in order to read, start reading

That post title might sound snotty, but I assure you that I mean it in just the opposite sense. I’m inspired by Corey Robin’s piece about riding the subway in order to find the time and space to read books, inspired by this essay by Tim Parks about how hard it is to read books these days. Both are well worth your time.

Corey says plainly that it’s the internet that has made reading harder for him, and I admire and value his forthrightness. That is the kind of claim we’re mostly supposed to be too cool to make. The internet has an immune system, a tendency to produce pushback and resistance to arguments not just about the drawbacks and downsides of endless internet connectivity, but to the very notion of moderation in our use. There is something about the habitual aspects of the internet, the “more, now, again” aspects, that couple with the vague sense of embarrassment we feel about constant internet use to produce a default posture of insecurity and defensiveness about these behaviors. People somehow feel judged about taking part in behaviors that are immensely popular and common and which have the blessings of the entirety of our capitalist system. For every essay by Nick Carr or Evgeny Morozov, there are a dozen that refute, rebut, and denigrate such concerns. But I think that Corey and others are right to say that many of us have lost the ability to concentrate on one thing at a time, to not constantly buzz between different tabs and devices and apps, constantly. I think it is hard to sit and read just one thing, and I think that is a shame, because there are types of pleasure (yes, pleasure) and growth that can only come with that kind of concentration.

But the good news is that you can get it back, and it’ll be easier than you think. Start  reading, and then be mindful of how often you’re distracted, how often you feel the need to whip out your phone, and how often you succumb to it. Keep track, and resolve to give in a little bit less. You don’t have to achieve unconditional victory. Learn to delay. Push it off a little bit more. Set a goal for yourself: I can only check my phone if I get through these next three pages. From this time until this time, I read words off of a page and do nothing else. Is it a little sad for a lifelong bookworm like me to have to set these sort of goals, to bribe myself, to need rules to keep reading? Sure, in a sense. But I keep reading, and you can, too. A good way to start the habit is just to find something compulsively readable, even if its readable in a way that sacrifices the depth that we often turn to books for. Michael Crichton works wonderfully for me in that sense, but whatever it takes. Young adult books can be great for this purpose. Whatever keeps you turning the page. And then you gather momentum and it gets a little bit easier and a little bit easier…. But there are individual moments where you’ll feel weak, and then you just have to decide: I’m making my mind up to do this.

My recommendation to anyone, but particularly to anyone who wants to restart their habit of regular reading of book-length work, is a project book.

Now already I know that some people will blanch; “project” sounds like work, and a lot of people endorse Alan Jacobs’s sensible advice to read at whim. Well, yes: what I’m advocating is a kind of work. But it’s a kind of work that’s designed to create pleasure, to be enjoyed eventually if not immediately. A project book is a book that you choose that, by its nature, cannot be read both quickly and deeply. It’s a book that intimidates you on purpose.  And given that Alan wrote a whole book about the importance and fun of reading books at a time when it’s hard to concentrate, I think he understands just what I mean.

The absolute key with a project book is that, to whatever degree possible, you have to turn off the part of your mind that cares about getting finished quickly. A project book is one that you want to take a long time with, often one that necessitates taking a long time with. And though so many of your instincts are going to militate against it, you should stretch out into that time. Get comfortable. Think of your project book as a long-term sublease, a place that you know you won’t live in forever but one that you also know has to come to feel like home. You want to take months, reading little chunks at a time. It might offend your bookworm nature, but I find it’s useful to make a regular appointment– for this hour, twice a week, I will read this book and ancillary materials about it. Think of it like appointment television, if that suits you. Learn to enjoy the feeling of not being in complete control over what you mentally consume all the time, a feeling that has become rarer and rarer.

