Diet, Exercise, Read More

Reading turns up so many new year’s resolutions. Why is that?

January 4, 2016

Before the break, Joshua Kim challenged us to share what we read in 2015. I didn’t, because I wasn’t done reading yet, and I don’t keep terrific records, though I try to note down the books I’m reading at LibraryThing, mainly so I can remember if I’ve read a book already and what I thought about it. After I return a book to its memory-shelf, almost all of it vanishes within days. In the case of fiction, there’s a little dust left from the characters, some grainy bits of mood, maybe a torn bit of a picture taken during a memorable scene. Non-fiction leaves an incomplete citation and a few crumpled bits of metadata. So taking a few notes helps.*

I noticed a funny thing this year. Lots of new year’s resolutions include “read more” along with the usual “lose weight” and “exercise regularly.” I have yet to see the resolution “watch more television,” even though we are arguably in a golden age for the little screen. I also haven’t seen “read more 19th century Russian novels” or “read all the stuff in my Norton Anthologies that wasn’t assigned reading.” It’s usually just reading, full stop. We read more than ever, of course, even when we’re not “reading,” as Jackson Bliss argues in the Daily Dot. But I’m pretty sure those resolutions have nothing to do with 140-character messages on Twitter, Facebook updates, or even news stories that we read on our phones while waiting in lines. Those don't count, and they're bad for us, besides.

While I’m always ready to argue for the benefits of reading – there’s plenty of evidence that it’s good for your brain, enhances empathy, and exposes us to places and ideas we might not encounter otherwise – I’m amused that it’s treated like eating your vegetables, even when you gobble a shelf of books that offer less intellectual challenge than a single episode of The Wire.

As a new year starts, I’m seeing lots of lists like Joshua’s – every book read in 2015, sometimes with colored charts and even word counts. This list-making has gone on for a long time, but social platforms like LibraryThing make it easier. Goodreads (which Amazon acquired in 2013) encourages making and sharing book lists. Displaying your book tastes is a way of expressing identity, including your aspirational self. The good-for-you reputation of reading coupled with Amazonian excess encourages a kind of fitbit approach: count every page turned, read more, read faster, be a better person, when not anxiously watching your numbers. It also encourages acquisitiveness; many digital TBR lists include thousands of books because all it takes is a click to add one - plus several lifetimes to read them all.

On the other hand, some avid readers use the end of the year to analyze patterns in reading and share recommendations. Amy McLay Paterson did a great job of this in an essay at Vox. She looks at her list and concludes that we need a publishing industry that is more inclusive of underrepresented voices; so many of them are so good. Your should read A Little Life even if it wrecks you, but skip Go Set a Watchman. If you're looking for a book recommendation, she has you covered, but don't make reading a competition or a chore. Her resolution: read fewer books and enjoy them more.**

Hugh McGuire, whose professional life revolves around book publishing and sharing audiobooks*** has recently confessed at the San Francisco Chronicle that he only read four books in 2014 because he felt his brain had become too addicted to the dopamine of distraction. He made some resolutions to combat that problem (primarily setting aside time and devices for a good chunk of the day) and declares himself on the road to recovery. “I have more energy and focus than I’ve had for ages,” he writes. “I think reading books is helping me retrain my mind for focus.”

He probably reads harder books than I do. I have no trouble focusing on books, and couldn’t do without them. It induces mild panic if I don’t have an emergency book handy, particularly in the evening. I need to sink into an alternate reality to leave my own behind at bedtime. But my focus is a temporary hypnosis. Time snaps its fingers a few weeks later and I can’t remember where I was or what I was doing in that world. I have no idea what embarrassing things the hypnotist may have involved me in.

But I don’t count how much I read or aspire to read more, and none of my reading pleasures are guilty.  



*I have some notes about my top ten crime fiction reads at my blog if that genre floats your frigate, along with a new year’s resolution that has nothing to do with diet, exercise, or reading more.

**This article kicked up a small kerfuffle on Twitter because of a pull quote chosen by the editor. If you have students interested in graduate study in library and information studies, counsel them to avoid saying "I love to read." Though loving to read or loving books shouldn't be counted against you, it can signal that an applicant has chosen librarianship as a cozy retreat from the world, so causes an unintended and strongly negative reaction. Keep it secret! Reading widely is enormously helpful for many roles in public libraries, but so is the capacity to teach technology, troubleshoot networks, wrangle budgets from city councils, deal with mentally ill people kindly and effectively, and clean up whatever that mess is in the bathroom. In academic libraries, loving to read isn't particularly relevant and has to be done on your own time, just like other people. Incidentally, the author of that article could be helped to achieve her dream of reading less if somebody would give her a steady full-time job instead of having to resort to the part-time contingent labor that's all the rage these days. But then she may have less time for writing essays, and that would be sad.

***For the record, I’m on team “read” when it comes to which verb to use with audiobooks, even though I have never read a complete audiobook in my life. For whatever reason, I prefer to use my eyes rather than ears, even though being read to in grade school was blissful. I wonder if our teachers smirked a little inside when 30 children begged for one more chapter. Mission accomplished.


Back to Top