Every so often I meet someone who claims that he is too busy to read for leisure or that-- because his job consists of scrutinizing documents all day (invariably dull stuff like contracts)-- opening up a book and sweeping his gaze across lines of written words is the last thing he wants to do in his off hours; he’d much rather unwind watching the type of television show that isn’t too taxing on the mind (reality tv, silly sitcoms).
Whenever I meet one of these characters, I nod while silently thinking to myself that if I was in his position, if I had his job, you could bet that it wouldn’t keep me from reading in my spare time. Such is my bibliomania.
Granted, in the last five years there have been a number of books that I have probably read almost exclusively on the metro during my commute back and forth from work. And now, with the advent of e-readers, if I have something saved on my iphone’s Kindle app, I’m never at a loss when I have time to kill-- waiting for trains or in doctors’ offices or even (if you’ll pardon my bringing it up) sitting on the john. As long as I have my phone on me, there’s no need to stare at the walls and twiddle my thumbs (I will criticize this modern need for distraction in a future post).
Back when I was in college, the heavy load of texts I was expected to complete for all my courses (some of which were actually enjoyable), usually meant that I had to wait until the term was over before I picked up a book of my choosing and read for pleasure. That said, I do remember occasionally squeezing in some non-assigned reading in the middle of a semester, usually something light that I felt reasonably confident I could finish quickly, like a comic novel by P G Wodehouse (but also Kafka’s Trial-- which was short at least-- and Nabokov’s Bend Sinister). I remember history classes as being particularly demanding: often the professor would list ten or more books which students were expected to wade through. At some point I would make the executive decision to throw one or two of these aside and not even attempt them because there seemed to be no way I could get through all the required reading for all the semester’s courses.
I may enjoy books, but I am probably not the world’s fastest reader. The idea of speed-reading is abhorrent, and it always takes a great struggle, ending in an admission of defeat and a ridiculous, residual feeling of guilt, to get me to skim something rather than reading it properly. Incidentally, once or twice I’ve picked up one of those books assigned in college that didn’t make the cut, years later, and-- completing it at my leisure-- found it to be delightful. This happened with The Ice Age, a novel by (Byatt’s sister) Margaret Drabble, which I was supposed to have read for a course on the history of Britain since 1945.
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Reading can also be a means of procrastination-- putting off all sorts of things we ought to be doing with our time but are avoiding. Even with nonfiction, which is meant to be educational, one has to ask oneself to what degree the knowledge gained is likely to prove useful or applicable to one’s future experience and to what degree one is just accumulating information for its own sake. I am not ready to abandon the notion that learning qua learning can play a role in self-improvement, but one should at least factor in how important it is to be educating one’s self on this particular topic at this particular moment when deciding whether reading a particular book is the best use of one’s time. Perhaps another way of thinking about this is that one needs balance, and a person who always has his nose in a book is keeping himself away from nature, society, and pressing chores that need to be done as well as from more active creative pursuits (the extent to which reading is a passive occupation may vary depending on the book, but it always essentially passive).
I think that our notion that reading is always a praiseworthy activity is a holdover from childhood when parents and teachers were happy to see us honing this important skill regardless of what crappy reading material we may have chosen. And we ourselves feel the same way about all the young people consuming Harry Potter and the Twilight series-- “At least they’re reading something.” As adults, however, we’ve advanced past that stage: we can read to educate ourselves or we can turn to books for inspiration, solace or entertainment.
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A related topic is the tendency to hoard books and to fetishize them as physical objects. I used to treasure the library I amassed and imagine that these books would eventually all sit together in a room of the house I’d one day own. This aspiration was dealt a fatal blow when all the books I’d kept in my apartment in New Orleans were lost in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I now look at this as a lesson in the folly of attachment to material possessions (of which bibliophilia is a subtle and rarefied but no less insidious form). My whole experience with evacuation and displacement taught me the truth that the ebb and flow of items in and out of our life is inconsequential when compared with people-- the presence, absence and loss of friends and family which is another fact we need to come to terms with.
Since I’ve come to the DC area, I’ve collected a more modest but still sizable mass of books-- much as a chest of drawers collects dust--, but my heart isn’t really in the game anymore. Today, I’m satisfied so long as I manage to hang on to a book long enough to finish reading it (although it is nice to have some books around for future reference). After that I don’t even mind giving the book away to a friend who I hope will read and enjoy it but whom I don’t expect to return it-- not that I necessarily want to advertise that fact.
Photo taken by Meeg on April 5, 2010