A Response to Michael Bourne and Reading Fewer Books
January 5, 2013 § Leave a comment
I just got through reading Michael Bourne’s article over on The Millions: My New Year’s Resolution: Read Fewer Books. My initial reaction was how stupid a New Year’s Resolution is that? Then I read the 24 comments after and realized that it was as inane and condescending as my initial repugnance suggested, only much more so. People are lazy asses and don’t want to read — fine, but it isn’t something to be lauded.
Writers are self-indulgent. Let’s face it, we type something out with our word processor in the hopes that everyone will read our golden prose and tell us how phenomenally gifted we are. Even the purists writing in longhand before their precious words are ever defaced by a mechanical act such as typing crave for nothing more than having those words they’ve written out illegibly, typeset and mass produced and stuck on the shelf at Wal-Mart and ogled endlessly by the adoring masses. Let’s face it, most of the words we write are nuggets, but not of the gold variety.
Bourne unfortunately carries the same surname as the girl that I crushed on from first grade to sometime when I gave up the futile pursuit in high school, so I can’t be assured that my response to his article is completely sane, given my history with the name. Yet, as I read the article, my initial reaction was maybe my New Year’s Resolution should be to read less articles on the Internet. (Yeah, I know usage says ‘fewer’, I was just seeing if you were paying attention and you still knew what I meant.)
Bourne starts out the article telling us how many books he has read since he started keeping track on January 1, 2000 in some kind of millennial resolution and has read 776 books in the last twelve years, roughly half fiction and half non-fiction. He then states how happy he was when he hit 720 books for a 60 a year average.
This is when the article got weird. As a compulsive list-maker of the books I consume, tracking the books you read isn’t weird to me. My millennial book list hit 760 on May 23, 2009. Not weird in the least. What was weird is that after reading three paragraphs about his compulsive list taking, Bourne writes this: “No one even knows I write lists.” Uhh, yes we do.
Look, I read 204 books last year — yeah, I’m fucking competitive too. And I have close family members who questions my voracious consumption of books. And I have a day job that consumes vast quantities of my time and I have a young son in elementary school, not to mention four daughters in college. And this all has what to do with my reading and list making? Absolutely jack squat.
The fact that in 2012 I broke the 200 barrier for the first time since first grade (a 44 year drought) was not a perverse form of satisfaction. I relished it, cherished it and yes, I wanted to brag, but the accomplishment and internal satisfaction isn’t perverse. Part of the human condition is to strive for improvement and growth and growth feels good — unless you are content being a couch potato, in which case I suggest less television viewing for a New Year’s Resolution, accompanied by reading more books.
The desire to track progress isn’t a bad thing either. I like going back to 2002 and see the books I was reading and compare that to where I was at in my life. Re-reading becomes more meaningful when the book is juxtaposed against your own life’s timeline. And reading carnivorously does not a genius make. A simple number of books read speaks nothing of aptitude and genius, but merely one measure of quantity — page numbers being another. The weight and gravity of the books read also carry significance. “I read all of Kundera’s oeuvre in 2012” is more meaningful than any number.
Reading voraciously doesn’t mean that good writing isn’t appreciated and the books aren’t savored. Think of reading like sex. Would you ever have a New Year’s Resolution to have less sex in the New Year because I really need to learn to savor the essence of sexuality and come at it sideways? That’s nuts and so is reading less as some sort of sacrifice to the Gods of Writing and Art. If you have sex a lot, some of it will be mind blowing, swinging from the chandeliers, split you open and some will be nothing more than a feel-good romp. It’s the same with reading. And like sex, reading transforms you in ways that you can’t predict or fathom. Participating in an exchange with another human mind through the page alters your own sense of self, incorporates another person’s thoughts into your head and makes the world a more empathetic place. You can’t read a broad spectrum of literature, non-fiction, essays, short stories and poetry and not alter how you see the world. Each book, even if through its slipshod language it shows you how you don’t want things to be, focuses the world through a new lens and you will never be able to write or read exactly the same way again.
Each of us is given a limited amount of time on this planet. The limited resource requires us to make choices on where to spend our time. For those of us who love words, narratives and other people and want to write and communicate with the broader world, the cacophony of voices and constant harangue for our attention means that our New Year’s Resolution should not be to read less or fewer, but to read more and to read with more intent and direction. Who knows Mr. Bourne, if I took your advice and read fewer books, that book I don’t read might be yours.