On not reading

This really isn’t a post about not reading, as I do read something every day, if only a few pages before I fall asleep. It’s more about my limits as a reader. As much as I love reading, there are times I just can’t do it, and I also feel like I’m one of the few book lovers out there who feels that way. For me, reading is sort of relaxing, but really, when I’m exhausted and stressed out and trying to unwind, a book doesn’t always help. I wish I were the kind of person who could read all the time, but I’m just not. I have very definite limits on when I can read and for how long.

I’ve been thinking about this lately partly because I’ve been so busy and have had less time and energy for reading, but also because of the recent read-a-thon where people read for 24 hours straight. I admire all you who can read for 24 hours straight, but there’s no way in the world I could ever do that. I couldn’t read for even half that time, and probably not even for a quarter of that time, or maybe even an eighth. I would go stir-crazy. I wouldn’t be able to sit still. I would feel as though I were maxing out on whatever book I was reading. It’s been forever since I read an entire book in a day, and I know I’ve never read two or three. I just don’t like to take in that much at once.

I’m wondering if my tendency to stay away from lighter forms of fiction, generally-speaking, has less to do with my desire to be reading serious stuff all the time, than my habit of reading slowly and wanting books that suit that habit. It’s not worth it to spend an entire week immersed in something forgettable. But I might be willing to read forgettable books if I liked breezing through them in a few hours. Then I might find books better for relaxing, too. If this is true, it would make me feel a little less like a book snob, and more like someone with particular reading habits that just happen to lead to reading particular kinds of books.

I’m not sure if any of that makes sense, but I wanted to say something about how sometimes in the evenings when I have plenty of time to read, I put off picking up a book in favor of staring at the wall or surfing aimlessly online. I feel bad sometimes for not using that time better, but, as with many things I feel bad about, there’s no good reason for it.


Filed under Books, Reading

18 responses to “On not reading

  1. I have never entered the read-a-thon for exactly the same reason. I admire the people who did it tremendously, but I couldn’t read for that long. I adore reading but I still do it mostly in little bursts, an hour here and there, several times across the day. I always think the most important thing is to pay the author his or her correct due and give any book your full and willing attention. Then I think all reading ethics are satisfied – nothing much else matters! You’re a close, attentive reader, Dorothy – that’s a wonderful thing to be and not something you could maintain for hours on end to the level that gives you pleasure.


  2. I could never manage a read-a-thon like that either. I do often think how nice it would be to pass an afternoon just reading, but it’s not often that happens. I have usually feel guilty spending so much time reading when I should be cleaning out the cupboards or some other nasty yet industrious activity. I also read in small chunks throughout the day (usually while doing something else). I admire your reading choices and the way you can write about them so thoughtfully. It’s obvious you’ve spent time processing things and getting deep inside what the author is trying to do–something I wish I was better at.


  3. Litlove — oh, thank you for the very nice comment! I’m glad to hear you read an hour or so at a time, too. That kind of reading schedule sounds perfect to me. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one incapable of joining the read-a-thon, as fun as it sounds. I like the idea of giving each author one’s full attention — in whatever way each reader can. How readers do it doesn’t matter.

    Danielle — I’m glad to know I’m in good company here! I don’t want to be spoil the party and it would be fun to join in the read-a-thons, but I just can’t. My worst problem is that I’d fall asleep. I have to say I don’t get drawn away from my reading to clean the cupboards (although they desperately need it!), but I do get drawn away by other tasks — often grading — and it can be hard to settle into a long reading session. Thank you for the nice comment about my writing!


  4. I’ve participated in the read-a-thon twice but I think the most I could read was 9 hours and they weren’t continuous. It was hard.

    And, for me at least, if I’m going to be reading for hours on end I probably would have to have lighter fare. Otherwise I may just end up drifting off or with a headache! 🙂


  5. What a horrendously interesting posting.
    I am a severely slow reader, generally speaking, as my Reading Partner s sure to tell you. I must be exasperating to her. She can read three or four books, to my one.
    And yet we have gone on, reading together, for years, somehow.
    Your blog makes me acknowledge that for undistracted reading, I need huge tracts of available time. And this time is not always available.
    Other people can read in snippets, three or five minutes here, three or five minutes there. I need…. HOURS.
    Both here and there!


  6. I couldn’t take part in a read-a-thon either. I have to have breaks in my reading, time away from books, even though I’m passionate about reading. I just can’t read for half a day – a couple of hours is my limit and then I get fidgety. I’m very happy to snatch a few minutes every now and then. But if I haven’t read anything at all in a day (it does happen sometimes) I get irritable and feel deprived.


  7. musingsfromthesofa

    I couldn’t do a readathon, but I can read for hours at a stretch. Alas, I have more demands on my time these days and so, even when I’ve said to myself that I’m going to spend all day reading, awareness of what I ought to be doing crashes through. I resent it. But I think (and hope) that in my lovely, booklined room, I might be able to shut the door and only come out for more tea.


  8. As a relatively slow reader (since it’s hard to gauge how slow is slow) I can also only read for two or so hours at a stretch. No read-a-thons for me and I’m also struggling with the lighter stuff, although I enjoy reading funny and lighter blog-posts too. But a more concerning problem for me is that sometimes I hit reading blocks when almost everything I read irritates me. Then I know I need to sort out what’s going on in my head before I can connect with the reading again.


  9. When I was a kid, I could read for hours at a stretch, but not anymore. First, I can’t read in bed anymore, just physically can’t because my eyes won’t do it. (I could if I sat up against a back board, I suppose.) And second, I just get fidgity.

