Not too long ago, The Atlantic explored the phenomenon of people who do Goodreads reading challenges: Start with a set number of books you want to read in a year. Track how well you’re meeting your goal and see if you make it into the elite percentage of people who manage to read something like fifty books over the course of 365 days. Read to improve and prove yourself. Seeing this, I was reminded of a friend who always felt an unrelenting urgency to read more and faster. “How many books would you say you’ve read so far this month?” she’d anxiously ask, wanting to see how she compared.
Whenever someone asks me how much I’ve read in a year, my answer is, “I honestly don’t know.” I’ve never kept a list of all the books I’ve read, even though my mother often urged me to do so in middle and high school. I couldn’t give you any sort of statistics on how many books I’ve finished or how many pages I go through in a day. Sometimes I can’t even recall the titles of all the books I’ve read in a calendar year.
But I’m completely unashamed of this because I believe reading ought to be an adventure and a love affair rather than a test of willpower or a self-improvement regimen. It’s best experienced when it is gloriously unproductive, a way to simply awaken the imagination and intellect and forget oneself.
Disengaging with the daily, anxious drive to always do more is truly challenging. We all want to feel good about ourselves, to have concrete proof that we’re “getting things done.” We have a unique tendency in our age to make everything about data, statistics, and self-optimization: how will this activity make me as smart, strong, interesting, knowledgeable as it is possible for me to be while fulfilling my productivity quota? It’s tempting to turn books into signposts pointing to how we’ve got everything together. But leisure reading provides an opportunity to forget about all that—to escape the demanding stranglehold of perpetual productivity and breathe for a while.
Would you bring your children to an art museum and tell them to look at as many paintings as possible in the hour you’re there? Or would you ask them to sit and observe, letting their imaginations roam in front of whatever work happens to entrance them? In the same way, literature asks for a lingering, thoughtful look, the deep concentration of a person fully immersed in the type of treasures only it can offer. The whole book—from the words written within it to the cover art to the feel of the spine under our fingers—is meant to be savored. It’s a beauty to rest in and reflect on, not a mountain to be conquered.
Revel in the glory of losing yourself rather than frantically trying to find yourself.Maria Bonvissuto
Focusing on “productive” reading habits also discourages re-reading. Nobody who’s trying to meet a reading goal has time to indulge in that. Few things are more satisfying, though, than coming to know a story by heart, sinking comfortably into worn pages and lines that welcome you like an old, familiar friend. It’s a reunion that may be bitter or sweet, but one that always offers you something deeper, if you’re willing to spend time on it. Some of my old friends are Augustine’s Confessions, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. A roommate of mine is making a goal of re-reading all her old books from middle and high school, like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson.
“An unliterary man,” C. S. Lewis once wrote, “may be defined as one who reads books once only. . .We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.”
Wonder can’t be rushed. The writing of centuries of human civilization transcends our own immediate, temporal goals. Truly fruitful reading brings us out of the temporal realm, towards truth and humility. Books shine a light on all we don’t know, awaken our ache for beauty, and quicken the creative impulse in each one of us.
Books are a way for us, in some very small way, to participate in the gratuitous nature of God’s love. By reading for leisure, we can learn how to enjoy something for its own beauty, for the reality that it reveals to us. When the experience of reading is reduced to how much we can get through or how much information we can acquire, we lose this transcendent dimension.
To anyone who makes their New Year’s resolution to “be better about reading,” I say bravo—but please, don’t lose the forest for the trees. Don’t make reading into a chore that needs to be plugged through as fast as possible because it’s “good for you” like eating your broccoli is good for you or doing more reps at the gym is good for you. Engage with the written word slowly, savor it, and let the beauty or sorrow or bewilderment of it whisk you away for a while. Revel in the glory of losing yourself rather than frantically trying to find yourself.
We’re all painfully aware of the struggle these days to believe that simply being is enough and that we’re not defined by what we accomplish. Let’s preserve reading as a sacred realm for ourselves and our children, untouched by the frantic demands of merit and work. Forget the reading challenge and take your own sweet time.
“Book Pile XXII” by Ephraim Rubenstein