A terrible year for reading
It's fine to have a bad year of reading because reading isn't inherently moral or good.
I love to read. I always have. That’s basically the whole point of this newsletter. For the past five years or so, I’ve read about 80 books a year. Sometimes more, sometimes a little less. This year, I barely hit 50. I started more than that. I probably tried to read 100 books this year. I picked them up from the stacks of unread books that litter my apartment, and tried to focus. I flipped them open and read a few pages and put them down again. I left the bookmarks in them optimistically as if I could return to them at any moment. Being a reader is partially a habit. For example, I still put a book in my tote bag when I am going on a rare errand even though there is literally nowhere I could be where I could read in public. I still pick up a book each morning, but most days now I put it back down and scroll on my phone instead.
Jess Zimmerman wrote a really good blog yesterday at Electric Lit titled “It’s Okay If You Didn’t Read This Year.” In all, it’s a reassuring blog. I do feel sad that I haven’t read as many books this year as I would normally in a similar way to being sad that I couldn’t see my sister this year. I like to do things I love and it sucks to not do them. This graf in particular stuck out to me:
“Stress, maybe especially the kind of stress we’ve all been going through where everything seems like the end of the world, also wrecks your equanimity and sense of proportion: being unable to read, if you’d previously thought of yourself as a reader, makes you feel monstrously guilty for what seems, to your addled brain, like a towering failure. You can’t read, so you are ashamed, so you can’t read, so you are ashamed.”
Something that struck me while reading this, though, is that reading is one of the only forms of cultural consumption that we could write this story about. We might assume someone is boring or annoying if they didn’t watch any television or movies this year, but we wouldn’t assume they needed reassurance about it. Though of course there is a distinction to be made about not doing something by choice and not doing something because you physically can’t manage it. But why does reading feel different? Or why do we want it to?
Unlike a lot of cultural consumption, you can’t passively consume a book. A lot of people (writers in particular) mistake the necessary attention required to read a book as some kind of moral good that makes people who read books better than people who, say, watch TikTok on their phone. This isn’t true. Any culture can change how you think about the world. Any culture can be impactful for individuals and almost no culture (no matter how “important” or “brilliant”) reaches enough people in this age without monoculture to truly and radically change the mindset of a culture.
Books, though, do require a kind of active attention in that you cannot look at your phone while you read, which you can do while you watch television or sports or movies. I do suspect, though, that this is part of what makes audiobooks so popular, that they do not require you to hold a physical book and focus all of your attention on it. You can do the dishes while an audiobook plays. But then there are elitists who say “well that’s not really reading,” as if it is the act of your eyes scanning a page of little ink bubbles that constitutes a book, as if gatekeeping the way people consume stories will make them more important.
You don’t have to read. No one has to read. I sometimes wonder, when I am in a bad mood, if part of why people don’t get as excited to talk about books and literature as they do about other forms of culture is because we have made “reader” a noun. I wonder if the melding of our identity into actions is one that is ultimately harmful. Most things, after all, that children make part of their identity, they grow out of. Very few of us become astronauts or pro-football players. There’s something kind of beautiful about the fact that you can read your whole life, that you can stay a reader. But it’s only beautiful if you can hold that separate from who you are as a person. Reading is not you. Reading is not me. Reading is something we do because we like it.
One thing that really concerns me about the future of literature is the conflation (by many prominent authors online) of morality with the consumption of a cultural product. Reading books does not make you a good person, regardless of how many people say that reading gives you empathy. There are a lot of really, really, terrible people who read a lot and a lot of really good people who don’t read at all. Reading is a hobby. It is something we do (outside of class assignments) because we enjoy it. Of course, if you think reading does make a person moral and good then yeah, sure, it’s a big problem that you didn’t read this year as you’re certainly on a slippery slope to becoming a terrible person.
I’m losing the thread of this thought, and maybe it will find me later, but no one should feel bad about not reading as much in a year because reading itself isn’t an inherent good. No one should feel guilty about choosing to watch television or 700 memes on TikTok over reading a book. Maybe sadness is appropriate. But we all need to cut ourselves some slack this year and every year. The point of being a human isn’t to optimize your existence every moment of your life until you achieve Ultimate You.
You shouldn’t feel shamed into reading. Don’t! Read if you want to. Maybe 2021 is a year where we can all learn to be a little more forgiving of ourselves about our reading habits, and much more willing to quit books that don’t hold our attention.
Last night, I read almost 100 pages of a book and it felt like a miracle. I used to do that many times a week, but all year it’s been lost from me. Several times this year, I’ve felt like my ability to read is back for good, but it always pops up, allows me to read a couple of books, and disappears again. Maybe next year, it will come back for longer. Maybe I’ll be able to read every weekend again. Or maybe it won’t for a little while. I’ll be okay.
Happy end of 2020! As is tradition I will be sending out my Top 10 books of the year to subscribers only on Friday as End of the Year Lists are Bad.
Next week, I will do a little State of the Union for this newsletter. I hope you are all doing well, and staying home and staying safe. As always, if you’re reading anything great, please do let me know. Also if you’re watching anything that makes you feel light and good, please let me know that too!
Drawing is by Edgar Degas (a bad man) and titled “Woman Reading a Book”