On Reading Books

Between Audible, the physical books on my shelves and side tables, Kindle and all the comics, I realized something uncomfortable: I’m reading like 9 or 10 books at once. If you were ever allowed the extremely rare privilege of being in my tiny apartment in Capitol Hill, you would find shelves, tables, chairs spilling with books.

I have books on my shelves that I’ve bought and never read (and they’re just sitting there mocking me). I have books that I’ve read so many times. Audiobooks that listen to as I’m falling asleep, over and over again.

But reading tends to be the only real constant in my life. From year to year, career to career, season to season, there’s always books to read followed by more.

I alluded to this in my post on self-care that I value reading as a context switch away from work. That is true. But I read for more important reasons than that.

I don’t think reading alone makes you a better person or better than anyone else. I think the act of reading is completely selfish (like in a good way). But why do we read at all or why should we read at all? There’s some kind of magic in it, disconnecting and immersing your mind somewhere else entirely, it’s like a cheap journey without going anywhere. Reading can be an escape or an education but it’s honestly whatever you decide it needs to be, and it’s the one thing we have as a culture that’s endured centuries.

There are personal reasons I read:

The novelest Walter Kirn, said about developing a joy for reading:

Alone in my room, I forgot my obsession with self-advancement. I wanted to lose myself. I wanted to read. Instead of filling in the blanks, I want to be a blank to be filled in.

The stack of Marvel comics on my shelf
Yea this pile just grew thanks to 2-day shipping.

For me comics go quickly, maybe one or two sittings and books take much much longer. I’m often listening to an audiobook while following along with a paper copy. I have no idea why I do this, but it’s something just propels me to read more than I otherwise would’ve. I take the audiobooks to work with me. Along with podcasts, I consume them way more than anything else while I’m coding.

Between paper, audio and struggling to focus, I feel surrounded by content; fiction, non-fiction, mysteries, thrillers, sci-fi, technical, biographical. There is no wrong book. There are books that just wrong for you. Austin Kleon wrote 33 Thoughts on Reading, he outlines some really freeing ideas about reading like “don’t finish books you don’t like” and “the minute I finish a book, I will start a new one”, both are great guides to keep in mind. You know what everything on that list is golden. The bigger theme is reading is for you, there’s no wrong way to do it, it’s an activity you engage with mostly through immersive commitment and it should serve you not demand of you.

In his book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, Alan Jacob says:

Read what gives you delight—at least most of the time—and do so without shame. And even if you are that rare sort of person who is delighted chiefly by what some people call Great Books, don’t make them your steady intellectual diet, any more than you would eat at the most elegant of restaurants every day. It would be too much. Great books are great in part because of what they ask of their readers: they are not readily encountered, easily assessed.

Kleon also wrote a set of directives on How to Read More. He recommends keeping a log of the books you read, I’ve been tracking mine in Notion (I kinda like Notion). This does two things: shows me what I’m reading and have to read but also what I have read, the completed stack growing is pretty basic motivation to keep reading.

Just Fucking Do It

However you choose to read, just fucking do it.

My inner life is generally better when I spend an afternoon with no obligations. I go get a haircut, which is next to a terrible pizza place and after my trim, I stomach a slice and read through the Stranger, a free local paper. Sometimes this takes a different gastroenterological state: teriyaki and catching on all the “Read Later” posts and articles on my phone. I think the next incarnation of this is going to be a wine bar, with a great book.

It’s a reminder. I have a lot of obligations (or at least feel like I do), and as I give myself away to each of those things there ends up being less to go around if I don’t do things that are just for me.

Reading by it’s nature is one of the few things left on the planet that can be only for you. Let it.