I used to love reading, but reading hasn’t been fun for me lately.
I’ve been a big reader since I was an adolescent. A non-embellished family lore story that gets mentioned with some frequency involves my father insisting that I stop wasting my time on mindless recreational activities (I was about eight in this story, so we’re not talking about drugs) and do something productive with my time. Trying to figure out what I could do differently I asked, “Like what?” Exasperated, he replied, “I don’t know, read a book!” “But I’ve read everything already.” “You’ve read every book in this house?” he asked, bemused. He began grabbing books off the shelf in my room at random and quizzing me, “What’s this one about? What about this one?” After doing this five or six times, he gave up, admitted maybe I was using my time as wisely as I could and maybe we didn’t have enough books, either, and agreed right then and there to buy me any book I wanted, any time I wanted, going forward. We started making a lot of trips to Barnes & Noble and Borders after that!
The story is not embellished but it might as well be. My father was too busy building our family business to prioritize reading much of anything that was not industry related. My mother had her hands full raising several small children and tending to the other household needs so she didn’t prioritize reading as much, either. Both my parents saw reading as important — one of those things you recognize the value in because you DON’T do it yourself, I suppose — and wanted their children, including me, to be readers. So I had a bookshelf in my room, and there were a few other titles strewn about here and there, but it wasn’t like we had some sophisticated reference library (we didn’t buy a set of encyclopedias until I was around thirteen, and by then the digital world of the internet had entered my life in a most distracting manner and I found searching for information there more fascinating than paging through a hardbound ‘pedia… who knows what would’ve happened if I had had access to that material when I was eight) and the most complicated story on my shelf at the time was probably a Boxcar Children novel or a collection of Shel Silverstein poetry.
The point is, I loved to read and if I found a book, I generally read it. As I got older, my interests in reading shifted. I spent a lot of time immersed in the fictional worlds of fantasy writing and sci-fi. I ended up owning and reading stacks of paperback novels that would be eight or nine feet high laid on top of one another. I also became interested in news magazines (though not newspapers, which I found cumbersome physically, dirty, and we never seemed to be subscribed to one). By my teenage years I was subscribed to TIME, Newsweek, National Review, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. As I entered high school I added The Atlantic Monthly and New Yorker to the list, as well as a few others. I continued reading mostly novels, essentially unaware of the world of biography, philosophy, social science and history more generally speaking. I read nothing of business or investing. I just didn’t know the stuff existed, though I wish I had because I can imagine myself enjoying reading it back then.
After going to college, I became more serious about reading. Part of this was because I found myself extremely frustrated in my classes with the material I was being taught and the lack of critical thinking I thought the classes entailed about the subject matter, concerns I’ve laid out in some detail in earlier posts. As a result, I took to a program of parallel self-study in various fields, such as economics. Again, at the time I was unaware that there was a phenomenon called “autodidactism”, which I had been doing a lot of my entire life but never with any discipline, but now I was discovering it and realizing just how powerful a dedicated program of reading and thinking could be for me in connecting the knowledge dots. I found a variety of printable media on sites like www.mises.org, entire economic treatises a thousand pages long or more, and started visiting Kinko’s (now FedEx Office) to print and spiral bind these works into more manageable mini-volumes. I’d stuff these things in my book bag and read them on my 30 minute subway commute to class and back, or more generally, in the back of the lecture I was supposed to be listening to instead. My grades suffered a bit (though I think that’s mostly because I found the official subject matter so disingenuous and so worthless that I’d often fall asleep in my apartment trying to study it) but my knowledge exploded. I was hooked on reading.
I’ve been a serious reader ever since. But being a serious reader is a lot different from being someone who loves reading. I’ve struggled with the two lately. Being a serious reader is hard work. It is exhausting. It is demanding of your time and energy and it leaves little room for other priorities. Done the right way, it entails a lot of ancillary obligations as well, in my experience, such as writing and reflecting on one’s reading, compiling annotated notes, meeting with others reading the same material to discuss, etc. It’s much more than a hobby, though it isn’t quite a paid career! And while it has rewarding moments, it isn’t exactly “fun.” It lacks spontaneity and the thrill of the unplanned discovery.
Three years ago I traveled to South America with the Wolf and a friend. Though we were on a nearly 3 week journey, far from home, I took only two books with me– a non-fiction work about a traveler who tries to rediscover Hiram Bingham’s journey to Machu Picchu, which was part of our itinerary, and a copy of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. I read the Machu Picchu book as a “serious” reader, as some background for the trip we were undertaking. I read the Tuchman book as someone who loves reading.
Since I read Tuchman’s book, I’ve come to understand that there are some academic criticisms of her telling of history in the story. I don’t think it’s so bad that the book is viewed as a complete fabrication of history, but there are people who argue she emphasized the wrong things, or interpreted events in a novel way that isn’t as rigorous as it could be. And I’ve got to say– I don’t give a damn. It was a marvelous book to read. I don’t know why I decided to finally read it, or why I picked that book of all books to accompany me on my long trip, and I don’t know what I expected to get out of it, but it was amazing. We had a hell of a time on our trip and I can honestly say that laying in bed at some of our hostels and inns, reading another chapter from Guns, were part of those happy memories. It reminded me of just how enjoyable reading can be.
As I mentioned, that was three years ago. Sadly, I haven’t had a similar reading experience since then. It has been almost all “serious” reading and if anything it’s gotten worse over the last few years because I made a resolution a couple years ago to double down on my reading discipline and treat it even more mechanically than I had been. Where did that take me?
It took me to a pretty scary place, reading-wise, where my edifying and sometimes enjoyable hobby became a master with a strange power over me. I realized a few days ago when I had hit the wall when I noticed that I was tracking my “currently reading” list on GoodReads.com, which numbered over twenty titles (!?), and I was spending a lot more time worrying about “getting through it all” than I was actually spending reading the damn books! It was beginning to dominate my thoughts– at work, at home, in play, walking the dog… this nagging anxiety that I had so much to read and it was so exhausting and so unrewarding to feel I was forcing myself to do it just followed me everywhere I went.
After chatting with a friend about some fun-sounding titles, I decided to take action. I logged into GoodReads and wiped my reading list. Completely. Just gone, no glaring record of what I might achieve but have not yet achieved in the world of reading. I grabbed the titles I was physically in the middle of that were laying about the house to remind me to keep working on them, and shelved them. I decided if they’re really interesting and worth my time, I will know where to find them– the idea that I’d lose track of a book I really wanted to read without the “help” of a cloud-based book list seemed truly silly. I shook out the contents of my head a little bit and gave myself permission to not be interested in the stuff I was trying to read right now (which I truly wasn’t, at least not RIGHT NOW) and simultaneously gave myself permission to buy and read the first “fun” book I could think of reading. I chose The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck and for the first time in a long time, I used the 2day shipping feature on Amazon to ensure it’d arrive today so I could start reading it. A blaring alarm I was not listening to in this story is the fact that I was in the habit of ordering multiple books at a time and selecting the “Super Saver” shipping option, reasoning that I’d prefer a $1 e-credit because I “didn’t care when my books arrived.” I mean, if that doesn’t tell you something (“bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”… the ancient demonstration of time preference) I don’t know what would.
Now my mind is a bit more free. And I am looking forward to reading this goofy book this evening after it arrives. And I know that if I don’t want to keep turning the page, I can shelve it and pick up something else, order something else or even do something else entirely. There’s a time and a place for being a serious reader, but that time and place shouldn’t be found in my recreational reading regimen. I’m looking forward to loving reading again!