The Weight-Loss Approach to Reading

In some respects, we’re living in a renaissance of reading—a true rebirth of reading culture.  When I was in college, it seemed like few people read books outside of classes, and almost no one knew any of the big authors, outside of the ones whose books were instantly translated into films.  With the advent of Kindle and e-books, suddenly it’s become cool to read again, since reading looks more like television or staring at a computer; it’s not ‘boring’ and you can actually read much faster on a Kindle than you can a ‘real’ book.  Partially this comes down to the skimming factor, since I suspect many people read e-books the way they read Facebook/Twitter feeds.  Of course, we’ve become so reliant on technology that for many people, sitting down with an actual paper book seems hopelessly old-fashioned and the lure of the screen becomes impossible to ignore.  Some of my students complain that they simply can’t sit down with a paperback for more than a few minutes before their mind starts racing.  E-books, however, allay that mental fear of losing the screen and they feel more connected; suddenly, people are rediscovering the ability to read a short book in a one go, or at least having an hour or two of uninterrupted pleasure.  So that’s a good thing; people are reading again, and from a quick glance at sites like Goodreads or Booklikes, they’re reading tons of books as quickly as they can find them.  Again, this is good—read books, read many books, and lose yourself in other writers’ lives and minds. 

What does concern me is the distressing focus on quantity on all these sites.  Goodreads offers a 2014 Reading Challenge, where you’re supposed to set a reading goal—say, 50 books—that you hope to meet by the end of the year.  I’ve seen people boast about reading 200 books—some even more.  Many readers’ accounts have hundreds and hundreds of books on their ‘to read’ list, and they are all the time adding more, reading more, devouring more.  Also, these sites encourage you to update your progress: what page are you on, how close are you to finishing, how many books have you completed this month?  Even the Kindle reader has a little bar on the bottom telling you the percentage you have left of the book, as if we can all sigh with relief when it finally, mercifully, reaches 80%.  There are even sites that track how fast you read books and encourage you to increase your speed, buy products that can help you read words faster, etc.  Granted, few of these books are Joyce’s Ulysses or anything that requires deep concentration, but even so, should we encourage reading to the finish line?  Why are we trying to read so many books so quickly?  My own ‘to read’ pile is enormous, and always has been, but the last thing I want to do is set time limits on how quickly I plan to demolish it so I can start a new one.  What’s the rush? 

In Alan Jacob’s excellent little book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011), he addresses this very issue of reading fast and posting it for all the world to see:

I think this is a bad idea.  It’s what you’re reading that matters, and how you’re reading it, not the speed with which you’re getting through it.  Reading is supposed to be about the encounter with other minds, not an opportunity to return to the endlessly appealing subject of Me.  Americans have enough encouragements to narcissism; let’s try to do without this one (67). 

Though this passage—and I suppose my entire post here—sounds a bit hectoring, I think it makes a great point about why people have taken up reading with such aplomb.  It’s a kind of boasting, isn’t it?   Would people read so much if they had to do it in silence, in solitude?  Why do we need to constantly post what we’ve read, how much we’ve read, how much we want to read?  Is it really all about me?  And in our rush to beat last year’s record, or to show our followers how many eclectic books we can experience, are we actually doing anything resembling good old fashioned reading?  Don’t get me wrong—I commit all of the sins outlined above: I read books fairly quickly, post about them, write reviews of them, etc.  However, I don’t feel any urge to set limits and my training as an English scholar has taught me to read slowly, deeply, and for more than surface appreciation.  Does that make me better than anyone else?  Of course not…but I suspect I’m enjoying the books I read a bit more, since I’m not racing through them or glancing at the readout that tells me how much time left until I can get off the Stairmaster.

Shouldn’t reading be fun?  Something savored, the way you would take your time over a great meal, or perhaps more suitably, the way you spend time with someone you love?  Do you really want it to end so you can get on to your next meal—or your next love affair?  If so, what is the value of a good meal or a true relationship with another person?  Is it all just casual sex or fast food take out?  Okay, so who cares if people make out with their books and eat great quantities of high calorie romance novels (to stretch the metaphor to its breaking point)?  This leads to my second point: by focusing more on reading quickly, we might be reading with blinders.  Let’s face it, not every book is written the same; some books are all about plot, with little emphasis on style or character development.  Others are all about how the sentence is written, how the character looks at a certain building at a certain time of day.  For some books, description is the plot, is the character development (despite our modern maxims that description is lazy writing, is boring, is fluff).  