A couple of examples of project books of my own include Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter on the nonfiction side and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco on the fiction side. Each is dense, occasionally deeply frustrating, and immensely rewarding, if you take the time and allow yourself to linger and work. Both have many parts that might inspire you to skim or skip — Hofstadter, the many algorithmic processes that he tells you to puzzle out and play with yourself; Eco, the long historical and theological digressions that go into great depth about obscure controversies of Christian doctrine and the definition of heresies. The very most important rule for these project books is that you don’t give in to your feeling that you should skim or skip. My brain says, Hofstadter will explain the meaning of the algorithm in a moment, so I don’t have to puzzle it out myself. My brain says, my interest in Eco’s book is really the murder mystery, I’m not so interested in the theology. But I shut those thoughts down, and I’m glad I do. I will never get the deeper understanding of what Hofstadter means if I don’t slowly puzzle my way through. The mystery of The Name of the Rose is inextricable from its dense history, and Eco’s intent is for the book to resemble, in the reading, the maze that is the beating heart of its narrative. Now, when I pick that book up, it’s as comfortable as an old shoe, and I know the work was worth it.

There’s lots of books that could be your project books, and only you can decide which qualifies. Any book that you’ve always wanted to tackle, but have been intimidated by, should be a potential contender. Reading the entirety of the Torah or the Christian New Testament, along with one of the many guides and concordances out there, would be an obvious choice. My brother has been reading Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in a five volume edition (four main volumes and one volume of notes), averaging about a volume a year. Awhile back, many people approached David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest as a project. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century would make sense. Like I said, there are many possibilities. Just make sure it’s a book that you want to read, in some sense. It’s okay if a project book is punishing, but it’s not okay if its punitive. It’s work but not a chore.

The best advice for reading a project book, in my opinion, is actually advice for writing a book. Online you’ll find a ton of advice on how to finally write that book. The best of it can be applied to reading a project book. For instance: a little each day. Just as you shouldn’t set yourself a goal of writing five pages every time you sit down to write, you shouldn’t bite off more than you can chew with your project book. Indeed, it’s as important to set a maximum number of pages as it is to set a minimum. Another piece of advice: all writing is rewriting. Well, often, the best reading is rereading. With GEB, I end up rereading a tremendous amount of the text. I have to, in order to really grok what Hofstadter is talking about in a deep sense. That could potentially be discouraging, if I were to keep the long-term goal of finishing in mind, so again, the essential move is to quiet that part of my brain. It takes practice, but it can be done, by anyone.

If you’re a big time reader, you’ll likely have other books that you read more quickly going while you slowly make your way through your project book. I will usually read another five or six books in the time it takes me to read a project book. Again, that’s fine: it exists in a different mental space than my other reading. Also, it’s OK if you stop for awhile! What happens a lot with these big books is that people stop, then feel guilty, then feel like they’ve gone too long without reading to pick it up again. But why would that stop you? If it’s been six days or six months since you last picked it up, you can still go back to it. Go back and reread as needed. It’s not like exercise, where you’re doubly discouraged by the loss of the progress that you had already made. Just dive back in and don’t feel guilty.

Some people will hate on all of this. “You’re doing it wrong” is the internet’s truest, most genuine expression of itself.  For whatever reason, the endless exposure to other people’s minds has made the vague feeling that someone, somewhere, is judging you into the most powerful force in the world. While reading Corey’s piece, I can hear the chattering keys of someone writing a think piece, “Well actually….” I don’t know why we’ve contracted this affliction but I hate it. I hate the urge people feel to deny the legitimacy of other people’s behaviors because they dislike the implied judgment of their own. Anyone who doesn’t want to read shouldn’t. But the notion that any act of serious reading is inherently done for show, to appear smart, is destructive and contrary to human satisfaction. My brother is sometimes loathe to admit that he’s reading Gibbon, because so many people will assume that he’s doing it for show, that he’s a hipster. (The most semantically empty term in the history of human language.) Forget all that noise and read what you want. Going through life restricting what you read because you’re afraid what others will assume about your intentions is– well, it’s almost as bad as going through life, making assumptions and judgments about why other people are reading what they’re reading.

“Pleasure” is a powerful word, and sadly, one that is very often employed in a question-begging way. There are many different kinds of pleasure. Not all book reading is for pleasure; there are many things I’ve read that I had to grit my teeth through, but I’m glad I did, because I became a smarter person in doing so. But I also want to advocate for the kind of pleasure that, sometimes, also asks you to grit your teeth. If we have to justify these less popular pleasures to those that are more celebrated in our current time, then think about a difficult video game you played as a kid. You may have played the same levels  endlessly, repeating the same movements again and again, getting better only incrementally and with great effort. You may have thrown aside your controller and said to yourself, “why is this fun, exactly?” But the payoff of finishing was worth it. And game designers in the indy scene have begun to make that kind of game again, because they remember and miss that kind of pleasure.

