I realise that I may have made it sound like reading fewer books has been a breeze and in a way it has, but there’s another side to the story. Isn’t there always? That’s the power of stories, there’s always more than one thread and more than one perspective and even a single set of events can have multiple interpretations. But I digress. Recently I have found myself thinking a lot about reading more, about slipping back into that habit of guzzling down books one after another, chomping them down as quickly as I can so that I can move on to the next one and the next one and the next one. My list of desired reads keeps on growing, my library list has 38 books on it, my Hive list has 26. At my current pace that’s more than a year’s worth of reading. And there’s more. I recently reorganised my library, I wanted to see if I could even begin to consider limiting my ‘to keep’ collection of books to no more than 50. I also wanted to split out the books I haven’t yet read from the books I have read and which I might want to keep but probably need to be read again. I’m a long way from where I hoped I would be. My absolute must keep list of books numbers around 150, though I could trim that down, but that was without counting poetry or short story collections, or my signed editions or my orange Penguins which I can’t yet bear to consider parting with. My unread books numbered 215 which was not quite as bad as I was expecting. Without buying or borrowing another book I have enough material to keep me going for a many years, but those other books, the books I do not own, are oh so very, very tempting.
Right now I am resisting the urge to pre-order Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, which is being re-published in June. I know I would like to read it, I love The Argonauts, and I could squeeze Bluets into my reading schedule quite easily. But then I also think the same about the books I have borrowed from the library, not to mention those sitting in my living room bookcase which are my top priority reads. I want to buy Bluets, I have come so close to doing so, but so far I have managed to resist.
I keep thinking about how there are so many things I’d like to learn, and how restricting and channelling my reading prevents me from doing so. This is a lie, of course. I can still learn without adding to my reading list. I have thought about how I might allow myself to read educational material on top of my one book per week. Then I thought about how easy it would be to ‘adjust’ my definition of what is ‘educational’ (because most of what I read is, in some form, even if indirectly) so that it encompassed all the non-fiction I want to read. Suddenly I realise it would be so easy to drift back into reading two books a week and it hits me: the reason I decided to restrict my reading in the first place – because I was swamped, because I was absorbing so little of what I read, because I cannot read everything and there will always be books I will not and can not read because I am finite and, perhaps, it is better to absorb the ones I read rather than try to read everything. None of these things have changed, but I realise I have started thinking quite seriously about allowing them to be forgotten, to give myself permission to slip a little bit – a book bought here, maybe the occasional second book in a week, perhaps just trimming back to one book every six days rather than seven. None of these things are the challenge that I set myself, though any of them could have been and there’s an arbitrariness to my choice which is, on occasion, extremely notable. Here I begin to surprise myself at my deviousness, my persuasive skills and the ease with which I defeat myself, all my plans and work and hopes.
I am not going to do any of those things; I will stick to my plan, I am learning too much about myself from just making this one little change and it’s true that what I do read is more meaningful and that I am reading more sparingly but with greater intensity and because of this it is proving a rewarding experience. Restricting my reading has had greater impact than just reducing the number of books I read and buy, I have found myself living more deliberately in other aspects of my life and I am starting to feel like an intended rather than a habitual person and this is all so good. I have found time to do other things like winemaking or gardening, and I have more thinking and reflecting time which is almost as valuable as meditation in helping me unwind. Yet it would be wrong to present this scaling back as entirely easy. It is so tempting to slide back into those comfortable habits, the habits that did not form in a vacuum. Perhaps, after nearly four months of reading more slowly, this is the time when it becomes most challenging, where I am most vulnerable, and I could so easily say ‘I have achieved this, I have nothing more to prove’ and go back to how things were before. I think that would be a mistake, and I won’t allow myself to do it. Instead I am working on strategies. Writing this is one of them. Before I borrow a book or buy one I try to test myself, I say ‘no, put it to one side and if you still want it next week then perhaps you can buy/borrow it then’ and most times I find that the urge slips away and the next week I no longer desire it in the same way. Sometimes I do, if I do I might add it to one of my lists. Not buying books has proven to be one of my success stories. I keep a journal. I have done this in the past though patchily, but now my journal has become a kind of strengthening tool. In it I write down my desires, my weaknesses, my needs and wants and then I rationalise them. I tell myself to be proud of what I’ve achieved so far, and that I can keep it up. I can keep it up for a year and then I can decide if I want to make another change then, but if I do I will be doing so having broken the habit and having, in so far as it is possible, not permitted myself to slip. It is, I think, a little like meditation. The mind wanders, you can’t help it, but when you meditate you make an effort to notice and gently encourage your mind back to the present, to stay focused on the moment. I feel like my effort to read less is like that. It’s like a meditation, but with books. My mind wanders, I desire more and more, but I gently encourage myself to focus back on the present. Just this book, this one, and when I’ve given it enough attention and time then I can move on to the next one.