What is worth reading?

6

October 1, 2013 by Julia

We can probably all agree that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is better for our souls than the latest tabloid magazine; it’s like comparing a locally grown, freshly prepared gourmet dinner (paired with the perfect wine) to a bag of Doritos. So then, why is it so much easier to crash on the couch with Star magazine?

“Easy,” I believe, is the key word here. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

But I’ve been reading novels with less frequency than I used to, and I feel kind of…bad. Unhealthy, incomplete.

To put it bluntly, reading blogs is getting in the way of reading novels. Every night I carry my I-pad mini up to bed, along with whatever novel I’m in the middle of, with big plans to spend equal time with both. But nine times out of ten, I reach for the I-pad first, and then before I know it, it’s midnight and I have to get up in six or seven hours. The novel just gets carried around, not read. It can’t compete with the little flat touchscreen that cuts up personal, immediate worlds into bite-sized pieces and feeds them to me.

Part of it is the easiness, just like the tabloid magazines. You usually don’t have to commit to anything longer than 1,500 words. The writing is rough around the edges, relatable, sometimes skim-able. I got the gist of it, moving on. Always moving on, click, tap. A particularly good online reading session for me is usually equal parts highbrow and lowbrow – an article published in The Atlantic based on years of research followed by a little Buzzfeed followed by a bunch of blog posts by peers and/or famous people. If I really want to live it up, I might read while also watching International House Hunters on TV and eating from a bag of Jelly Bellys or drinking red wine (oh how I wish the two went together). Finish up with a soothing game of Candy Crush and a quick look at Facebook. Worlds upon worlds upon worlds, all at the mercy of my attention span…which used to be longer.

Now, I don’t want to attack this new mode of reading, even if I do feel guilty about becoming the sort of person who (sometimes) spends their free time this way. Because a lot of online writing is really, really good. And even the stuff that’s not as well-written can still come from the heart, which is what gives blogs their power. We know that person is telling us about their real lives, what it feels like to be them, to care for their families and work and hold those beliefs. Private reality is compelling. Would we have put up with the antics on Survivor or The Real World if they were scripted? Well, maybe. But you know what I mean.

Blogs also help us to feel connected to other people, right now. When someone posts something just as you’re grabbing coffee and taking a few minutes to sit, you know that the shit they’re going through is recent – and that is reassuring if you’re also currently going through similar shit.

One of the other main reasons I keep going back to blogs rather than novels is because during this phase of my life, I need to actively search out community. As a stay-at-home mom with two young kids, I need to know that most of the other stay-at-home moms have both horrible days and great days. It’s the closest thing to adult interaction I’ll get on the days we don’t make it out of the house, and I never get tired of reading the reflections of other parents. I have no idea how we parenting bloggers come across to those without children – boring? repetitive? whiny? sappy? – but when you’re in the trenches, sharing experiences is the best balm for the wounds and occasional loneliness of raising kids. Better than the advice books.

Why then do I feel guilty for reading more blogs than books (other than the fact that I have a tendency to be a bit of a literary snob)? Clearly, blogs do me a lot of good, and the ones I read are much higher in quality than trashy magazines.

I think I feel bad because my reading diet is out of balance. Books feed a different part of my soul, and that part is hungry right now.

I miss having to work for the payoff. I miss committing to something that requires my attention over a few days or weeks. I miss beginnings and ends. I miss dialogue that crackles and makes me laugh. I miss stories that engage me so much I’m willing to read them in tiny snippets – waiting for the water to boil, the five minutes before a child wakes up, standing in line at the airport. I miss fantasy, escape, heightened reality. I miss the beautiful craftsmanship of prose that jumps off the page. Prose that is vivid, simple, elegant. Prose that took months or years to polish, and made it past the watchful eyes of editors, not to mention through the cutthroat world of publishing.

I miss being a person who is always in the middle of an actual book with pages. I don’t feel like myself when I’m not. I miss the sense of accomplishment in finishing one book and then getting to pick the next, feeling as though I’d earned the right.

Taking inventory after a trip to a book fair

Taking inventory after a trip to a book fair

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6 thoughts on “What is worth reading?

  1. Anna Spanos says:

    Don’t be so hard on yourself! Raising kids is possibly the hardest intellectual work I’ve ever encountered. You have to be ON all the time, engaged all the time – after doing that for 14 hours, I think that your brain is entitled to something easy.
    I used to beat myself up about this same thing, but now I just do what I feel like doing. Do I feel like reading a textbook for school? Okay. Do I feel like doing an easy-peasy crossword until my eyes go crossed and I pass out? Okay. And then when I do sit down to read something GOOD, I really, really enjoy it. I savor every last page, and it’s wonderful. It took me an entire year to read Bolano’s 2666 after my daughter was born, but it was worth every last moment! I just think of it as getting to live with my favorite books for a little bit longer…

    • Julia says:

      Thank you, Anna! Your comments help me to breathe a little easier during my “down time”…I do tend to be obsessive about making every second count, to the point that even my down time is no longer relaxing! I especially appreciate your sentiment that raising kids is hard intellectual work, too. It’s true!

  2. Start or join a book club! I have one with a couple friends and its good motivation to finish books, to try books I might otherwise ignore, and the to get together for a girls’ night to drink wine and talk about the book… And lots of other things. But yeah, it does cut into my trashy internet reading sometimes!

    • Julia says:

      I’m actually already part of one with some family members and girlfriends…having a “deadline” is helpful, and I do love discussing the books over wine! We took a summer break, which may be why I was starting to miss novels, but we’re starting up again this week. My only issue with book clubs is trying to find a book we are all interested in – I always have a huge “to read” pile, anyway. But it’s worth reading something I wouldn’t have picked just for the discussion, sometimes.

  3. I find that I have a similar problem with TV. At the end of the day, I just want to put my brain on auto-pilot and not have to think. But I am finding that I miss immersing myself in a book–getting swept away into the characters, the scenery, a different time and place. I love character development in good TV shows, but it is nothing like what I can get in a book. I have also found that trying to read a book on my tablet is nearly impossible. If I have internet connection, I will inevitably leave the book and go trolling my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I am trying to recover my love of good old books…and our nearby library is helping a lot!

    • Julia says:

      I couldn’t agree more about trying to read a book on my tablet! It’s just too easy to click around and check email or Facebook or whatever. Our attention spans grow so short. I’ve been reading an old-fashioned adventure/love story that’s about 600 pages long, and it feels so right!

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