An Unusual New Years Resolution
I haven’t made any New Year’s resolutions in many years. I got out of the habit sometime in my 20s when I began to notice I never followed through with any of them (for long). But it was also because I was awful at coming up with things: get in shape, get healthier, read more, make more money, blah blah blah. Even cool trendy things like: stop complaining, meditate more, be more intentional, more authentic, create boundaries, say no more, were all too vague and difficult for me to do.
So why am I making any resolution for this year? I think my last actual resolution was “read my physical books” and I did pretty well. This year it’s going to be along similar lines, but in a totally opposite direction.
I resolve to stop reading so much.
I have an opposite problem to many people, and that is I read too much. Reading is okay, reading is good, but it started to become a time-consuming distraction that began to turn into a burden. No longer would I enjoy a single book by an author, now I had to read their complete works. No longer would I enjoy the act of reading, no, I had to gain everything from it and become much smarter and wiser. I couldn’t read literature for pleasure, I had to read it to become a cultured, educated person. If I wasn’t enjoying something it meant I was falling short of the kind of reader the author wanted, or that I was being too lazy in my reading.
I loved reading short books because it meant I could get to the next super fast. Long books, even when rewarding, took too damn long to read. Why couldn’t it be over already! Oh well, I’ll just speedread it to the end (and get literally NOTHING out of it).
You see, in the end, we all live long enough to see ourselves turn into our own worse enemy. I’ve done a lot of reflecting on my reading and in the past few weeks while I’ve been fighting Covid over the holidays, I realized reading wasn’t bringing me any joy. No joy whatsoever. None. It was now a burdensome job without any pay or reward. Reading should be self-rewarding, one might say, but in my experience even good books are not going to make a difference to your wallet or body or relationships in a way that matters to you. Especially not when all you are attempting to do is get to the next book.
I am reminded here of a post I saw on Reddit where a guy had just finished reading Atomic Habits and then asked what he should read next. My immediate, cynical thought was to “practice whatever the damn book taught you, don’t go onto the next until you’ve done that!” I had gone onto the next a lot when it came to books and I know what’s on the other side, just more of what’s next. That’s one thing when you are watching TV shows, of course you want to move onto what’s next, but with books it should be different. I don’t believe books are meant to be consumed in the way I have been doing so. This is particularly true for me because I haven’t gained much from over a thousand books. Instead, I’ve wasted a lot of time.
I thought reading was a productive use of time, but what I’m doing right now, writing and thinking about what I’m going to write, is a lot better use of time. Reading may give you things, yes, it may, but it is no substitute for using your mind. If you shut off your mind and mindlessly read, you are doing yourself a tremendous disfavor. I was going one step further and shutting off my life in favor of reading. The other day I read four books in one day. Some people might be proud of that or wish they could do that, but I tell you this, I felt like I was wiling away the hours no differently than had I been watching TV. I wasn’t interested in what I was reading (The Anti-Federalist Papers, George F. Kennan’s Memoirs, a Tolstoy novel) because I wasn’t mentally engaged. I was reading the books for them to be done so I wouldn’t have to read them or look at them as unread books in my library. This behavior became a kind of sickness to me.
I really noticed the sickness when I came across a blurb about one of the Vanderbilt’s library. It said something to the effect of, “Yes, Mr. Vanderbilt really read his 10,000 books in his library.” Once upon a time that would have impressed me, but this time it depressed me. Who cares, I thought. He already had loads of money and an enormous mansion and then prematurely died of appendicitis anyway. Of what value were thousands of books to him? Maybe he was like me and used them to wile away the hours because he didn’t know what else to do with himself, or he did know what to do and struggled to do it. And I started to think some more and wonder if all I really wanted to do in life was sit in a chair and read. The thought of sitting in a chair reading day after day began to nauseate me. For the first time in a long time books made me feel sick to my stomach.
This is why I’ve needed the resolution, it just so happened to come at a time of year when we reflect on what we want to accomplish. I realized I want to do things, to make things, to create and use my mind and body, not sit around like an invalid absorbing everything. So I’m modifying my reading habits since I don’t think I can stop reading altogether.
Modified Reading Goals
- I am no longer going to speed read. If I find myself speedreading then I will stop reading the book. The act of jumping into speedreading is a sign that my mind is bored and I don’t even care if I retain what I’m reading, only that I flip the pages to the very end and call the book finished.
- I will stop reading books I don’t like. This has been a struggle of mine for awhile, the inability to put a book down, but I’ve heard from enough readers how glad they are to interrupt and stop a book they aren’t enjoying (I think of Tyler Cowen here). I need to start doing this as well. Why should I care if I stop reading a book I bought for a dollar at a library sale a decade ago, a book I bought on a whim because I thought it would make me smarter? The answer is I shouldn’t care whether or not I stop reading that book in particular, because A) no one cares if I’ve read it; B) I don’t even care if I’ve read it; C) I’m not taking notes or learning anything anyway, what am I possibly losing? Am I insane and think if I speedread this one through to the end I will somehow become smarter? Put. The. Book. Down.
- I will jump straight to the hardest books I’ve been avoiding. If I’m going to read, I may as well be supremely challenged by it. So because of that I am going to start on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I’ve been avoiding it for over a decade. It may not be worth reading. I may stop reading it after 100 pages, but I will stop putting it off in favor of a breezy novel or non-fiction I know I can speedread and not feel bad about it. You see, I fear Kant will make me slow down and think. The Horror of It! Dear God, I writhe and fume at the very thought~! I may actually have to think! It dawns on me that a lot of reading has been done to avoid work and not feel so bad about it.
- I am either going to learn from the book I’m reading, or I’m going to stop. No more fooling myself about it, and this is why I’m going straight to Kant, but if I’m not actually going to get anything out of a book at this point, I don’t want any part of it (unless the book is selected purely for pleasure, but then it also has to deliver on that point as well).
- I will not read to avoid doing other things. This is a biggie. Too much of my free time has been spent in the avoidance of what can really help me out, including getting some real reading done. I’ve done this with chess too, where I’ll avoid 30-minute games, long games meant to help you improve and learn, to play dozens of bullet games, one-minute long blunderfests of joy and rage. It’s easy to get stuck in these ruts where you keep going for the candy-version of something instead of the steak-version. We all know we would prefer the steak-version, but it’s expensive and you have to know how to cook it to really get the benefit. The candy-version goes down easy but gets painful if you have too much and for too long.
The real lesson I am aiming to learn is to get into a mode of life where I’m doing things and not simply passively absorbing and consuming. I even stopped writing on Medium for weeks because I went back to old habits of piling things up and consuming instead of fleshing stuff out and building. 2022 can be a year of taking action, and at this point I’d rather spend time reorganizing a shelf than read. Most people might say they want to get more reading done this year, but they will fall into the same trap as me if they don’t adopt my modifiers, which is, reading will become a time-burning burden if you aren’t careful about the real reason why you want to read in the first place, to gain information and sharpen your mind.