I am not reading a book.
Washington, DC is shut down today, and besides doing some catch-up work here and there, I essentially have a bonus day off. Hooray! What a rare and often-wished-for opportunity to do some quiet, relaxed book reading! Visit my Goodreads page and you can see that I am juggling several books that I have yet to complete, and I have a list a mile long of “to-reads” as yet un-attempted. The baby is sleeping (scratch that, back in a second…)
[Two hours later]
Anyway. The point being, on this snow-blanketed day, there’s far more time than usual to engage in some literary imbibing. But here I am on the Web, blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, poking around the RSS reader, etc. I know that the act of reading doesn’t require a herculean effort, but lately the energy, attention span, and patience it requires has eluded me. And I love reading (once I’m into it)! It’s that kick-start that is so difficult, particularly if I’m not totally enthralled by my current book.
There’s just so much *other* reading to be done! Not only is there blog and article reading online, but there are tweets (that lead to more blogs and articles), my various magazine subscriptions (which, since I am paying for them, I feel obliged to read), and since I do communications for a lobbying organization, I have to step up the pace on regular news consumption (major newspapers, aggregators, etc.). The latter one alone takes whatever quiet time my rain ride to work allows me.
While I genuinely love the act of reading, books are falling by the wayside. I own a Kindle (which I adore), I have a slew of books in my library I’m dying to get to, myriad Christmas and birthday-gifted books that others thought I’d enjoy, so I have to get to those, plus the backpack-full of books I’m still in the middle of. Meanwhile, I read about people who read several books a week, and my friend Ryan is doing a blog project on reading 100 books in a year. Another friend I have through Twitter is doing only about half that, a book a week for a year. I could never do that!
Part of it, I imagine, is that I don’t read much fiction. Anecdotally, I hear that fiction goes by more quickly than nonfiction, but I can hardly put that to the test, as I have as my current fiction selection War and Peace, and I’ve resolved, for no other reason than the novelty of it, to read it entirely on the iPhone—I wanted to really see if there was truth to the iPhone-as-e-reader cliché that says, yes, the iPhone is great for reading, “…but you wouldn’t want to read War and Peace on it!”
I’m getting off-track somewhat. Even when I do get to reading a book, it’s sparse. Too often, I read 10 or so pages before I get too sleepy, or I’m distracted by email/baby/life. And let’s be honest, even those magazines often don’t get the attention their subscription prices deserve, and the newspaper is often merely scanned and discarded. I think that in terms of word count, I read more from blog posts and articles about reading, ebooks, and publishing (a recent but I think enduring fascination of mine) than I do from actual books themselves.
One might think, well, Paul, you just don’t like books that much. But I know that’s not true—I know that good books move and enrich me more than just about any other medium I consume (perhaps tied with music, something else that has suffered since I stopped being a twenty-something). Perhaps part of the problem is the commitment of time necessary to complete a book, but I mainly mean those books that turn out to be only okay. I recently read A Tale of Two Cities for the first time (part of my attempt to catch up with all those books I was assigned in high school and fobbed off due to my shameful degree of laziness) and I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those moments in life when a piece of art truly changes you and affects you at your core. That’s not happening with any of the books I have in the pipeline right now, but nor should I expect so. Some books—most books that I pick up, thankfully—are “just good.” And that should be good enough to keep me at it.
I’m not like those who lament the “shortening” of certain types of discourse through technology. Mark Ambinder of The Atlantic (one of those aforementioned subscribed-to magazines) recently explained to Michael Kinsley what his reading day is like, and it rang familiar to me to a certain extent. Though I don’t rely on Twitter nearly to the degree Ambinder does, I still understand how valuable it has become, and I certainly value the relationships—new kinds of relationships—that I have developed on that platform. As I noted, Twitter is not really about short bursts of blather for me (though it is also that), but the tweets serve as little windows into deeper reading I would otherwise miss, and a chance for me to share with my 1000+ followers the work I am doing and writing by others that I find compelling enough to warrant others’ attention. Facebook is similar for me, though more lighthearted and social in nature. [Follow me on Twitter here!]
But maintaining these gardens takes time, it takes thought. I enjoy the back-and-forth flow of information so much that I have felt compelled to start a Tumblr blog just to catch the things I don’t know what else to do with (a quote that is too long for Twitter, an article that doesn’t suit my blog or my Facebook audience, etc.)—and on this, I am essentially copying Text Patterns’ Alan Jacobs and his use of Tumblr, or somewhat mimicking the short-burst blogging style of Andrew Sullivan.
So I heartily embrace social media, social reading and social writing. I’m extremely fortunate to be alive and of the age to participate at such a time as this. But it must be said that it only enables one of my pre-existing conditions: laziness. My dad, a voracious reader himself whom I can only dream of matching in terms of quantity, is befuddled by my use of the word “lazy” in this context. Reading is the fun part of the day, he says. There is no effort involved for him; it is always the
path of least resistance and the greatest return.
But my personality, my attention span, my physiology, my habits have not developed that way (all of which, almost, is my own fault). Books suffer, which really means that I suffer, depriving myself of what they hold. I should be reading right now, but instead, I’m sitting here writing about how I don’t read.
Perhaps my only avenue to mitigating this concern is to learn speed reading. Hm. Now, when would I find the time to do that?
Oh, and I want to learn French, too. Can we please just add an extra day onto the weekend?
Would that even help?