One of the things I see a lot on Twitter and elsewhere is an attitude toward people who don’t read, and by extension writers who don’t do a lot of reading. I suppose the problem with privileging short messages is we cut out a lot of qualifiers, and the result looks like a blunt, blanket statement that’s probably bound to bother somebody even if you didn’t intend that.
Since this is a blog post and I get more wordspace, I want to ask a few questions instead.
When have you read?
I don’t mean time of day, I mean time of life. There are very compelling reasons from my psychiatric history why I did a lot more reading as a child than I can possibly handle today. Like many people, I’ve read so many books that I often remember the gist of them without recalling a title or a single character’s name; I just know the feeling of having read a particular book which I’m sure existed, and when presented with the topic or concepts, or the same cover art as my edition had, it feels really familiar. I had a library card for a time, I had parents who owned a modestly sized private elementary school with a library of donated books (some of which were donated from my childhood library, and others, I read as if they had been put on my shelf); I had books in abundance which made it very easy to read them, especially in the stone age when I had no personal computer, no internet, and one handheld gaming console that I would frequently lose.
I also had book reports. For some silly reason my thoughts privilege “self-starter” reading but then I self-correct. In fact, if you read a book for a book report, that officially counts too. And the bottom line is, if you’ve had a life of reading but just haven’t done a ton of it lately, all that childhood reading doesn’t suddenly get disqualified from existence. It still impacts the way you think and live today even if you can’t consciously recall many of the finer details of what used to be your favourite Lloyd Alexander series; it’s in your brain, doing something or other. And you can find ways to start reading more again, without spending any period of time feeling particularly bad about it.
Do you understand what stops you from reading more now?
In the context of “writers should read” type sentiments, my first knee-jerk thought is “I don’t read enough these days”, unless I want to add more information to the context. However, being told you don’t read enough doesn’t make you read more; it might make you resent the unsolicited advice, or decide that people who happen to read a lot can become snobbers over time. That must not be what they intend, I’m sure, but whenever you say or do anything there are usually a spectrum of different reactions to it, and I’m naming a couple of possible outliers just so you’re aware. What they’d really like you to do is read more. Okay, then, let’s ask ourselves personal questions that may relate in some practical way to why we don’t read more. Maybe we could solve the problem that way.
I had unacknowledged trouble just sitting there and reading as a child, because I always wanted to be doing something with my hands, some interactive thing to take my mind off of worries. Lego was a favourite; I never kept anything I built because I wanted the process of constantly having something to build and constantly sifting through disorganized pieces, in order to keep busy and to enjoy imagining what could result, and that meant scavenging pieces off anything I ever built (usually demolishing them outright after a week or two, and starting over, perhaps keeping some design knowledge gained during the previous build). I forced myself to read at times because I was supposed to, and when I pushed that too far, I noticed I would be picking at something with one hand while holding the book with the other, or chewing the fingers of one hand while holding the book with the other, or some other tic I could do one-handed. I can still get that way to this day if I push things too hard, even if I’m forcing myself to sit there and watch TV. It’s the most compelling reason why television is something that must be on in the background while I’m on the internet, if it must be on at all, and why I mostly tend to watch movies in the theater but not at home; unless there’s that vision-filling huge screen and huge sound, and the effect of other lights in the theater being dimmed so that real life is supposed to become lower priority for the span of the feature presentation, I want to keep busy with something more interactive, or a cascade of things in different browser tabs. It’s the same with sports, where the best way to get my undivided attention is to get me a ticket and physically place me in the stadium.
When I’m at home, I’ve found a way to fill most of my time. Especially because my current work is all done at home, and how I spend my time often revolves around what I should be doing, what I’m procrastinating from doing, and what I would rather be doing. This doesn’t take much thinking, and if I’m going to read more, I need to be more conscious about where I can fit the reading.
So it’s no knock on books or TV, but you have to understand that it doesn’t have to be a knock on you, either, if you aren’t doing something “enough”. If you’ve developed a certain routine over the years to manage your anxiety, like me, or a different thing that heavily impacts your life, then it will take a conscious and abnormal effort to crack that schedule and fit something new into it. And you want to do it the right way, in moderation, or else you might end up in a situation where you feel discouraged from reading books because something happened to trigger you while you were reading one, even if it wasn’t the content of the book. Or maybe if you go at it too intensely, you can’t sustain the intensity, and you might forget that maybe you just don’t have to be so intensely dedicated. Reading books a little bit is substantially more than not reading books.
How’s the budget?
I like to buy the music that I enjoy, whenever it’s not a review copy from the zine, and I like to buy the books that I read, even if they’re occasionally used. Any time I move I pare down, and books get sold or gifted or left with my parents; I have to stay lean and mobile when it comes to possessions, because who knows if I’ll move again six months from now or sooner, or how long that living situation holds out? And for some reason the idea of borrowing a few from my sister just doesn’t regularly cross my mind, and that’s why picking up The Last Unicorn, Interview With the Vampire, and Neverwhere was a very spur-of-the-moment thing. We were at her place for mom’s birthday, and once the bookshelf is directly in my view it becomes easier to think/remember to ask. One book that inspired a Rankin Bass production I watched a lot as a child, one book that might be required reading for subculture, and Neil Gaiman needs no explanation.
But then I end up with long periods of no new music, and not having read any books, without having paid attention to the fact that I did neither. I just get used to a certain way of living, and things I need to pay for will not necessarily be a regular part of that routine. Usually when they are, I spend more on them than I should, and need to stop for a while.
The only ereader I ever had, I resold without ever unboxing because that’s how badly I needed the money at the time. Had it been an inexpensive model with little resale value, I probably would have kept it. I haven’t tried to get one since. I find that information I read on a laptop screen must be chunkified and I get restless with book-length type writing on a computer screen; I even find myself skimming longer articles looking for the takeaway, the gist.
It’s a lesser obstacle for me personally than the frequent inability to sit still and focus on one task at a time, but I thought it was worth mentioning.
If you’ve decided you don’t like that you don’t read enough books, ask yourself some more practical questions why this doesn’t happen, where you can get the books, and when you can make room in your schedule. Questions with answers that can help guide you along, including how much reading isn’t too much at once. Be fair with yourself about why you let some other things occupy all your time, unless you’ve learned that for some reason you respond better to being unfair with yourself. Then I really don’t know what else to say.