On Reading

As part of a generation awash in pricey, flashy, and status-oriented personal electronics, the item I feel most lost without is my three-generations-behind-because-damn-if-it-doesn’t-still-work-perfectly, bought-it-off-Craigslist-for-sixty-bucks-because-my-old-one-got-stepped-on, won’t-buy-a-bag-if-it-won’t-fit-inside, why-did-I-worry-about-it-fitting-in-my-bag-if-I-was-going-to-carry-it-in-my-hand-at-all-times Kindle. (Keyboard).

While I associate my phone with “staying connected,” and “catching up,” and all sorts of terms that associate well with work, reading is my way to sit back, unplug from the hyperconnected world, and decompress.

As a kid, like so many of us, I was a bookworm. I snuck novels into math class and read under my desk; I stayed up late reading by dim lights to hide from my parents; I looked forward to weekly trips to the library, bringing home stacks of five or six books at a time.

Somewhere in the transition from middle to high school, I lost the luxury of diving into one new book after another. Especially as schoolwork took precedence, it became harder and harder to justify reading for any serious chunk of time. I did what I could to squeeze in a few chapters during dinner (homework at the dinner table was clumsy and frowned upon, but paperbacks never were) or while brushing my teeth (a habit I still maintain — who needs to spend two minutes staring at themselves in the mirror each night?). Even so, reading for pleasure was slowly pushed further and further down my list of priorities. How could I justify rereading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire for the third time when I had four chapters of Grapes of Wrath to finish by Wednesday?

MIT was even worse for finding time to read for fun: while I loved an “Intro to Fiction” class I took my sophomore year, I hadn’t grown any better at fitting novels or short stories in around my problem sets and student activities. I’d return home for vacation and devour an old favorite or three, then return to campus meant going back to a bookshelf filled with more mementos than paperbacks.

It wasn’t until a couple years out of school, when I was working for myself and trying to find a way to exercise more, that I started reading in earnest again — and along the way, discovered how effective a meditation reading could be.

I’d read while I ran (on a treadmill, at a low mph). I’d read while I walked (in daylight, on the way to the bus stop, always taking a break to look both ways before crossing the street). I’d read while I waited (on the bus, at bus stops, or for friends to show up for dinner dates). At the recommendation of a friend, I started keeping a list of the books I’d read (that was in mid-2011, 115 books ago).

Somewhere along the way, I discovered science fiction classics (Ringworld, The Forever War), narrative (or almost) nonfiction (Gang Leader for a Day, Devil in the White City, In the Heart of the Sea), post-apocalyptic fiction (The Wind-Up Girl, Wool, Ready Player One), and “could be construed as relevant to my profession”/”good for me” nonfiction (Lean In, The Everything Store, Steve Jobs).

I read to be entertained: I love a good story (written, spoken, or pantomimed) and have had a lifelong soft spot for dragons.

I read to escape: taking a nap achieves the same thing for a time, but finishing a chapter leaves me looser and in a better mood than if I’d had to wake up.

I read to be a better writer: as a student who never paid much attention during grammar lessons, I firmly believe reading (virtually anything that has earned a professional editor’s approval) slowly provides an invaluable instinct for “no, that doesn’t sound quite right.” (I was as surprised as anyone that my SAT verbal score was higher than that of my math; I’m happy to attribute the boost to novels about incorrigible squires and perspicacious wizards.)

I read to satisfy a gut instinct of wanting to fill a gap in my knowledge (Wild Swans), and to hear stories told in the voices of people I respect (Open).

I read to to be exposed to something new, or to know more about something old. I’d been (still am!) a huge fan of the longer articles of The New Yorker and The Atlantic, but beginning with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, I slowly began to realize how much fun a full history about a single topic could be: let me tell you about the birth of forensic medicine (The Poisoner’s Handbook) in America, or the Oxford English Dictionary (The Professor and the Madmen), or the Ebola scare (The Hot Zone), or the true stories behind the plot of the musical/movie Chicago (The Girls of Murder City).

At times I feel like I spend all day reading — articles, Hacker News, tweets, blog posts about the latest this and that — but they leave me with a vaguely dissatisfied feeling of having just kept up with news: consuming lots of information and opinions but not really generating any of my own. It’s within the pages of a book that I find myself really thinking about the writing, the motives, the storytelling, the world creation, or the character building. Ultimately, it leaves my brain feel sharper and more engaged — and full of all sorts of interesting notions and tidbits of history.

There’s some irony in my writing about reading so that you can read about reading in a format I disdain. So, stop already! Take a break from your feeds and raid your roommates’ bookshelves. Go read something ridiculous and fun (World War Z)! Or that questions societal norms + mainstream assumptions (Sex at Dawn)! Reread a classic (The Great Gatsby)! Fall in love with some phenomenal modern fantasy (The Night Circus)!

You can find my Goodreads profile, and evidence of my indulgence in a guilty pleasure of high fantasy novels, here. Recommendations are welcome and will be slotted somewhere into my ever-growing reading list.

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