your guilt stems from the fact you know you could read more, proceed to Step 2. If you know you’re at Maximum RC, and it’s largely perceived under-reading, jump to Step 3.


If you’ve realised your guilt does, in fact, stem from not reading as many books as you know you could, try employing some strategies to read more. Here are a few tips so secret you can probably find ones like them all over the internet:

– See if you can work reading into your commute (if you commute).
– Try out audiobooks to transform time spent cleaning, cooking, travelling or neatly rearranging your collection of quaint old paperbacks into reading time.
– Set achievable goals: e.g. minimum number of books per year, minimum number of pages each day – whatever works for you.
– Join a book club or online network if you feel social pressure might encourage you to read more (but beware, this can also add to your Reading Guilt if you fail).
– If you’re struggling to get through a particularly large or difficult book, consider incentivising yourself by lining up a short, easy, appealing read after it.
– Decide if there are other unnecessary time spends you are willing to sacrifice on the altar of reading.


Let’s say you have a friend that read 100 books last year. You were really proud to have read 50, but her 100 makes your effort look measly, and you wish you could read more – imagine how many unread books you could get to! But remember, even if you could read 100 (which, as per the Reading Capacity mentioned in Step 1, may not be possible for everyone) once you do…well, there’ll be someone who has read 200. In fact, there are people who read 300 or more in a year. Good on them! But if it helps to think about it negatively, there is also always someone who has read less than you (unless you read no books, in which case, maybe work on Step 2).


Pile of books on a black background by macinivnwIf you’re finding you haven’t read many books on that “100-best-top-books-of-all-time-that-you-must-read-before-you-die” list, or your annoying friend says “What? You mean you haven’t read [Insert-Famous-Fantasy-Series-Here]? What rock have you been living under? You MUST READ ALL 10 BOOKS IMMEDIATELY!”

Don’t panic!

These are not signs of your inadequacy. You can dedicate yourself to reading every “must-read” list, and you’ll probably read some great books, but you’ll probably also read some not-so-great ones. No one thinks that every book on a top 50 list deserves to be there except the person who wrote the list. Take situations like these as a chance for some recommendations to consider, not a reflection of your readerly accomplishment. Especially don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for reading a genre you enjoy.


Nothing creates Reading Guilt like a half-finished book that you plan to get back to one day, or a series you feel obliged to slog through even though it is stagnating your reading flow. If you bought the book and feel you must read it due to the investment you made. Fine. But if you’re not liking it after a whole lot of pages, and you already wasted money on it, you’ve got to ask if it’s worth wasting more of your time and guilt on it too. And if you want to finish it because you need to know what happens to quirky protagonist number 4 or because you want to write a review of the complete story, well, maybe make a rule that you have to read a chapter or two between other books, or set page goals, so it’s not hanging over you indefinitely or hampering your reading flow.


Fork with Book by Carole BeaupréIf your to-read list is stressing you out, think of it like that fancy recipe book you were gifted for Christmas. It’s great to pull out every time you need some inspiration for what to cook next, but you’re unlikely to end up systematically preparing every single recipe in it, because let’s face it, you’re only occasionally in the mood to spend hours slow-cooking a beef brisket, strawberries aren’t in season yet, and you’re just not a huge fan of fennel (but you’re not ready to rule out the fennel and potato gratin just yet).

Unless, of course, you’re going to get Julia & Julia about it, in which case, maybe you will just have to live with a bit of Reading Guilt, because you’ll probably get another recipe book next Christmas.


Sometimes it’s important to simply remind yourself that it is not humanly possible to read every book in existence. Books are like stars in the sky, by the time their light reaches you…no wait, wrong metaphor. There are just rather a lot of them and if you pull out a telescope you’ll realise there are even more. Sometimes it’s not even humanly possible to read all the recommendations you get, depending on number of people or sites recommending them to you. So focus your efforts on the ones you think will be worth reading, and try not to let the vastness of the Bookiverse intimidate you.


These are just some of the basic steps you can take to stave off Reading Guilt and work toward achieving a burden-free reading experience. However, the road to recovery is often slow, and it can be quite common to have relapses of guilt and self-doubt. The important thing is not to let this affect your literary nourishment. Remember that many readers experience the same in one form or another during their reading lives. Just keep on reading.

Title image by Pixabay.


By Nicola Alter

grew up in regional Australia and now lives in Germany, where she’s enjoying all the castles and cobbled streets the Black Forest has to offer. She has a BFA in Film and Television and an MPhil in Creative Writing, and has worked as a production assistant, a writing course tutor and a project manager at a foreign language institute. Now she writes full-time and spends the rest of her time learning languages, travelling, and devouring fantasy and science fiction of all kinds. You can follow her on Twitter @NicolaAlter or visit her blog:

4 thoughts on “Coping with Reading Guilt in 7 Easy Steps”
  1. Well done, Nicola! I recognize several signs on your Reading Guilt list. Your easy humor threaded through the article is a relief in itself! I found DON’T ANGST OVER BOOKS THAT AREN’T WORTH FINISHING is my biggest challenge. It’s as if because I decided to read something that becomes … well … let’s say less interesting than I had hoped, I must finish it no matter what. I wonder where that “take your medicine” misunderstanding comes from. Thanks. Chris

  2. The hardest for me is step 5. I know people who have no qualms DNFing pretty early but not me. This gets worse if the book(s) in question are sequels.

  3. Very nice post; I shall need to save it…

    And DNFing is extra hard when you have one of those reading challenges going and you don’t add DNFs as finished of course…so NOT finishing becomes time wasted and if you just manage to finish it you’ll have another on that challenge! (I’m well over my goodreads challenge for this year (I set it a bit low so as not to stress me), and I still feel that way!)
    There’s also the fact that I’ve had some books I stopped and restarted or almost DNF’d, but then when I tried again I found I actually really liked them. Rare, but I remember it when I’m waffling midway…

  4. Thanks for releasing some of my guilt. It’s even harder when one is trying to write and promote their own books. Book clubs help sell books but the pressure to read a minimum or be thrown out is awful. Add that to trying to read when you have lyme which attacks your eyes and gives you brain fog so you can’t remember what you read or throw together a memorable review. No stress here!! Thanks for letting me rant. I almost feel like pulling out a book from my toppling TBR pile and curling up with it in front of my fireplace. . 🙂

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