This year, I ambitiously set my reading challenge on Goodreads to 50 books. I used to be able to meet that easily, but navigating school, husband, baby, and life makes it hard. I thought, though, that it would at least be easier this year because I was preparing for my PhD exams, which involves a lot of reading.
Currently, Goodreads says I’ve read 9 books this year, which is apparently “seven books behind schedule.” Whatever that means.
I’ve have read far more than 9 books.
This fact puts some pressure on our modern understanding of what it means to read, and especially to read *a book.*
I did indeed read only nine books cover-to-cover. I also read a wide mix of academic book chapters, short works (essays, poems, short stories, etc), academic articles, and online articles and blog posts (for the class I’m teaching and for personal edification).
By my count, just for exams, I read another 42 works between January and March–and I’m probably missing some–ranging from short sonnets to nearly all of a 200 page book (but not *all*, so it didn’t make it to Goodreads). This doesn’t count the fluffy novels I read to rest my mind, which I don’t put on Goodreads, any of the articles I read for the class I’m teaching, or thought-provoking blog posts or parts of books I began and abandoned because I lacked time or interest or both. Those 9 completed books are not only a small portion of what I read, but also a misleading representation of it.
I value reading whole, long books. I think that the attention needed to do so is something we should guard in this day of frantic data streams. I also think we might be looking at reading in the wrong way. You don’t have to complete a text cover-to-cover and in order for it to “count” as read. People read for all kinds of reasons, and there are as many manifestations of reading as there are reasons to read.
Something I learned from my exam reading is that in the eighteenth century, the most common form of reading was a method called “desultory” reading, which Abigail Williams discusses in The Social Life of Books. You could call it “browsy” reading. After a slow but steady rise in the availability of books and the prevalence of literacy following the advent of the printing press in the 1450s, a number of cultural changes took place that made England and America the site of a reading explosion during the 18th century. Yet despite this impressive increase in print culture, the average, middle-class reader did not merely read books cover-to-cover; indeed, this average reader might not read a whole book, even a whole novel, cover-to-cover at all. For example, books of excerpts of longer works called miscellanies were very popular. People read journal articles and poems, they read the second volume of a four-volume novel, they read parts of nonfiction books but not others.
Some of this was because of access. Although the price of books had decreased, books were still expensive; a large library for a middle-class person was about 100 books, and most owned less than 10. Borrowing and library use were common, as was social reading. It was popular, trendy even, to gather with one’s friends to read through a book, or do dramatic readings of favorite scenes. While social critics had plenty to say about this new reading culture, one of the things that was not criticized was desultory reading.
We still do the same (maybe not the dramatic readings or the social read-alouds, although I think we should), but our biases have changed. These days, did you really read anything if you didn’t read the *whole* book? Aren’t reading short works *lesser*? In the eighteenth century somebody might respond to the question “What are you reading” with “oh, just a novel,” but today we’re more likely to say “oh, just an article” or “oh, just a poem.” I think this likely stems from having literature in schools, at least in part. You learn from an early age that an assignment isn’t complete unless the whole of the assigned portion has been read; in this way we train a society of completionists.
Books are tools; they are repositories of information; they are conveyers of entertainment. Falling into a good story, or being engrossed by a nonfiction book, is a special kind of magic. This experience of reading is one that I hope every person has, at least sometimes.
But you can be A Reader if that happens rarely, or never. While I don’t ascribe to “anything you read is fine as long as you’re reading” (some texts can be harmful, to you if not to others), I do think that a robust reading life is more easily achieved if it allows for all kinds of ways for reading to manifest. Read meaty articles. Read poetry. Revisit your favorite scene in your favorite novel. Read the newspaper. Read the back of a cereal box.
Now that I’m a mother, I read far less than I used to. I almost never read a book in one week, let alone in one sitting. And I often feel discouraged–if I can’t *really* read, I may as well just scroll social media in my spare time instead. Reflecting on my exam experience has helped encourage me to re-prioritize reading in a way that allows me to continue having a reading life. It will look different from what it used to, but whatever it looks like, I know I won’t regret filling my life with words instead of screens.
So my friends, if you feel like you’ve not done much reading because you don’t check off whole books that often, be encouraged! Have you read a good short story lately? Have you been devouring articles? Have you been reading Sandra Boyton’s Moo, Baa, La La La to your kid five million times (hi, it’s me)? Have you started seven novels and not finished them? Maybe you just needed the beginning of that fluffy novel. Maybe you really were only interested in the introduction of that one nonfiction book. Maybe short stories are all you have the time for these days. Good job! You’re a reader.
If you feel so inclined, I’d love to hear about your piecemeal reading: what short texts or partial texts have you read and enjoyed lately?