Monthly Archives: June 2013

Too Many Words, Not Enough Time

I’ve always been a dedicated book lover. But now that it’s summer, I’m starting to reevaluate the way I spend my free time, particularly with regard to books. Lifehacker has an article detailing the symptoms of my self-diagnosed literary malady:

Ever find yourself feeling guilty because you put a book down halfway through? You’re still on the third level of that game you bought a year ago? Or maybe you left a movie in the middle of it? The guilt’s a strange feeling, and it’s not as much about the lost money as you’d expect. Here’s what’s going on when you’re feeling that odd guilt.

Writer Thorin Klosowski quotes an article in the Wall Street Journal on this “book guilt” via an interview with clinical psychologist Matthew Willhelm:

Certain types of people are more likely to push through a book. Dr. Wilhelm theorizes that people with competitive, Type-A personalities might be more likely to abandon a book because they tend to be motivated by reward and punishment, and “if there are no consequences or public recognition, why finish?”

Conversely, he says more laid-back, Type-B personalities may never start a book they know they won’t finish. The more important motivator of finishing a book, says Dr. Wilhelm, is social pressure, which is why book clubs are so good at getting readers to the epilogue.

I’m not sure where I fall along this spectrum, but I’m probably somewhere in the middle. I often juggle too many books at a time (I’ve done this since childhood) and try to get through them all simultaneously, even if it’s a painstaking process; when I keep that impulse in check, though, I’ll likely default to that second category, too weary to even begin. But I’ve come up with a few key strategies that have helped me establish healthier reading habits:

1. Abandon a book whenever necessary, but make a mental note of its successes.  For example, I started David Grossman’s “To the End of the Land” last fall, but found myself trudging through some of the middle chapters. I decided it wasn’t worth the fight, despite that I’d heard wonderful things about Grossman’s deft linguistic skills later on in the novel. I cut my losses and focused on recalling the rich opening chapter, which left me feeling satiated—what with its descriptions of feverish love in an Israeli hospital and a long-lost, barely remembered friend—to put the rest of the book aside.

2. Slow down and be humble. Viewing both fiction and non-fiction books humbly helps me relax my mind, keep my neurons flexible, and see writers not just as people who serve their readers, but as intentional humans whose work is intensely important to them. It’s not about the number of articles or stories I’ve read—it’s about allowing a few words a day to move you from Point A to Point B, immersing yourself in someone else’s world, and trusting in that person’s ability to teach you things you don’t yet know.

3. Sell unwanted books. It was hard for me, but yesterday I sold seven or eight of my books to the Harvard Bookstore in Harvard Square, which gave me $10.20 in return. Not much, but I felt so much better knowing that I could start fresh and open up some real estate in my apartment for books that I actually want to read. Alternatively, you could donate your books to your local library, or give some away to a friend.

4. Think expansively. As a recent college grad, this is the first time in my life that I’ve been able to develop a sense of identity around what I read (in high school and college I was consumed by academic expectations and hadn’t begun to assemble a sense of what was truly important to me). We can choose to be daunted by all this possibility, or we can feel liberated by it—perhaps by making a game out of selecting what spine to crack open next. We can spend more than a few seconds “judging a book by its cover”—an act that’s needlessly taboo, in my opinion. Sometimes it’s fun to ponder a cover’s typography, texture, and overall style in an effort to predict what kind of an experience it will lend its reader. I also frequently refer to Maria Popova’s review of “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” for advice on how to navigate the sea of undevoured words. Of course, I haven’t read the book itself… oh, how wonderfully meta.

Of course, for me all of this means being more efficient with my online reading time, too. Everyone’s abuzz lately about Google Reader’s demise and what’s going to replace it [The New Yorker]; I’ve switched over to Feedly because it doesn’t urge me to mark articles as “read,” it doesn’t beckon me when I’m trying to work, and it’s much more aesthetically pleasing than Google Reader ever was. The way we deal with information overload has a huge impact on how we actually conduct our daily lives, and I’m convinced that carefully managing our content digestive processes is the only way to alleviate all this anxiety over what to read.

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