How I’m Trying To Rediscover Reading

I’ve linked to a number of articles in recent newsletters about reading, and in particular a number of people that manage to read herculean numbers of books in any given year (see, for example, how Neil Pasricha reads 100 books or so a year or Tom Chanter’s advice on how to get to 150 or so. For a more modest assessment, there’s always Stephen Altrogge’s strategies to get to 40 or 50 books a year). My motivation in sharing those has partly been encouragement (just like Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile, once we know something can be done, doing it again becomes that much easier). It’s also in part been jealousy. I want to read that much. And I don’t.

That’s not to say, of course, that I don’t read a lot. My weekly newsletter links (almost) every week to the ten most interesting finds that have come across my dashboard. Another 50-100 didn’t make the cut, in order to come up with those. I’m also an inconsistent consumer of newspapers, magazines and social media. In fact, it’s the reading of those that usually are what points me to the articles I link to.

I also read a great deal for work. Articles, papers, research monographs, reference materials and more come across my desk weekly, as well as customer memos, documentation and draft deliverables. So words are getting processed through my brain on an altogether regular basis, and when I’m not absorbing them that’s usually because I’m writing my own words.

But I don’t READ. Or at least I’ve not done as much reading lately. And when I say “read,” I mean both reading for pleasure, and reading actual, real books. This is challenging. As my office and my credit card bill can attest, I ACQUIRE books at an astonishingly impressive rate. But I don’t consume those books at anywhere near the level that I would like (or is even necessary to keep up with the backlog).

That means I’m envious of those that have managed that feat. There was a delightful Twitter story (thread here) by Quinn Cummings a couple of months ago that evidenced the depth of her habit (her bedside table is impressive), and highlighted an ingenious—and cost effective—source for more reading material. An interview with NPR exposed her to the magical world of ARCs (a publishing trade-term for ‘advanced reading copies’); the books that publishers send out to promote and publicize a new work. The magic of ARCs: they’re free. And so every subsequent interview, Cummings goes armed with a shoulder-full of bags to scoop up as many books as she can physically carry out of the building.

Now, I used to have my own (somewhat more limited) access to ARCs. I was reading one evening (as you do) while dining in a restaurant (as I do; your mileage my vary) and came across a post on a local bookstores website (as you do) looking for book reviewers. The gist of that particular offer was a basic books-for-reviews exchange; they give you the book, you write the review, and everybody walks away happy. I walked away happily in particular, because what’s not to like about free books?

What was quite delightful about that arrangement (which sadly came to an end, for reasons I don’t entirely comprehend) was that it created structure and commitment. They gave me the book to read and review; so I had to read it, and I had to write a review of it—and ideally it needed to be a pretty good and relevant review, that helped potential readers to explore whether or not they might actually like to read that particular book.

In all, the year or so that I was writing book reviews was probably the high-watermark of my book reading in at least the last few years. And that would only be supplanted by the two or three years that I was actually writing my doctoral thesis in earnest (and reading all the things about strategy, behavioural decision making and project management. Which isn’t entirely the same thing as reading for pleasure, although some days you can see it from there).

The thing is, it didn’t always used to be this way. There was a time where I used to read voraciously. And broadly. I remember summers growing up where I would ride my bicycle to the local library, scour the shelves, ride home—carefully balancing my stash on the handlebars of my ten-speed—and be back again within the week to do it all again. In my teenage years, I would comfortably say that I easily consumed between fifty and a hundred books a year without trying hard. And that was long before I learned to stop reading books that I wasn’t enjoying.

Break between classes? Reading. Recess? Reading. Lunch break? Reading. Bored with homework (which happened often)? Reading. Supposed to be going to bed? Reading. Supposed to be asleep? Quite possibly reading.

Words were my life. Stories were my passion. Books were my happy place. That changed, somewhere around my early twenties, particularly when career and work—and social life—started to raise themselves in importance. Professional commitment, client expectations and not-a-small-amount of workaholic perfectionism meant that time previously spent reading got supplanted with work, more work, a little bit more work. The reading that I did became professional and work focussed, and the reading I used to do for pleasure took a back seat.

For a time, a passion for books got sublimated into an intense magazine habit (possibly on the naive assumption that articles were shorter and could be read faster, and in no way recognizing that I could spend just as long reading a good magazine cover-to-cover as I could a book). 40 and 50 books a year got supplanted by 20 or 30 magazines a month, with varying degrees of success in getting through one month’s pile before the next month’s pile began to inexorably grow.

All of this to say that I’ve stepped away from the reading that I used to do. And I’m now at a point of my life where I want to get that back. I want to get lost in the power of storytelling, and the magical transformation of time that happens when you get absorbed and drawn into the pages of a book. And I’d like that to happen a little more frequently. I want to savour writing, revel in wordplay and get lost in the creative imagination of my favourite authors. And I’d like to discover different authors and new horizons as well.

I certainly don’t lack for material to work with. My den abounds with as-yet-unread delights (as my wife points out on a semi-regular basis). And that in no way stops it from getting added to (as my wife also points out on a semi-regular basis). I’m currently reading Dr. Julia Shaw’s Evil; I had the pleasure of attending the book launch at Rotman School of Business in February, and finally managed to crack the cover a few days ago. It’s a fascinating book, not least because of the subject, but also because Shaw manages to integrate good story and solid academic foundations. That’s a hard balance to strike, and the kind of writing I admire (and strive to emulate).

As I move forward, I’m not setting my self a target, per se. I don’t have a number of books that I simply have to read by the end of the year (and I’m not going to set myself up for the competitive behaviour or potential disappointment of not meeting that goal). Reading is something I’m taking up again because I want to. Turning that into a target-driven, outcome-oriented exercise is a fools errand.

I did enjoy the time I spent writing book reviews, though, so I do plan to do more of those. They’ll show up on my site, and be linked to through the newsletter. In the newsletter, I’ll also be highlighting whatever happens to currently be on my bedside table, along with an update on my thoughts. And you can likely find random musings, entertaining quotes and the odd bit of book porn (entirely safe for work, I promise you) on my tumblr feed (which is woefully out of date, so give it some time for it to actually get interesting again).

Also, to satisfy my curiousity—and perhaps entice me with some additional reading opportunities—I’d invite you to let me know what the most meaningful book you have read this year has been so far…

P.S. Any publishers that want to send me ARCs, my address is in the contact info of the site, and I will gladly give your books all the love I can muster.

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