When we read fast, we read for two things: plot and genre.  You can’t read quickly without looking for (and relying on) the convenient sign posts of genre.  You see Character X which you recognize from a thousand books; you see Plot Y which you’ve read over and over again, but you expect a new, fresh twist on it right at the end.  A satisfying, five-star read is a book that gives you exactly what you expected, yet adds one tiny spice to make you, for a moment, think you’ve read a different book.  This is why after Harry Potter every publisher green-lighted stories about adolescent sorcerers; why after Twilight teenage vampires invaded every high school and small town across America; and after The Hunger Games dystopian worlds and gladiatorial games became the soup du jour.  So what happens to those writers, past and present, who don’t want to follow the pre-packaged mold?  A mold which, ironically, was not followed by J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, or Suzanne Collins.  Do we know how to read those books?  Can we appreciate them?  Or do we get irritated with them and even call them out for being ‘bad’ or ‘disappointing’?

To return once more to Alan Jacobs, he discusses how much pleasure he’s derived from reading the philosopher David Hume, who is by no stretch of the imagination a “page turner.”  As he explains,

For almost all of us, then, Hume’s writing will provide a kind of test—an opportunity to find out just how much patience we have, how much time we’re willing to take.  And to spare any suspense on this point, the results of that test will almost certainly be: not patient enough.  But this is no cause for discouragement.  A person who had been sedentary for a lifetime would not think that she could rise up from her sofa, head out the door, and run a breezy 10K.  Instead she would work up to it slowly, starting with a few strolls around the block perhaps, then longer walks, then a little jogging, and so on.  The same applies to the reading of texts written in an unfamiliar idiom or genre, or written in an age whose stylistic preferences differ from our own (49). 

As an English teacher and scholar of older literatures, I deeply identify with this statement.  I, too, started out sedentary then learned to crawl, then walk, then jog, then sprint—and even then, only for a short time before becoming winded.  However, I always knew that it was a race worth running.  Yet as reading becomes more and more about a different kind of race, are we able to take the time to adjust our reading preferences or grapple with a different period, culture, style, or author?  I ask this because I’ve seen so much ignorant nonsense on sites like Goodreads, Booklikes, and even Amazon, from readers who give classic books such as Pride and Prejudice and The Lord of the Rings negative reviews for being too long, too wordy, too descriptive, and ultimately, too boring.  One reviewer—who, conveniently enough, was also an author—claimed that Tolkein needed to learn how to edit, and that he could make the three novels into one really good one, if anyone cared to ask him.  I’ve heard similar comments about The Iliad and all of Shakespeare’s works: pointless, discursive, and in need of a good editor.  

The ignorance of these statements is shattering.   First of all, it assumes that we, in the 21st century, invented editing.  Don’t you think it was edited?  In fact, I would wager to believe that many works of the past were edited with more intelligence and rigor that anything we push through the presses today.  Take The Iliad, for example; this is a work from the oral tradition that was probably re-written, revised, and recast for hundreds of years before it assumed anything like its final form.  Jane Austen completely re-wrote the book Pride and Prejudice was based on (First Impressions), changing it from an epistolary novel to a more traditional one, and in the process making a work of the late Enlightenment into a fledgling Romantic novel.  Can you imagine the work (and critical fortitude) that must have went into this process?  Secondly, making a book from the past into a ‘bestseller’ would not notably improve it; indeed, it would destroy what makes it unique and able to transcend its moment in time.  By this logic, should we abolish different languages in favor of one we all agree on, that could speak to everyone equally, without taking into account the nuances of culture and poetry?  In short, reading takes time, and learning to read the works of the past, as well as works outside our own cultural and generic norms, takes patience (to quote Jacobs).  I don’t think the current reading environment encourages patience, and many young readers, raised on this approach, will quickly abandon works that don’t “speak to them,” assuming that it’s a flaw of the book/author.  As a reader, I usually assume the fault lies with me, and I need to recalibrate my expectations before I dismiss a book as 1 or 2 stars, or heap it on the “will never finish” pile. 

As an English teacher, more and more of my first-year students seem to read books, which is amazing—no question.  Yet these same students are more reluctant, it seems, to read books that demand more of them, that don’t fit into a genre they like or an author they’ve previously read.  I hear quite often, “I don’t like classics,” as if this is a genre or a style of writing.  My point, if I really have one, is that our reading seems more driven by advertising and marketing than a desire to read new books and meet new ideas.  All new technology destroys as it creates, and I fear our frantic embrace of e-books and the marketers that come with it, are making us count books as we count calories.  Are books good for you?  Of course they are; they enrich the mind, nourish the soul, and knock us out of our selfish bubble to see other worlds—worlds we may never visit in person (all the more so for worlds in the past).  Yet reading by itself isn’t necessarily good; I could read a thousand cereal boxes and not walk away enlightened.  Reading is an art, which is ultimately a tool, a means to transport us to another state of mind/being.  If we read blindly, we learn blindly, too.  Reading should never become like our 1,500 “friends” on Facebook.  Even if you read only one book this year, read it slowly, patiently, and let the experience transform you.  If you love books, of course you want to read as many as possible—I certainly do—but don’t let sheer numbers impress you.  Don’t count the books or take stock of the pages.  Just keep reading: different books and different authors, different styles and genres, and in different languages if possible…especially when no one’s looking.