For the Love of Books

By

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.

Artwork Credit:
“Book Pile XXII” by Ephraim Rubenstein


5 Comments

  1. Thomas Leonard

    @tleonard

    Thank you for this piece Maria, I constantly need to be reminded that it’s ok not to have read all the books I’ve bought (let alone those others suggested that I don’t have time for). Stopping to turn aside, to sit with a beautiful piece of prose of poetry is so worth it but I too often feel a pressure to move on quickly.

  2. Mary

    I’ve felt bad because I’m also a writer and most people advise (rightly so) to read frequently. More recently I have come to realize that reading slowly and selectively is okay and that I draw from other resources (mostly listening and observing) to develop my writing. This encourages me that I’m not being a bad writer or reader, but someone who reads well.
    Here is an example of how I read. Last year I was reading through a large anthology of Seamus Heaney and I was only about six poems in when I came to “Mid-Term Break.” I had read the poem before, but it struck me so hard this time with emotions that I sat for a while in the quiet. The emotion reverberated through me, and I considered that I should “keep reading” but I realized that Heaney had written that poem to give me that experience and I needed to respect that. So I closed the book and let the poem linger. It was one of my most precious reading experiences because it wasn’t driven by the need to “read more.” I was reading more deeply, and enjoying a piece in a way I would not have if I moved on.

  3. Barbara Wierzba

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! This was balm for my reading soul. My reading friends seem frenzied to read everything and I can so easily get caught up in that frenzy. I so appreciate your reminder to linger. Time to pull out some of my old friends.

  4. I.J. Henry

    @i-j-henry

    I have always thought that re reading a book was mostly a waste of time. Even if I didn’t fully understand what I had read I would just tell myself “well you read the story and you have the general plot, so your good.” this really is probably what I needed to hear because recently I have been on the fence for whether or not I should re read the space trilogy by C.S. Lewis. I hope to find deeper meaning when I am able to go through the trilogy again.

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