I’m trying to read more. I think I mentioned this earlier, but it’s on my mind lately so I thought I’d expand on it a little. Most of my time is spent working or with my family. These are good things, reflective of my overall good fortune. These are things I want to do. But they are both also obligatory, necessary parts of a daily routine. When those things aren’t occupying my immediate present I have a long list of other things I am required to do such as chores, exercise, and various responsible-adult activities. Once those are out of the way enough for me to do something else, I try to carve out enough time for me to write a bit. Writing is semi-obligatory; it’s work that is not mandated by anything other than a sense of responsibility to my own passion for it and my hope that if I don’t let it stop it may eventually open a door for me somewhere down the road. Writing is fun but it is still work.
The tiny sliver of time left over is my leisure time. I have another long list of things I like to do with that time. Video games. Watching movies. Painting miniatures. Drawing pictures. Playing board games. Televised sports. And reading books. Of those activities, the only one that doesn’t carry with it any sense of guilt that I might be spending my time better is reading. There’s a hierarchy in there that I don’t fully understand, based on precisely nothing, such as feeling like video games are at the bottom of the list because they are largely solitary and demand a huge amount of time and money; board games are closer to books because they typically require social interaction but they do take a lot of time; movies are preferable to TV for some reason; and so on. Regardless of validity, I feel that I could do a lot worse with my idle hours than reading. Thankfully, I love reading and a couple of recent adjustments to the way I read has allowed me to finish a lot more books even with the limited time I have.
Before I even thought about it much, I was the kind of person who started a lot of books. If you asked me five years ago what I was reading I’d have a list of probably five to ten books I was “in the middle of.” I also felt that if I started a book, I ought to finish it. The simple change I made was to stop reading more than one (or really two, which I’ll get to in a second) book at a time. In order to do that, though, I needed to learn how to say “no” to a book that wasn’t working for me.
I have this tendency to read books sometimes that I feel like I ought to read, books that I should be able to say I finished. So from time to time I’ll pick up some stuffy classic or some heady nonfiction work and get about 25 pages in and set it down. “I’ll finish this later,” I’ll say. The multi-book approach works because when I set that book down and pick up another, I can say (to myself, mostly) that I’m reading both. This is, of course, fairly silly since you can’t effectively read two books at the same time. But if I don’t admit defeat on a book, I can perhaps not say when asked that I finished whatever book it is, but I can say “Oh, I’m in the middle of that.” That is often not really truthful. I told people I was “in the middle” of Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” for something like five or six years. Much of the time I was not reading it at all and I worked through it in bursts of about 30 pages before the dry style exhausted me. What I’ve learned is that if a book doesn’t work for me when I first try it, I need to set it aside and admit, “I’m not going to read this right now,” then pick up something else. It doesn’t mean I won’t ever read the book—I did eventually finish No Logo—it just means that thinking of myself as being in the middle of a lot of books mostly just means I haven’t found one I’m interested in actually reading to the end.
The other facet is really still in progress, but it involves trying to get past that same notion of reading things I should read as opposed to things I want to read. In my head, I read a broad range of books. I want to consider myself well-read, versed in a broad array of topics and capable of finding fascination in any number of styles, subjects and perspectives. In reality, I struggle more than I’d like with certain classic literature and there are some topics that are interesting but the books I’ve tried about them aren’t. When I’m reading for fun, I have to accept that I len heavily on novels. And a lot of those novels aren’t exactly the kinds of novels you’d be proud to have read. I’m talking about licensed World of Warcraft novels or perhaps airport dimestore paperback thrillers (I admit I’ve read most of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s body of work). So yeah, some of what I enjoy is a bit trashy but the way I see it, the trashiest thriller novel is still better for me to spend my time on than even the most cerebral television drama. For one thing, it helps sharpen my writing to read what others are doing with language, pacing, structure and character development regardless of their literary proficiency. For another, it requires at least some imagination to conjure the images in the book which is probably why snooty intellectuals never sniff at people to “go watch some TV” and though they may roll their eyes if you follow their advice to “go read a book” by grabbing the latest Dan Brown novel or a Harry Potter volume, I’m sure they’d grudgingly admit that it was better than the alternative.
