In the last week of December, it seemed like half of the book-reading public was on social media feeding hashtags like #95books and #ReadingChallenge, ignoring their families to madly skim the last 10 books that would allow them to hit their Goodreads goal. While I respect goal-setting and accountability, watching so many people apply a sense of duty to something I enjoy as much as reading made me a bit sad.
Perhaps counterintuitively, I think the reason why I end up reading so much is that I don’t keep track. Eyeing my shelves and piles and iBooks history, I think I come pretty close to a hundred a year. Quite a bit more, if I include comics — and I certainly will, because they’re a key part of my reading life, which is a hodgepodge that also includes crime novels and political biographies, nature memoirs and contemporary fiction, and anything else that appeals to me as I discover it. I try to read the way I read as a kid: without rules and under no sense of obligation to anyone but myself, reaching for the books that I will enjoy the most. Learning happens to be a side effect, but it’s rarely my motivating goal.
Too often, we treat reading like homework — an exercise for building focus and willpower in the digital age. By extension, books become an analog solution for our distractible, too-plugged-in 21st-century brains.
In one of the last books I read last year, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, the historian Leah Price challenges today’s tendency to regard books as virtuous remnants of a “monolithic printed past…with which to beat our digital present.” We’re not going to find the answer to reading ‘better’ by looking backward because, according to Price, people’s reading habits haven’t necessarily changed over time. Throughout the history of the printed word, readers have skimmed, multitasked, and adjusted to changing formats. I see this as proof that reading isn’t an activity that becomes a practical self-improvement tool when done correctly — because it can’t be done correctly.
The pressure to read “correctly,” whatever that means, can get in the way of reading at all. Unfortunately, too…