Books can be that kind of pleasure too. Some are faster, more directly and easily pleasurable, and I wish that everyone in the world could enjoy the feeling of reading voraciously, of not being able to put a book down. But if that kind of pleasure isn’t coming, you can scratch out another kind, too. Both riding a roller coaster and climbing a mountain can satisfy. The beauty of it is that all of it is for you. So much of what we do now, we do out loud, we do publicly. Reading is one of our last, best private activities, and I think that reading books is a deep and enriching pleasure that many more people could take advantage of and enjoy. Do it for yourself and for no other reason.

39 Comments

  1. Not everything good is easy, and the notion that we must pretend that reading should always be easy because we need to defend it against an array of digital alternatives is an insult to everyone involved.

  2. I read a lot of books, but I can see that online distraction pulls even me away from book-reading. Some things that can keep book-reading viable, in my experience: 1. Insomnia. Welcome that 3 am stare into the dark as an opportunity to read. I love it. When it’s dark out, time doesn’t exist. No one else is conscious. Work cannot be done. It’s time sacred to reading indulgence. 2. Lie about being busy. Always say you have one more deadline than you do. Use the open time gained to sit on the porch and read an entire freakin book. It’s like getting drunk when you were 18. 3. Always carry a book with you (either on an e-reader or in print). You can then be grateful for being on hold, standing in line, slow buses, waiting for tardy friends . . . 4. Allow yourself to skim. Reading is not a duty, it’s a pleasure. So approach it with self-respect and self-indulgence. You can decide what bits you want to burrow into and what bits to skim.

  3. One of the virtues of grad school is that I still have to read a great deal. I appreciate the external disciplining mechanism. One of the frustrations is that when I read for pleasure outside of my research I find myself not finishing what I start.

    It’s probably my memory playing tricks, but I remember being a much better reader when I was in high school. Now, I’m so aware of the great universe of things that I both want and feel obligated to read, that I’ll often find myself 100 or so pages into a book before starting another, forgetting the first for months (by which point I really just need to reread what I’ve already read). So, the inability to focus on one task filters in to how I approach my books. The problem isn’t so much reading regularly–I do that–but reading one thing for long enough.

    This summer I’m trying to make a change–no new books for pleasure until I’m done with The Brothers Karamazov and Rousseau’s Reveries.

  4. Here’s a quote from a section of my book that comes after my advice to read at whim, at the conclusion of a passage on why you might want to take the trouble to read David Hume: “Some forms of intellectual labor are worth the trouble. In those
    times when Whim isn’t quite enough, times that will come to us all, we discover this. Such work strengthens our minds, makes us more capable of concentration, teaches us patience—and almost certainly a touch of humility as well, as we struggle to navigate the difficult (if elegant) terrain of Hume’s prose. But what do we have more need for, in our whirling mental worlds, than strength and concentration and patience and humility? These are virtues worth aspiring to, especially because they lead to new and greater delights.”

  5. Excellent, and well said. The main point needs to be made more often than it is, and about more than reading. It is emerging as a patter of our age. We are abandoning all sorts of labor the rewards of which can be had no other way, but this especially caught my attention: “I don’t know why we’ve contracted this affliction but I hate it. I hate the urge people feel to deny the legitimacy of other people’s behaviors because they dislike the implied judgment of their own.” That whole paragraph is a gem.

  6. Couldn’t agree more, I did exactly that “project book” thing with ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Suttree,’ some of the most memorable reading experiences of my life (not rushing to finish is a relief)

  7. “For whatever reason, the endless exposure to other people’s minds has made the vague feeling that someone, somewhere, is judging you into the most powerful force in the world. While reading Corey’s piece, I can hear the chattering keys of someone writing a think piece, “Well actually….” I don’t know why we’ve contracted this affliction but I hate it.”

    Ugh, I hate it too! But I very much like how you articulated this. I was vaguely aware of it, but you helped to crystallize it for me.

    This phenomenon is in the nature of the internet, I guess, an inevitable result of all the debate and opinionating (which political circles are especially prone to). Airing disagreements is vital, of course, but after a while, the battling over methods and ideas gets so habitual that you forget how to let go and not worry about people naysaying you.

