well read

I don’t read.

Well, I can. I do. I read articles on the internet, and blogs. I read the backs of food packets, and recipes. I read road signs. I read my mail.

I don’t read books.

How can this be? I don’t know. Reading books seems like one of those fundamental keys to a life well-lived, like listening to NPR or practicing yoga or making your own kombucha.

It hasn’t always been this way, if that helps. I don’t read books now, but when I was a child I was the epitome of the quiet glasses-wearing voracious-reader trope. I read so much that I blew past every assigned reading page count. I read so much that I won the Little House on the Prairie box set in a class reading contest. I read so much that I earned a pizza lunch with the principal. If you’re a practically mute bookworm whose preferred lunchtime activity is pretending to be a bird even when your peers have moved on to makeup and flirting, hanging with the principal is a pretty piss-poor plan to gain popularity.

Back when I read books I gave myself over wholly to them. Patches of sun would move over my bed, across the floor, and fade to shadows as my hands and arms grew pinpricky and fell asleep. I waded so deep in words that they covered me, left me breathlessly submerged. If you’ve ever walked out of a theater matinee into a sunshine-flooded parking lot and been shocked and unsettled to see the world exactly as you left it, you know what it’s like to completely lose yourself like that in a book.

That’s not a book, Strummer. DOESN’T COUNT.

I read books through my late 20s, and then I just… stopped. I didn’t have time anymore. Actually, that’s not totally accurate. I didn’t have time to risk losing myself completely in a book anymore. I was getting married, and I was moving, and I was working on a house. Somewhere in there I’d also started a blog, and so any spare time I had left over from the other stuff started going to writing.

Since I started writing regularly my choices can kind of be boiled down to action versus inaction. I can spend what bit of time I have at the end of the night reading, or I can spend that time writing. Of course reading isn’t inaction, per se. Maybe a better way to put it is active versus passive. That’s not quite right, either. Creating versus absorbing? That’s close.

Of course you need to take in to put out, but as I mentioned earlier, all my taking-in is internet-based anymore. I can pilot my sturdy craft through the dark, roiling seas of BuzzFeed-type shit to take refuge in the quiet, sundappled coves of quality posts and articles. And the beautiful thing about these posts and articles is that I’m done reading them in a few minutes or maybe an hour. I’m in and out, and the resulting back-to-reality hangover passes over quickly. It works okay for me, right now.

I believe writing found online can be just as good as writing found in books, but I’m still not necessarily proud of leaning solely on the virtual word. I chide myself. How are you going to learn more if you don’t read books? How are you ever going to get any better as a person?

It’s not for lack of trying. Over the past few years I’ve dutifully written down book recommendations. I’ve added books to shopping carts. I’ve even bought a few, and they remain sitting in a box. Unread.

Here’s the thing, though. I’ve been carrying around all this shame over not reading books, but I can’t figure out how that’s at all useful to me. When does scolding ever work, for anything? When does coercion ever fix anything for good? Guilt has an expiration date. If you feel badly enough about yourself you can probably work up the determination to visit a gym, or order salad at the restaurant, or go to bed earlier, or sign up for that class, or drink more water, or whatever remorse of the moment you’re experiencing in the name of self-improvement. But if it’s not working for you, if it’s not something that makes you happier than what you were doing before, it’s not going to stick.

This isn’t an argument for not reading books. It’s an argument for not making yourself feel bad about not reading books, or any number of good-for-you things you should be doing but somehow forgot or haven’t been able to fit into your life.

This isn’t an argument for not trying to better yourself. It’s an argument for not drawing out a tiny box of absolute ideals and then spending the rest of your life trying to cram your unwieldy, resentful self inside of it.

Will I pick up a book again? Yes, of course. But I’ll do it when I’m ready, out of love and not obligation.

What guilt have you been unpacking and cheerfully tossing in the bin during this hallowed, solemn season of mental self-flagellation?

14 Responses to “well read”

  1. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately too. (Currently trying to get through ‘How To Be A Woman’ because I feel like I ‘should’ read it and enjoy it.)

    I read less fiction and fewer memoirs and biographies because I read massive amounts for my study and work. When that’s done I like to either zone out or create my own texts, like you. It’s also because, at its best, reading is such an immersive experience, you can’t do anything else but read and concentrate.

    I don’t think you’re a bad person at all.

  2. “But if it’s not working for you, if it’s not something that makes you happier than what you were doing before, it’s not going to stick.”

    ohmygodyes.

    If I had a goal, it would be to flagellate myself less.

  3. Recovering Child Book Addicts unite!

    This year I’m pitching my guilt over not being an accomplished seamstress/5k racer yet. Onward!

    • Haha, Erin, you mean you AREN’T YET? Eh, it’s okay. You’re so accomplished in so many other areas that you get a pass.

  4. 2014 is all about not beating yourself up.

  5. I read books voraciously, but I always struggle with guilt over not reading the “right” kind of books. I find that Serious Books about Broken Dreams and Major Tragedies are a painful slog to get through, whereas I’ll devour anything that makes me laugh or lets me escape reality for a while.

    I should probably just give myself a pass on my genre/tone preferences, but I worry that I’m missing out on good stuff by being a reverse snob. So right now I’m just going to give myself permission to not feel guilty about never reading another Ernest Hemingway book. And also to not feel guilty about hating The Grapes of Wrath.

    • This is my issues too. I read a lot and a wide range of stuff, but a fair amount of it’s not “serious” reading – the list of Classics I have never read is staggering, while I have read a lot of mystery series, YA novels, children’s chapter books, food memoirs, etc, etc. I’m working on getting over the sense that there are things that I “should” read.

      • Oh yes, this is a whole other layer. I honestly think the last book I read was “Don Cherry’s Hockey Stories.” Way to go, Lyn.

        You guys are making me feel better. Every time I hear about someone finishing a book I assume they were nose-deep in some meaningful classic, which kind of drives the knife in a little about my reading dry spell. NOT NECESSARILY SO! It also kind of takes the pressure off… maybe my entry back into the printed word should be something light to make it easier on me.

  6. i’ve been struggling with this a lot myself lately. because of things, of life and work and such, i’ve cut way back on my reading, and what i do read is basically just lightweight fiction. i haven’t voluntarily read anything involving thought – or, god forbid, losing myself in the work – in ages. a year, i think. and i feel so bad about it. look at all those books on my shelves! books i want to read! but jesus, the mental energy they require…

    and so i’ve also been trying to focus less on what i “should” do, or “should” enjoy, and just give myself a break. give myself the room to do the things i actually want to do, even if they’re kind of dumb and aren’t full of Serious Topics Discussed Seriously. and the room to trust that someday, when things are less insane, i’ll pick up that Raymond Chandler bio and read it enthusiastically.

  7. I am of the opposite. I feel guilty when I set aside an afternoon for something so unproductive and delicious as reading a true to life non-article, non-business-promoting-blog-style BOOK.

    I’m on board with your plan. I’ll read the books. You skip em. And let’s both feel content in that, yes?

  8. Way late to this but YES to not doing things out of guilt. I go on and off with reading, and right now I’m decidedly off. I was talking to another new mom who apparently uses all her nursing time to read books. Umm… I use it to read twitter and Facebook. Maybe watch trashy TV. I felt guilty for about 5 minutes but decided to ditch that because it was noise I didn’t need. I’m going to make this a trend.

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