Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Way to Not Read

by Elizabeth

Confession time: a great strategy to reduce average reading from some 2500-3000 pages a month down to maybe 500 is to publicly commit to reading something because it's good for you.

Yeah. Got through Rebecca happily, snoozed through parts of Utopia, trudged through about two-thirds of the stridently modern Dracula--and the month was over (thank goodness). This, after a year so far of eight or more books each month prior.

But it was good for me. Though--was it?

My kids are both voracious readers, and re-readers, too (like their mother). They read like some boys throw balls, without thinking, unable to stop, and if there's one around and their hands are empty, they'll pick it up. That said, they both have particular tastes and have no issue turning down a book I suggest if it doesn't appeal. Some of the books I loved as a child have been rejected (oh kids! A Wrinkle in Time!), some later read and loved and others still waiting on the shelf, perhaps never to have the spine cracked.

I brought a couple of books to Half Price Books the other day, just to see what kind of offer I might get. (Okay, I admit it: to get an idea of how much I might make if I could wrest a few thousand of my husband's paperbacks he insists on keeping that we have no space to store.) The lady gave me a few tips, including that they are always desperate for reading list books: To Kill a Mockingbird, A Farewell to Arms, that sort of thing. Can't keep 'em in stock, and condition didn't much matter because half the kids would never read the copy anyway, just needed one in their hot paws. Classics, required reading. Required, and often unread.

So many times we put undue pressure on ourselves, rules that go far beyond the real rules. I'm a big fan of Weight Watchers, have read their message boards for years, and I can't begin to count the number of posts from people inventing their own rules which make the diet plan a lot harder than as written. All the moms who turn what should be a simple game day snack into elaborate cheese soccer ball sculptures, complete with goal post pretzels. Whoever it was that deemed decades ago that he who dies with the most toys wins, so that twenty-plus years later the country's fiscal well-being is buried under a pile of unpaid-for junk most people probably didn't really want until they tried to keep up with the false rules.

I took a book I enjoyed and turned it into a month of obligation that robbed me of fulfilling mental diversion for the better part of thirty-one days. And why? Because it was good for me. Deprivation, cheese and pretzels, keeping up with the Joneses. And the end result was a book and two parts read, very little satisfaction, and I don't feel smarter or wiser or better read for it at all.

This doesn't mean I'm banning classics, not at all. Those high school lists the bookstore is slavering for? I, like countless others, read The Catcher in the Rye sheerly for pleasure before it was assigned, and as I constantly harp, I've read all of Jane Austen, never once under order. I picked up and enjoyed Les Miserables all on my own (well, except that slog in the middle about Waterloo, but if you're reading almost fifteen hundred pages of one story, what's forty in the middle?).

I just bought the first three Anne of Green Gables books for my daughter, excited because the play is being staged here early next year. She's game and ready, but when she picks up the first, if her reaction is like that for Little House on the Prairie thus far (though she loved the audio book version of Farmer Boy, go figure), I'll stick them on the shelf and let her get to them in her own time. Reading shouldn't be a burden, especially for those of us lucky enough to consider it one of life's most sublime delights.

And now I'm cutting this off. It's June, and a stack of novels I picked without any consideration to their literary merit or future placement on reading lists awaits. I've got some catching up to do, and I intend to savor every minute I can steal for books.


  1. Oooh, Anne of Green Gables! One day I'd love to go back and read all my "kid" books. Too bad we somehow lost track of my entire Nancy Drew set (I had them ALL, and most of them were physically older than me!).

    Happy Reading!

  2. I really enjoyed this blog post. Your angle is superb. I am 37 years old and have always struggled with the joy of reading. When my daughter was born I was determined to make her a better reader than myself and worked hard to cultivate in her a love for books and reading. I read to her for hours every day, enrolled her in countless book clubs, brought her to the library every week, etc. etc. It worked. She read the college version of Little Women when she was 10 (not that she absorbed it all, but she read it by choice) and continued on her reading expedition to the point that I would tell her to close the book and go get some fresh air. We went on vacation to the Caribbean when she was 9 years old and she was able to identify and tell a story about the sugar mills we passed by on part of our sailing expedition. It was at that point I knew she had more knowledge of the world around her than her mother, and it was all due to reading! And yet I still continue to struggle with my own love of reading. It feels more like a chore or an obligation than a joy. Your article has really made me stop and think about my view of reading and the method I have always used in picking out a book. I’ve started every book with the hope of accomplishing something or meeting some kind of self-imposed quota. I have now decided my next book will be something completely void of responsibility and self-improvement!! I will choose my next book using only my curiosity and areas of interest as a guiding factor. Thanks again for your article.

  3. Staci, it is fun to revisit the kid books. I hope you do! (Maybe not in Jamaica, though--Nancy Drew and the Mystery of the Lost Bikini Bottoms just doesn't sound right).

    Nikol, I'm so glad you found something useful here. I'd love to hear back if you enjoy your next book (and the ten that follow) even more. I've read some non-fiction in the past few years, something I rarely did before, and have quite enjoyed it. I did it to learn, but also because it was interesting to me. Maybe that's the secret?


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