  8. Freddie, I’m curious about your take on the generational issue. Corey, Tim Parks & you are all talking about people who grew up reading, and for whom the pattern of constant interruption is a novel thing that slowly grew in force over their (our, I should say: this is me too) lives. But we remember both the pleasures and the power of sustained, complex reading.

    What about younger people, who grow up with this constant stream of email, twitter, internet, etc?

    I can imagine it either way. Maybe, more used to the background hum, they are better at ignoring when they want to. But maybe they simply never get in the habit of sustained reading — the kind that you and Corey are talking about trying to recover. (Personally I fear that this is true. But I doubt that there’s anything to be done about it: I feel like Plato grumbling that this newfangled thing “writing” is going to destroy people’s memories. Which it did — people used to remember a lot more: it just turned out we could live that way.)

    Anyway, I’m curious about your take on this aspect. You seem to be writing mostly to people who used to read more & longer than they do now. What about people who are growing up native to this brave new world that has such devices in it?

    1. Plato was right, but–in fairness–we get something from writing too. I love the discussion in Phaedrus of the written word and the spoken, but the irony that shoots through the text is just that–it’s written in a text. In a dialogue form. The dialogue preserves the perplexity that we can’t avoid: a text can’t possibly replace the spoken word, because when we speak we know who we are addressing. However, a text can do something the spoken can’t: address people we do not know. Anyway, I feel we’ve gotten off track, but I just like talking about Plato! 🙂

      I worry about my cousins. My parents decided to buy me a cell phone when I was entering college, and I remember telling my parents not to pay for texting, because I didn’t know why I’d need it. What was the point? Needless to say, I went over that first month. I doubtless exaggerate it in my mind, but since then I feel like I’m at war for my attention with the devices in my life. It’s a visceral enough feeling that I trace it to that moment.

      I tell my cousins to read all the time, but to them, I’m just their crazy, old, nerdy cousin. I need to refine my sales pitch.

  9. I once read a dystopian short story in which the future human race was so stupid (in the story it was because of food shortages brought on by overpopulation) that everything had to be made simple. For example, a candy bar from a simplified vending machine would unwrap itself for the buyer.

    If you are right about reading habits, and I think you are, there is a huge amount of human knowledge that will not be accessed in the future because it’s too hard to read and we will rely on Wikipedia-esque gatekeepers to explain history and philosophy. A scary thought.

  10. I changed jobs last year now walk to work in under ten minutes. In my previous job, I spent two hours a day on the train, all of it reading. The hours gained are valuable–it means I can spend more time with my daughter and she’s not in daycare as long. But no question, something was lost.

    Yesterday afternoon, home alone (I too was reading Cormac McCarthy), I came across reference to the La Babicora Hacienda in Mexico, owned by the vile Hearst family. Really, I thought, well, Wiki will clarify that. There I learned that this was indeed true and that WRH once said:

    “I really don’t see what is to prevent us from owning all Mexico and running it to suit ourselves.”

    All fascinating stuff, but 30 minutes later I was no further along in my book. Had I been on the train, I’d have made a note in the back of the book to check when it was completed.

  11. Are there any massive project book type books by women that come to mind? (not meant as snark, I’m just looking to read one!) I guess Middlemarch is in there but I’m not sure that’s the same kind of difficulty.. There must be some good Ulysses/Infinite Jest-type super complicated thousand pagers by female authors I just don’t know about right?

    1. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing is one I’ve been circling for a while, afraid to dive in. Flamethrowers came out last year, and it’s not really a “project book” as I think it’s being defined here, but worth any amount of time it takes to read.

    2. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is a great project book, if you are at all interested in fantasy or Jane Austen. If you like both it is pretty much the best thing since sliced bread. I read it last summer with great pleasure.

    3. Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a wrist-breaker that keeps taunting me from the shelf.

      As far as fiction goes, I think of Woolf immediately, though Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse aren’t exactly massive.

    4. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand is a great one! Even if you don’t agree with all of the politics, it gets you thinking about some big ideas, and it’s really a great fun adventure to boot!

