If you are like most of us, the amount of time you spend reading fluctuates throughout your life. We go through fallow periods when it seems we just don't have time - or the state of mind, really, to read. Some people, on the contrary, keep careful track of how many books they read and have monthly and yearly goals. However, I'm not sure if they sustain that kind of goal-oriented tracking over time.
The summer before 8th grade, my mother worked in our local library, and there was a list taped to the wall on which kids could write their names and affix a gold star sticker for every book they'd read. I can't recall winning anything, but I spent a lot of time at the library with my mom and accumulated a great number of those stickers. Oddly, I don't remember much of what I read, though. The books that really struck me as a kid - books like The Secret Garden and Are You There God, it's Me Margaret - I had read at home.
I do remember, however, during that summer in the library, looking at forbidden books while my mom was busy elsewhere. I picked up a paperback copy of Helter Skelter and snuck peeks at the horrifying photos inside. I was only vaguely aware of Charles Manson, though the crimes had only happened a few years earlier. I didn't read the book. But I picked up another book, I Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee, read it, and when I put another star by my name, I felt a changed person. The scales had dropped from my eyes.
I remember my mother reading Charlotte's Web to my brother and me, and she cried. I remember reading Black Beauty and feeling wrenching sadness. When I was in first grade, I loved Pippi Longstockings and The Littlest Witch, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, and The Phantom Tollbooth. When I was a bit older, I read Island of the Blue Dolphins and was rapt. I inhaled the Little House on the Prairie books, and I loved the Borrowers. C.S. Lewis's Narnia Chronicles absolutely transported me. And The Hobbit - my god, The Hobbit!
When I was in my twenties, I began a reading tear that lasted several years. I read F. Scott Fitzgerald, E.M. Forster, Somerset Maugham, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Edith Wharton, Thomas Hardy, George Sand, the Bröntes (whom I disliked), Jane Austen, Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, and John Fante. I read Ray Bradbury, Oscar Wilde (I had a lovely, old calf-skin edition of his collected works) and Theodore Dreiser. But that was - dating myself here - before the internet.
But still, I carried on, even through the time of dial-up. I read the unabridged Les Miserables while on the J-Church line in San Francisco. I read Janet Frame, Joan Didion, and Virginia Wolf. I read Muriel Spark, John Cheever, and Margaret Atwood. I read Orwell, Salinger, Hemingway, Kesey, and Vonnegut. Then, realizing that I had read primarily dead white men and that I was missing diversity in my reading, I read James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Amy Tan. I read Maya Angelou, Chinua Achebe and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (it turns out, I'm not a big fan of magical realism; I prefer his short stories.) Then, I read Alice Walker and Richard Wright.
When my children were in grade school, I was one of "those" moms and read The Red Badge of Courage, Treasure Island, and David Copperfield aloud to them. Barkis is willin'.
Recently, a friend and mentor, in her weekly newsletter, said that she has not had time to read lately. She's worked in the publishing business for years, and so some might find this disappointing. But, on the contrary, it's not unusual at all. We all go through periods of reading more and of reading less. There are only so many hours in a day. But here is what does bother me about what my friend said - that our hamster wheel is racing along at such a clip that for many, to sit and focus quietly, doing something that has no concrete outcome is beginning to feel like "doing nothing" - something we don't have time for or oughtn't be doing.
It is a major wrestling match every day to decide what I will give my attention to and what I will not. This article, that Facebook post, the newsletters the newsletters the newsletters. Substack, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Arts & Letters Daily - I am drowning in a sea of choices. I flip from one article to the next and the next. My loving life buddy, my darling Gidon Lev, who is 86, makes a point of getting comfy on the couch every weekend as he reads his New York Times/Haaretz combo. Did you see this? He holds up the paper. This article is good! And my heart sinks because no, I haven't and I don't have time.
But mind you, that conversation is had while I am lying on the other sofa with a book in my hands or my Kindle, absorbed in my own reading. I want to read it all, you see, I want to have time for everything. But I don't. Yet when I think that way, I ask myself what kind of life I want to live. I want to both be productive and work and write but also read and think and make jam.
Slowly, technology and life have made doing things like reading akin to "doing nothing" unless you can read the first two paragraphs of six articles quickly and sound informed on social media. On Instagram, people post pictures of books arranged in pleasing designs in pretty places. It's expressly not about reading the book, it's about the aesthetic idea of books as a decoration.
In What to Read and Why, Francine Prose wrote:
"Art is the cerebral, spiritual and emotional equivalent of the toners we splash on our faces to improve our complexions. Art opens our heart and brain cells."
I have no judgment when someone says they aren't reading lately or very much because they don't have time. But it frightens me. I want us to pick up our torches and pitchforks and demand to get off the hamster wheel of the attention economy and tend to our inner selves, our imaginations, our creative souls.
We all have to work, and yes, I'm lucky because my work is writing and editing - so the midwifing of stories is my day-to-day activity. But to just sit still and read (or listen to) what is already finished is a pleasure that I have carried with me throughout my life, and I have no plans to abandon that most pleasurable and nurturing of habits.
Reading is a radical act of selfishness, or perhaps self-soothing in a time when the world seems to be self-immolating.