We’re nearly two-thirds of the way through the year and it feels like a good time to take a step back and reflect on how my experiment with slower reading is going. When I set out on this enterprise at the beginning of the year I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought I’d really struggle with it, I was so used to swallowing books down and moving onto the next one, sometimes reading more than one book at a time, that I was sure it’d be really hard to focus my attention on just one book and not feel tempted to move on as soon as I’d finished. That wasn’t my experience at all. Sure I was still tempted by books (that was never going to wear off easily) but having decided to devote at least a week to each book I found that I stopped rushing and stopped thinking about what I wanted to read next. Not buying books became pretty easy too. If I could only read a maximum of four or five books in a month, it became pretty easy to see how fruitless it was to add another book to that list. When would I read it? If I came across a book I thought I’d be interested in, it was satisfying enough to put it on a list and if I really wanted it I could come back to it at some point. Slowing my reading also had some surprising side effects. I found myself thinking more carefully about many things, not just reading. Having quashed one impulse, it became easier to quash others. It felt like slowing down my reading had been the catalyst for some positive change in my life.
That’s not to say it’s not been without difficulty. Temptation waits for those moments when your defences are at their lowest. There have been times when I’ve wanted nothing more than to read unguardedly, without any restrictions. When I’ve wanted to guzzle my book and guzzle down the next and the next and the next. It is hard to hold yourself back when your own resolve is the only barrier and the goal itself seems arbitrary and unnecessary. I have, at times, succumbed to my desire to own a book but I’ve stayed fairly tightly controlled and have tried to read any books I’ve bought straight away so I don’t accumulate yet another stack of TBRs. I have regretted only one of my purchases (so far) and my buying numbers this year are still in single figures which is extraordinary considering my previous habits. I can walk into a bookshop and be satisfied just looking. There have been times when I’ve been intensely dissatisfied with my reading experience, struggled to settle on a book. None of this is unusual, but when your reading is restricted it feels more intense.
Recently I’ve found myself slipping. Partly this is because I’ve been under a bit of pressure and partly it’s down to complacency. I thought I’d cracked it, but I’d just slipped back into not really thinking about it which was exactly what I didn’t want to do. I’ve bought a few books, and I’ve been borrowing more and more books from the library. I always said I would continue to use the library, but I have three library books at the moment and another reservation on the way. That’s a month’s worth of reading, a month when I won’t read any of the books I already own. And it bespeaks a whimsicalness in my reading choices which is one of the things I wanted to defeat. I don’t want, anymore, to be at the mercy of desire and impulse. It sounds a bit weird to say this about reading, but if I’ve learned anything from this experiment it is that being at the mercy of desire and impulse in one part of your life makes you more susceptible to it elsewhere. Reading is, perhaps, the area of my life in which I am most susceptible, perhaps because I have always seen reading as such a positive and laudable activity. But is it? I think there is great benefit it reading, it is one of the best ways to spend time, but when it’s a sticking plaster, or an easy avoidance technique, perhaps it’s not as laudable as it first might appear. When I’ve been listening to the Minimalists recently, they’ve talked a lot about ‘pacifiers’: things we do and surround ourselves with so we don’t have to confront what we really want from life. Our comfort blankets. Sometimes reading feels to me like a pacifier. It is a great way of spending time until it’s used up. No one ever criticizes you for it. In the meantime, other things that need your attention are effectively avoided. And it’s okay to have comfort blankets, and it’s okay to use pacifiers, and there are infinitely worse things to do than reading, but reading thoughtlessly was one of my behaviours I wanted to defeat. I just lost track of it a little bit.
I’ve realised that what I want more than anything is to reintroduce more intentionality into my life. I spend too much time being pulled hither and thither by this and that – the news, this exciting book, that recommendation, this interesting article, that situation that annoys or outrages me. I have come to a realisation of the finiteness of life, or more specifically the finiteness of my energy and attention. If I don’t direct it, it will be directed for me. I don’t want absolute control, just more control. If I read a book in a day I want it to be because I’ve chosen to do so for the pleasure of it (and it is a pleasure) and not out of compulsion or habit. I want it to be a treat, not because it’s just what I always do.
In a way the blog doesn’t help. I don’t have a huge readership, which is a good thing, but I do feel like I should post something once a week. This is something I need to revisit. The blog is secondary to the reading. I enjoy writing it, I enjoy sharing my experiences of books and I still love reading about what other people are reading. But perhaps I need to get myself comfortable with the idea that I blog only when I have something worth sharing and not to a timetable.
I haven’t completely gone off the rails, and perhaps this little lapse has been a good experience because it has highlighted to me more forcefully both the point of starting this in the first place and the underlying need that motivated it. When things go wrong, even if only slightly, it’s an opportunity to take a step back and revisit and reaffirm your priorities. I think I needed this reminder. So I will take those books back to the library, and I will stop reserving new ones. I will delete most of the books from my list. I have hundreds of books available to me, books that I was sure, at one point, that I wanted to read. If I don’t want those books that I add to my lists to suffer the same fate I must find a way to reignite whatever it was that convinced me to buy those books in the first place. I realise I need to add some dimensions to my reading experiment. I need to reinvigorate that intentionality that I was trying to achieve in the beginning. And I think I need to look more carefully at my shelves and rediscover the magic that’s already there.
I’m still glad that I embarked on this experiment. I have learned a lot more about myself over the past few months. I have absorbed almost everything I’ve read, and I’ve had some extraordinary reading experiences. I don’t feel deprived, in fact I feel enriched. Every book has received my focused attention, and considering how much effort goes into writing a book that feels like a respectful way to respond to the writer’s efforts. I am not just devouring their work, I’m savouring it. And I feel like I can take on those works that a more challenging, longer or denser as long as I can convince myself to forget about this little writing corner for a little bit. I know many people can read prolifically and still do these things, still manage an interesting and vibrant blog, but I’ve realised that I can’t. And it’s good to have learned that. If I hadn’t given myself the space and the thinking time to do so, I might never have.