In 2014, I’m going to read as few books as possible.
I know, it’s an unusual goal. Who resolves to read less? Isn’t reading good for you? Every single list of advice for aspiring writers says, “Read a lot. Read as much as you can.”
And since books are like oxygen to me, reading less is a scary prospect. Last year I read 100 books. The year before that, 63 books. This year I’m asking myself to keep the total to 36. Three books a month.
Why the change? Well, in the fall I noticed that Margaret has been in charge of my reading habits for quite a while. She loves tracking the books I finish, and she loves seeing the numbers add up ~ they give a nice boost to the ego.
Mireille does get involved, insisting that I read the best books I can find, the ones that fill me up with truth and beauty. She has me copy down particularly good quotations for future use.
(Don’t know who Margaret and Mireille are? Read this post.)
But Margaret’s emphasis on volume naturally leads to speed, more short books (graphic novels and children’s books), and adult books that are quick and easy to read (meaning more genre or plot-driven books). I always have a steady stream of new material coming in through holds placed at the library, and the due dates force me to finish books quickly and return them.
Mireille often feels bloated on this reading diet. She hardly has a chance to process one book before we’re on to the next. Instead of talking or writing about the book, or letting the stories and ideas sink in, she just gorges herself and moves on.
Margaret would never permit me to re-read a book because it wouldn’t contribute to progress on my goal. She encourages audiobooks over podcasts. She even has me ploughing through books I don’t particularly like just so they will “count.”
Performance-based reading isn’t a new thing for me.
Many years ago, I was told that the definition of an “avid reader” was someone who read at least one book a week. I was already tracking my reading in the Book Lover’s Diary that Shawn gave me for Christmas 1997 (inscribed from “a Book Lover lover”), so of course I made a spreadsheet to see how well I was performing. I had read quite a bit in grad school, both the assigned volumes (30 linked short story collections as background for my thesis project) and the guilty pleasure stuff like James Herriot and Edith Nesbitt.
Counting the books I read using this measuring stick of 52 books a year for an avid reader set me on the course of “more is better.”
Then I came upon the Goodreads Reading Challenge in 2012, which turbo-charged the whole venture. Now I could see the goals that my friends set, and congratulate or chastise myself depending on how I compared. I got that hit of satisfaction when I finished a book and logged it on Goodreads, watching my total inch up.
Last December 2012, just when I was setting my new Reading Challenge goal, I read a Slate article that only fed my obsession with more. In 366 Days, 366 Books, Jeff Ryan describes how he read a book a day for a year, and I adopted many of his strategies to meet what was for me an ambitious target: 100 books. I fell behind a little in the spring but picked up over the summer and then crammed 15 short books in the last weeks of December to meet the goal. But the victory felt a little hollow.
And I had a flashback to Grade Five. Mrs. Taylor was hosting a reading contest for the class, and first prize was a new book. I remember that we got bonus points for reading Canadian authors, so I raided the library for Jean Little and Janet Lunn. By the end of term, I was solidly in the lead, but I needed just one more book to reach a total of 100,000 points.
The trouble was that the contest ended the next day, and I had read everything on my shelf. The library had closed for the evening. So I begged my parents to let me finish The Christmas Stories of George MacDonald, the special book that we’d been reading aloud as a family.
Can I just emphasize? Reading this book would not help me win the contest ~ I had already won. Reading this book would only help me reach a meaningless milestone with lots of zeroes.
Bless my parents’ hearts, they said yes. They let me carry the book off alone and dash through the remaining pages, treating it like a commodity instead of a sacred ritual. And I’d like to officially apologize to them: Sorry, Mom and Dad and Melody. Sorry for putting my focus on numbers ahead of our shared reading experience.
(By the way, I chose a copy of Bel Ria: Dog of War by Sheila Burnford as my contest prize. Thanks, Mrs. Taylor!)
Penelope Trunk says that the things we measure are really important. And I realized that the way I tracked the books I read significantly affected the way I read.
So in 2014, I’m trying a different tack.
Fewer books. More short stories and literary fiction. Fewer library books and more purchases (because I can choose more carefully, slow down, and savour books I own). More discussion, online and at book club. More memorizing poetry. More re-reading books. Maybe even less reading, more writing. (Find me on Goodreads to follow my book
Once I started questioning “more and faster is better” in my reading life, that led to examining other patterns and habits too. Which eventually led me to my word of the year for 2014. But that is for another post . . .
Speaking of books, I’ll be posting an update soon about my own progress with Pilgrimage of Desire. I’m also reading an advance copy of Notes from a Blue Bike by Tsh Oxenreider, so I’ll be writing about that. And later this week I have an interview with Niya Christine, who is running a Kickstarter campaign for a gorgeous book about her 365 Paintings project.
God, I love books. This year I’m going to love them differently, but my love will never die.