I’ve been thinking a lot about reading lately. Sometimes I think if I read more and thought less I’d be better off. That certainly seems to be what many people do — though, of course, not you, dear reader.
When someone tells me they read 200 or 300 books a year I feel a little gobsmacked. How can anyone read a book every one or two days? Don’t they do anything else? Do they actually read every word or even every sentence? When I see the books they read — 1200 page fantasies or 800 page historicals — I have an even greater sense of wonder.
I can remember reading that fast. As a young teenager I could and sometimes did read a book in a single day. But that was a treat not an everyday occurrence. I didn’t keep track but I suppose, at my fastest, I might have read 80 or 90 books a year. But once I reached university where I stopped reading as entertainment and started reading to retain, that dropped off considerably.
These days I manage to read between 30 or 40 books a year depending on how much I’m flying. Because I no longer have the time to read for my own purposes every single day. I do read a lot for work both as a publisher and as a policy wonk on Parliament Hill but the former is mostly slush — which sadly cannot be called reading for pleasure — while the latter consists of government reports or magazine articles — which too often is nothing more than drudgery.
No reading for myself is what reading a book in a day used to be — a treat. Still, when it comes down to it, reading is a major part of my life and, as long as my eyes and brain hold out, will remain so.
But why? What does reading give me or give anyone that we can’t get from movies or Facebook or hanging with our friends?
Reading fiction, in particular, is an interesting experience and I have developed theories as to why we do it. When you watch young children explore books (which I’ve been doing over the last few years as I’ve somehow acquired grandchildren), you realize that one of the things they are doing is practicing life. One of the reasons they will read the same book over and over (and repeat watch movies too) is they are trying to figure out how to be human. It is not an easy task and that’s why so much of early reading has to do with sorting things out — making distinctions between this thing and that and between emotions.
Reading gives us emotional insights that we can’t get anywhere else. As adults, we are constantly trying to get inside other people’s heads: does my boss respect me, will Joe support me, does Jack love me, what does Harry really want? But, with the exception of a few experiments in thought transfer, we are always alone in our own heads. Except when we read. Only then can we see what others see, think what others think.
Now, reading non-fiction is an entirely different thing.
But that’s ten minutes.