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.