What I’m slowly finding is that if I’m willing to give up on a book because it just isn’t working, and if I’m willing to try stuff I might not be drawn to because I’m not afraid of it being something I’m stuck with for the next several months or years as I torturously drag my way through it, I end up finding things I didn’t expect to enjoy. I didn’t think, for example, that I’d be particularly fond of a travel book by Bill Bryson. It ended up being one of my all-time favorites. I wasn’t sure I was going to like Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett, but I enjoyed it quite a bit and found it was an easy read. And I’m secretly proud of myself for having read each, because I learned something from both. They can hardly be considered trash.
So the curious thing is that by not reading a lot of books at once I find I actually read (as in finish) a lot more books and by not worrying so much about the cachet of my selections, I actually end up reading some pretty impressive stuff. It took me a while to get to this point and I may look back a few months further on and sneer at my current rube status. But for the time being I feel happy with the fact that I’m reading a lot and that I’m not missing much of the other things I used to spend way more time doing instead. And I’ve discovered that if you put your mind to it, you can find more time for reading in a day than you might think. For example, I mentioned before that I only read one book at a time but the truth is really that I read two at a time now only one is an audiobook I keep in my car. I only get to listen to maybe three or at the most five hours worth of it per week, but it’s easier and better at keeping me awake during the commute than radio or podcasts and I get to slowly pick away at a second book while I read the one I keep in my backpack. Since I can’t otherwise read when I drive and I can’t listen to the audiobook easily elsewhere, there is no conflict.
There are a couple of other small factors that have played a role in my reading resurgence. One is definitely Goodreads. I’m a stats junkie so being able to track my reading progress the way I track my music listening with Last.fm or my exercise with LoseIt is just something that clicks with me and motivates me. I used to do the same thing with Achievements on XBox Live or World of Warcraft so it feels kind of game-like. It also encourages me to write reviews of the books I read which aids me in considering what I read, something I think is important especially if I’m using the reading as a means of improving my own writing. The other is the Kindle Nik got me for Father’s Day this year. I’m not sure why it is, but I seem to read books much faster on the Kindle. I don’t use it for everything I read, but I look for deals on books I have on my to-read list and usually when I’m thinking about buying a new book (that is, one that I couldn’t get from the library or a used bookshop) I check for the Kindle edition first since it usually saves some money.
So in honor of all this reading I decided to go back and do a bit of analysis, just for fun, on the books I’ve read since about mid-2009 when I first started tracking on Goodreads. There are some gaps and missing books in there because as with all stats tracking and/or social media sites it takes me a while to get into the habit of using them, but it’s a pretty good representation of my reading activity for about two and a half years.
- Total Books Read (May 2009 – October 2011): 50
- 2009: 7
- 2010: 21
- 2011: 22
- Genre Breakdown (some overlap in sub-genres may occur so don’t look for numbers to add up)
- Nonfiction: 10
- Fiction: 40
- Mystery: 10
- Fantasy: 9
- Young Adult: 9
- Science Fiction: 7
- Zombies: 3
- Graphic Novel: 3
- Reading Time (I didn’t track start dates on every book so these numbers are very rough)
- Average Time To Finish a Book: 10 days
- Books I Read Fastest:
- Death Match (416 pages; 2 days)
- The Hunger Games (374 pages; 2 days)
- Food Rules (140 pages; 1 day)
- The Time Machine (128 pages; 1 day)
- Books I Read Slowest:
- The Zombie Survival Guide (254 pages; 69 days)
- This Book Is Overdue (272 pages; 19 days)
- Dune (512 pages; 33 days)
- Devil In The White City (447 pages; 16 days)
- Five Star Books:
- Neither Here, Nor There – Bill Bryson
- NurtureShock – Po Bronson, Ashley Merryman
- Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
- Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Love – Raymond Carver
- The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
- Four Star Books: 18
- Three Star Books: 21
- Two Star Books: 5
- Average Rating: 3.5