  12. Freddie, I must tell you that I read Name of the Rose a few years ago purely because I stumbled upon your old blog about it (I think that was my first exposure to your writing). And it was truly one of the greatest reading experiences I’ve had. You have my eternal gratitude for getting me to read that book.
    My problem with finding reading time is that I’ve got two small children, which means that by the time they’re in bed and I’ve got some time to myself, I immediately start to nod off. Of course, this is true of trying to watch tv or go online, too. I can’t remember the last time I’ve stayed awake for a full nine innings of baseball. But as a result I’ve found that it’s easier for me to read challenging books of late. When I’m more actively engaged in the act of reading, I’m less likely to fall asleep.
    One thing that’s helped me is to take notes while I go. I recently read Thomas Pynchon’s V. and kept a journal as I read in order to keep track of multiple plot lines and characters. Doing so helped me look for and find connections that I might otherwise have glossed over.

      1. One of my top five books on education, ever, and also helps me to think about questions like “why is it so damn hard to turn off the internet.”

  13. First, two quotes came to mind as I read this piece, both relating to the idea of enjoyment as a legitimate aim. Pauline Kael said, “If art isn’t entertainment, what is it? Punishment?” And W.H. Auden said, “Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible.” Anyway, thanks for this essay – in many ways, it confirmed my own experiences and choices. I’ve been an obsessive reader since childhood (I’m 53 now) and my house is crammed with thousands of books – with more pouring in all the time. During the last decade or so, though, I have had to fight to remain that kind of reader; I’ve had to set goals and impose a discipline on myself, because I know that if I don’t, the central position that reading has always held for me will wither away. (And that means, of course, that the person that I have always been will wither away.) The pressure of the internet in all its froms is enormous – and vanishing, in the sense that we percieve it less and less, precisely because it’s so ubiquitous. I feel it constantly, and I don’t even have a cellphone. I’ve chonsen not to have one because the device is utterly antithetical to the way I want to live my life. It’s not that it wouldn’t be very convienient and useful – I know it would be – but I also know it would be very strong; stronger than I am. That’s the point of a cellphone/tablet etc. – they’re all made to be stronger than we are. The old-fashioned (!) desktop that I’m writing this on is enough of a distraction. If I had the internet in my pocket everywhere, all day long, I know that for me, anyway, it would be a blow that the “bookish” part of me wouldn’t recover from. So, I’ve had to make a hard choice. (That’s another thing the internet tries to tell us will never be necessary, isn’t it?)

  14. Incredible post. Made me want to get started in on another project book.

    One of the most important things about a project book is that a truly good one will teach you that you’re actually smarter than you thought you were. It will frustrate you and make you feel inadequate at first, but when you take it line by line, slowly building up an understanding by piecing it together yourself, you start to realize that you’re more than capable of doing the work and going deep into a subject.

  15. My current project: read all of Flaubert and then read it again. Today I’m into my second reading of “Sentimental Education”. I’m following your advice, even though I hadn’t read it before. Anyhow, Flaubert is one Hell of a literary genius. Every line is worth reading and re reading. Plus, he really invented a style all by himself. He was uncompromising: “The Temptation of St. Anthony” (a play) must have been impossible to produce at the time he wrote it. It still is. It’s just too weird. Weirder than David Lynch, for example. But it’s also hilarious, just like Lynch. Who could have thought of writing a satire on early Church hersies? Who would ever have gone the extra mile by using language that is also deliberately so weird that one rebels against it from the start? Who would ever have the determination and the dedication to art to have spent 40 years writing such a thing? Anyhow, “The Temptation…” is last on my re reading list for Flaubert. It’s just too hard. I’m saving it for my death bed.

  16. As the brother in question, I am relieved that I didn’t get any Freddie-haters comin’ at me, but also a little disappointed not to get any new Goodreads friends.

  17. I read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall simply because it came free with my Kobo e-book, and I’m certainly on the side of the Duke of Gloucester. “Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?”

    The books is ferociously repetitive, and what’s worse Gibbon does not seem to have any grasp of anything that might be a lesson underlying the many many waves of this, that, and the other damn thing. Rather than do some research and some thinking, he just goes on to recount yet one more of the same damn thing that just happened half a dozen times in the previous five hundred years.

    Save your eyes, folks. It’s not worth the time.

    -dlj.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *