I am not reading a book.

Washington, DC is shut down today, and besides doing some catch-up work here and there, I essentially have a bonus day off. Hooray! What a rare and often-wished-for opportunity to do some quiet, relaxed book reading! Visit my Goodreads page and you can see that I am juggling several books that I have yet to complete, and I have a list a mile long of “to-reads” as yet un-attempted. The baby is sleeping (scratch that, back in a second…)

[Two hours later]

Anyway. The point being, on this snow-blanketed day, there’s far more time than usual to engage in some literary imbibing. But here I am on the Web, blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, poking around the RSS reader, etc. I know that the act of reading doesn’t require a herculean effort, but lately the energy, attention span, and patience it requires has eluded me. And I love reading (once I’m into it)! It’s that kick-start that is so difficult, particularly if I’m not totally enthralled by my current book.

There’s just so much *other* reading to be done! Not only is there blog and article reading online, but there are tweets (that lead to more blogs and articles), my various magazine subscriptions (which, since I am paying for them, I feel obliged to read), and since I do communications for a lobbying organization, I have to step up the pace on regular news consumption (major newspapers, aggregators, etc.). The latter one alone takes whatever quiet time my rain ride to work allows me.

While I genuinely love the act of reading, books are falling by the wayside. I own a Kindle (which I adore), I have a slew of books in my library I’m dying to get to, myriad Christmas and birthday-gifted books that others thought I’d enjoy, so I have to get to those, plus the backpack-full of books I’m still in the middle of. Meanwhile, I read about people who read several books a week, and my friend Ryan is doing a blog project on reading 100 books in a year. Another friend I have through Twitter is doing only about half that, a book a week for a year. I could never do that!

Part of it, I imagine, is that I don’t read much fiction. Anecdotally, I hear that fiction goes by more quickly than nonfiction, but I can hardly put that to the test, as I have as my current fiction selection War and Peace, and I’ve resolved, for no other reason than the novelty of it, to read it entirely on the iPhone—I wanted to really see if there was truth to the iPhone-as-e-reader cliché that says, yes, the iPhone is great for reading, “…but you wouldn’t want to read War and Peace on it!”

I’m getting off-track somewhat. Even when I do get to reading a book, it’s sparse. Too often, I read 10 or so pages before I get too sleepy, or I’m distracted by email/baby/life. And let’s be honest, even those magazines often don’t get the attention their subscription prices deserve, and the newspaper is often merely scanned and discarded. I think that in terms of word count, I read more from blog posts and articles about reading, ebooks, and publishing (a recent but I think enduring fascination of mine) than I do from actual books themselves.

One might think, well, Paul, you just don’t like books that much. But I know that’s not true—I know that good books move and enrich me more than just about any other medium I consume (perhaps tied with music, something else that has suffered since I stopped being a twenty-something). Perhaps part of the problem is the commitment of time necessary to complete a book, but I mainly mean those books that turn out to be only okay. I recently read A Tale of Two Cities for the first time (part of my attempt to catch up with all those books I was assigned in high school and fobbed off due to my shameful degree of laziness) and I couldn’t put it down. It was one of those moments in life when a piece of art truly changes you and affects you at your core. That’s not happening with any of the books I have in the pipeline right now, but nor should I expect so. Some books—most books that I pick up, thankfully—are “just good.” And that should be good enough to keep me at it.

Which, of course, still lands me into conflict with the realities of how many hours there are in a day and all the other text-based commitments I already have.

I’m not like those who lament the “shortening” of certain types of discourse through technology. Mark Ambinder of The Atlantic (one of those aforementioned subscribed-to magazines) recently explained to Michael Kinsley what his reading day is like, and it rang familiar to me to a certain extent. Though I don’t rely on Twitter nearly to the degree Ambinder does, I still understand how valuable it has become, and I certainly value the relationships—new kinds of relationships—that I have developed on that platform. As I noted, Twitter is not really about short bursts of blather for me (though it is also that), but the tweets serve as little windows into deeper reading I would otherwise miss, and a chance for me to share with my 1000+ followers the work I am doing and writing by others that I find compelling enough to warrant others’ attention. Facebook is similar for me, though more lighthearted and social in nature. [Follow me on Twitter here!]

But maintaining these gardens takes time, it takes thought. I enjoy the back-and-forth flow of information so much that I have felt compelled to start a Tumblr blog just to catch the things I don’t know what else to do with (a quote that is too long for Twitter, an article that doesn’t suit my blog or my Facebook audience, etc.)—and on this, I am essentially copying Text Patterns’ Alan Jacobs and his use of Tumblr, or somewhat mimicking the short-burst blogging style of Andrew Sullivan.

So I heartily embrace social media, social reading and social writing. I’m extremely fortunate to be alive and of the age to participate at such a time as this. But it must be said that it only enables one of my pre-existing conditions: laziness. My dad, a voracious reader himself whom I can only dream of matching in terms of quantity, is befuddled by my use of the word “lazy” in this context. Reading is the fun part of the day, he says. There is no effort involved for him; it is always the
path of least resistance and the greatest return.

But my personality, my attention span, my physiology, my habits have not developed that way (all of which, almost, is my own fault). Books suffer, which really means that I suffer, depriving myself of what they hold. I should be reading right now, but instead, I’m sitting here writing about how I don’t read.

Perhaps my only avenue to mitigating this concern is to learn speed reading. Hm. Now, when would I find the time to do that?

Oh, and I want to learn French, too. Can we please just add an extra day onto the weekend?

Would that even help?


Bryson’s “At Home”: A Delightful Slog through Human Misery

About halfway through Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life, one can’t help but come to a couple of stark conclusions. One, that most of humanity’s domestic life, for the vast majority of time time we had domestic lives, was full of suffering and misery the likes of which we moderns can barely imagine. Two, that the tiny percentage of the species blessed with an overabundance of money and/or status have not been content to simply live well, but have wasted vast economic resources to spoil and aggrandize themselves in ways that would make Ozymandias cringe.

Bryson is a wonderful writer, and his storytelling is as usual conversational while remaining high-minded, as he clearly glories in his research and discoveries while allowing the space for the reader to catch up to him.

But his subject, I suppose, necessitated the retelling of these two central themes I’ve mentioned: The misery of the underclasses (disease, vermin, cold, being overwhelmed by feces, etc.) and the unabated vanity of the rich (who also, it should be noticed, were subject to disease and other unpleasantness, but often in Bryson’s telling faced ruin by their own ignorance or hubris). But if it is necessary, it is also relentless. Story after story, anecdote after anecdote is a tail that either makes one feel deep pity for those who are crushed under the weight of their poverty or nausea over the largess of the aristocracy. In between are the triumphs, the brilliant ideas, the advances, but it becomes almost exhausting when one contemplates the mayhem from which the victories emerge.

Here’s a good summation from the book, a quote from Edmond Halley (of comet fame), that I feel gets to the heart of the long crawl of human domesticity — human daily life — over the centuries.

How unjustly we repine at the shortness of our Lives and think our selves wronged if we attain not Old Age; where it appears hereby, that the one half of those that are born are dead in Seventeen years.… [So] instead of murmuring at what we call an untimely Death, we ought with Patience and unconcern to submit to that Dissolution which is the necessary Condition of our perishable Materials.

And in the meantime, invent the telephone and the flush toilet and make it a little easier.

A recommended read; a slog, but a delightful slog.