One of the questions I am asked most is, how do I read as much as I do? Sometimes it’s mere curiosity, sometimes the query is tinged with frustration. You have a child, a house, and a huge garden, ffs.
I get it. It is irritating to see someone do so much of something that you feel you have no time for. I feel similarly riveted and envious when I see people on Insta having the time to do their hair so nicely every day or the time to go to pilates so often. So I am going to try and answer this question as fully and honestly as I can while musing on this idea of time and why reading is somehow seen as a more productive use of it than other hobbies.
Historically, I have shied away from answering this question, because to answer it would be to acknowledge that yes, I do read a lot. And that to do so might imply that I think I am smart, or diligent, or – perish the thought – well read. I actually don’t think I am particularly well-read, btw. I read a lot, but have enormous gaps in my literary education. But pretending I don’t read a lot is like pretending I go spinning every day. It is an intractable truth.
I have read voraciously – at times, obsessively – since I was tiny. I took a book into every classroom, and I read in queues and during meals and on the toilet and on the bus/train home from a night out. As a child, my mother would take me to the library and we would get out the maximum 14 books. I could easily read for 8 hours a day, aged 9. I fucking loved it. I still fucking love it. I am easily over-stimulated, I have a racing brain, and reading takes me out of myself. It is my self-care, my meditation, my way to find an equilibrium in order to face the world. The novelist Emma Straub puts it perfectly:
My love for books arrived pre-memory. There is no before. Books were always my stalwart companions, my escape hatches, my private joys.
Reading a lot I can do. Reading is perhaps the only thing I know I can do. It is no more a skill – something I burnish and work at or feel proud of – than it is part of me. As the
writer reader Zadie Smith observed in 2011 of her bibliomania:
For me, being a reader, in summer or at any other time, isn’t a “lifestyle choice.” Rather, I made the choice—if that’s what it was—so long ago, it has taken on an inescapable character in my mind. I think that if I were a very good swimmer, I would be proud to be so, but being proud of being a reader, in my case, is like being proud you have feet.
So yes, bestow up me no praise for simply doing a lot of something I like doing and I wish it would be even a part of my work. I get most of my writings for this blog or my books done after work. My work is a great playground to collect stories by simply watching people and listening to stories. I will take written or mental notes and work on the fineprint at home. As for where I find the time to read – in lieu of giving you an hourly breakdown of my week I will offer you these transparencies (not!!! tips).
- I do not have a regular exercise routine. And when I exercise, I usually listen to books on my phone. I love audiobooks while jogging.
- Cold outside: I read. Warm outside: I read. Snowstorm outside: Cozied up inside with hot chocolate and I read. You get the picture.
- I do not keep many (social media) apps on my phone, not because I am holier than thou, but because it makes me a jittery mess and I hate the time it eats. That saves me, say, 30 mins a day? I know someone who spends HOURS on Twitter. (That’s a very conservative estimate, I’d hazard.)
- I do not really cook, except for maybe once or twice a week. I heat. Cheese sandwiches in the sandwich maker, quiche, pasta, soup. I do not labour over my food for more than 20 mins and in the division of our household labour, my son helps me cook. (while I read to him, ha!)
- I read anytime I travel anywhere. Train, car, bus, plane – I make a point of getting out a book.
- I watch Netflix only a few nights a week (this is an insomnia thing as much as a reading thing) and I rarely go out. At least 3 nights a week I either read or write when my kid is in bed. Usually for 2/3 hours a night – which, as I am a fast reader, can be the bulk of a 300-page book.
- There was a very stressful time in my life a couple of years ago and insomnia has caused me tremendous amounts of stress and exhaustion and resulted in a veritable shit ton of reading. In a bad bout, I may have slept for only one or two hours a night, which can easily make for a book a night. Not very healthy, I know but these times are over.
This is how I rack up the hours. It is not the right way to live a life, it’s just the way I live mine. So why does reading come with the moral signifiers that other hobbies do not – the signifiers that make so many people feel bad when they are not doing it? It is partly due to articles like this, with their somewhat flattening headlines on how reading makes you a better person.
To be clear, I do think reading brings enormous benefits. It is a wonderful way to learn about the world and develop compassion, as well as language. I hope my child loves reading (I think he does) – but not because I think it will make him a worthier person than if he doesn’t.
When I hear people with young kids tell me they haven’t read a book for two years and they desperately want to, but how can they?? I hear someone who doesn’t need to read to get to sleep (lucky fuckers). I hear someone, perhaps, who likes scrolling through their phone, or watching Netflix every evening, or listening to a podcast series long into the night, or cooking something slow and delicious with a glass of wine in their hand while jazz plays softly in the background. (I want to be that person) I hear someone, in other words, who has found other ways to feed themselves.
I think, when it comes to our disposable hours, we make time for the things we want to do. I read because it is what I want to do, frequently to the exclusion of other things. I may think that I want to get into a solid pilates routine, or cook a meal out of a cookbook, or go to more gallery openings and museums, but in reality, I only want to want to. I will find ways, as I always do, to not do the other stuff, so that I can find time to read. So if you want to want read, don’t force it. As long as you are finding ways to nourish yourself, cut yourself some slack. Screw the books! Do what makes you happy.
We all have stuff we want to want to do. Sometimes we just have to go for it. This little something that makes up happy. And maybe when you finally make headway through the book cleaved to the surface of your nightstand, I’ll finally commit to a thrice-weekly pilates routine, and my reading will, with its big girl panties on, take a backseat for a while.