DE-RE-PRIORITIZING READING

I’m a reader, and always have been. I’m proud to identify myself as such, and have written here and elsewhere of my love of reading. I’ve listed my favorite science fiction and fantasy books. I maintain a presence on GoodReads, where I share the books I’m reading, have read, and plan to read. I read at least a little every day.

But that’s the problem: a little.

I want to read more—I need to read more.

You must read this book.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King writes about the importance of reading for writers. He says he has a book with him at all times, and fills all the little cracks in his day with books. I love that. I agree wholeheartedly with that. If you don’t read, you have no business writing. And thanks to the free Kindle app on my expensive smart phone, I also carry a book around with me wherever I go. So, I should be filling all those little cracks in my day with books. But am I?

Alas, no. Well . . . not really.

My very first post here, on July 7, 2009, was called I Spent My Bonus On Books, and in it, I listed the books I bought with my Hasbro bonus. I joked that I should have them all read by the time I’m 80. That was more than two years ago, and I am not even close to 80 yet, but of those ten books, I have read four. The other six are still on shelves, waiting.

Since then I’ve blogged over and over again here and at Grasping for the Wind—so often I’m sure it’s become tiresome—about the number of books I buy in a year and the ever-increasing stacks of unread books that fill my house. Wait, I need to call them as-yet-unread books!

During my Christmas vacation in 2006 I went around the house and counted up all my as-yet-unread books and came up with this frightening figure: 749.

I had started keeping a book journal at the beginning of 2005 and in that year I read only 27 books (not counting all the books I read for work), then only 19 in 2006. On December 27, 2006 I figured that if I read an average of 23 books a year, it would take me 32 years, 6 months to read those 749 as-yet-unread books, which means I’ll be all caught up somewhere in my 75th year. And that’s assuming I do not buy a single new book until somewhere around the middle of 2038.

Well . . . yikes.

That exercise only gave me a fleeting feeling that maybe I buy too many books, before I rejected the concept of “buying too many books” out of hand—that’s crazy talk—and instead determined to do one thing: READ MORE!

I love this book, but it should count as at least two, maybe three...

I put that on my New Year’s Resolutions in 2009, and I’m happy to report that I made some serious headway in that respect. . . . after a particularly weak showing in 2007, that is: only 14 books (but one of those was Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and it was right about there that my job got insanely busy, and other nonsense excuses), in 2008 still only 15, then a small increase to 22 in 2009, then after publically making that resolution in December 2009 I kicked it into high gear and read 51 books in 2010, and that wasn’t only because I got fired from my job halfway through the year. If anything, that only increased the danger that I would fall into the TV trap entirely, but no, I still read more . . . 46 books so far in 2011 and we’re not done with the year quite yet.

So at 51 books in 2010 I was reading damn near a book a week—only one off, actually. I think that’s about as much as a busy human with a family and a job and platinum cable and a PS3 should be expected to read. If I can read 52 books a year, I must be doing something right. And if I still have 750 books to read (oh, I did not stop buying books, my friends!) then I still have over 14 years’ worth of books to read. For the record, I will be only 61 instead of 75, and we all know that 60 is the new 40, so . . . that . . . doesn’t have anything to do with it.

Hmm.

I started writing this thinking I wasn’t setting aside enough time every day to sit and read. But if I’m averaging a book a week, what am I complaining about? I’m doing okay.

This year, I plan to do that as-yet-unread book census again, to see where I am five years later. Do I have fewer than 749 books still on deck? I bet I have more. I wonder how many books I’ll have to read every year to get that down to 10 years’ worth? If it’s still around 750, well, then, that’s 75 books a year, or about one book every five days. Challenging. Still, it’s a cinch that I’ll die with at least a few hundred books I haven’t read yet. How sad.

But here’s a question: By doing all this obsessive-compulsive thinking and counting and blogging and listing, am I sucking all the joy out of reading? Should I actually stop trying to make reading a to do list item, and just, y’know, read?

Do I need psychological help?

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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5 Responses to DE-RE-PRIORITIZING READING

  1. Mark Matlock says:

    I loved this post! And how true it is to have so many deserving-to-be-read books around, and not enough time to read them. I, too, tend to count, list-make, and such (much to my wife’s amusement), but I find that helps me achieve my goals. Or at least, that’s what I tell myself. Good luck on your reading goals, and to the rest of us, as well!

  2. Oh my! I sneak books into every crack of the day, but I still have tons of to-be-read books. If I stopped to count them, I’d just go crazy. Give up the whole math part and just read.

  3. koleoptero says:

    You’ve read more than me, and I don’t have a family or pretty much anything else to occupy my time at the moment, so congrats to you sir. Although the books I’ve read this year were admittedly larger than the usual.

    You can’t read every book you come upon though, that’s just crazy, there are too many of them.

    As for a writer reading, I can see how it’s a good thing, but spending all your free time reading? Wouldn’t it be better to find some way to also empty your mind of words once in a while? I think it would. But I have no experience so it’s just a thought.

  4. Craig says:

    Hilarious post… I think anyone who comes here probably has a similar experience / problem.

    For me, it has only got worse since I bought a kindle. It’s just far too easy to buy books there, cheaply, and the one-click buying doesn’t give you much time to talk yourself out of it.

  5. Love it! And now I have an urge to go count all my own “as-yet-unread” books.

    Generally speaking I only get a chance to read a chapter or two in bed at night — sometimes! — so my book-reading is very slow. Occasionally I’ll start into a book so page-turnery that I’ll put my life on hold and read it in a day or two. But that’s rare. Mostly it’s no more than one book every few weeks.

    I don’t understand those who can read a book a day. I just don’t get it. How is this possible? They say they speed read, but to me that’s the same as skipping over the text and not really enjoying it — a bit like gulping down a burger as you’re rushing out the door and grabbing a fistful of fries while dashing down the street. You get the general taste and you get the job done, but you can’t possibly savor it.

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