    But, I do enjoy listening to books on tape when I’m on a long drive or going to sleep, and usually I tend to fairly light reading for those times, since I don’t have the same memory as I do when I physically read.


  10. Iliana — lasting 9 hours sounds very good to me! And yeah, if I were to attempt even 9 hours, I’d have to pick some light reading, definitely. I couldn’t concentrate that hard for that long either.

    Cipriano — well, I don’t need hours and hours to do my reading in, but I am a very slow reader, too. I like spending days and days with a book, though, so it suits me pretty well. I’m now wondering, though, how I made it through grad school being such a slow reader…

    BooksPlease — that sounds exactly like my way of reading. I have to get some in each day, even if only a few pages. But more than a couple of hours, and I get fidgety too. I need some time to clear my brain.

    Musings — your booklined room IS very lovely and inviting, and even I can imagine reading happily in there for hours on end! I admire your voracious reading habits, and how many books you can get through on the train.

    Bardiac — I’m sure I read for long hours as a kid, too, and somewhere along the way lost the ability. I haven’t tried listening to audio books for hours on end; I wonder how it would go. Listening to books is such a different thing from reading them that I might be able to do it.


  11. Couchtrip — I just rescued your comment from spam — so sorry you’ve had that trouble with WordPress! I’m always glad to hear from other slow readers (yes, it’s hard to judge how slow is slow, particularly since my rate varies depending on what I’m reading, and I don’t really keep track). I’m someone too who needs to take care of other problems before turning to a book. Reading isn’t really escapist for me. And that’s okay.


  12. Oh Dorothy, don’t feel bad! Your post has come at a good time for me. For the past two weeks when I’ve had maybe a half hour span of time in the evening to read I haven’t felt like it. I don’t know why, just couldn’t bring myself to settle into a book even though I very badly wanted to. Instead, I’ve found myself playing a mindless computer game and then berating myself for wasting my time. An hour or two at the most is the longest I can sit and read at any one time before I get antsy and need to change focus for a little while.


  13. Cam

    I am a very slow reader too. When I’m really busy or stressed in other areas of my life, I find it almost impossible to complete any lengthy stretch of reading. While sometimes reading is fun, leisurely, and a bit escapist, if there is too much on my mind, fighting between keeping focused on the book or subduing the seemingless endless and noisy loop of all the other things in my life, is too difficult. Reading takes too much energy in its own right. So, I do mindless things, like surf the net — it suits my (in)attention span at times like these. I’m just coming out of a long period like this and while I can have guilt for all of the unread books and mags (there is that special ‘New Yorker guilt’ pile!) I just have to not worry about it and enjoy whatever new book(s) I choose to read. When I do read, I can’t waste it on lame material; I want something worth the expenditure of time & energy.


  14. Wow>>> could I relate to this post. I just went through a reading slump, and I think the reason was exhaustion, but also being in a new home, and getting back to routines. I’m one of those creatures of habits and I need to find my comfy reading spot to get back in the groove.

    BTW>> Your blog is great!


  15. I can understand your feelings on this. I have tried for the last couple of years to participate in the read-a-thon — unsuccessfully. I love reading, but I love doing lots of other things, too. I often find myself torn between activities when I have some rare spare time. Especially when the weather starts to get nice, I want to be outside. I can usually satisfy both desires by reading on the front porch, but sometimes I want to be more active. I feel guilty sometimes about doing or not doing things (reading included), but I know I shouldn’t.


  16. Don’t feel bad, Dorothy, because I’m kind of the same way. I go through book burnout phases where it’s difficult for me to read AT ALL. There are other times when I’m too restless, and then there are times when I’m too exhausted.

    The read-a-thons seem really dreadful. I can’t imagine doing anything for 24 hours straight.

    Maybe we’re both too ADHD to be total bibliophiles!


  17. I am coming to this post very late, but I’m so glad that I found it. You have perfectly described what I have been feeling the past few weeks. I really *want* to start a new book, but have been so “exhausted and stressed out and trying to unwind” that I just can’t commit to anything. It frustrates me, and I hope I can get past it soon. It is a relief to know others feel that way too; I was feeling kind of lame about it.


  18. Stefanie — I turn to mindless computer games too. I feel guilty about it, but you’re right that I shouldn’t feel bad. Sometimes that sort of thing is a great way to clear my mind a bit. I hope you’ve been able to concentrate on reading a bit more though.

    Cam — I’m very glad to read your comment because it all sounds so familiar, right down to the New Yorker pile! (And the Harper’s pile and the NY Review of Books pile). I’m definitely someone who doesn’t find reading to be a distraction from life — I have to feel settled in life in order to be able to read. Oh, well — it’s best to accept it and make the most of it.

    Diane — thank you! I’m glad you’re out of the reading slump. That can be hard, but it makes sense to recognize it and just roll with it and know it won’t last forever.

    Lisa — it’s hard not to feel guilty, even about leisure activities. I try to tell myself that it really doesn’t matter so much if I pick up a book or go outside or take a nap or whatever, but I still feel as though it’s all some big test I’m failing. At least we’re not alone!

    Chartroose — it’s funny to think of myself as having any sort of ADHD tendency, as I’m such a calm, quiet person generally, but it’s true that I don’t have a super long attention span, at least not with everything.

    Debby — yes, it IS a relief to know that others feel this way. To me, your trouble committing to a book makes perfect sense, given how busy your life has been lately. I hope you’re able to enjoy a book again soon!


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