At some point in the last few years, I forgot how to read.
Let me rephrase that. I forgot how to read books. (I still vaguely remember how words work.)
When I was younger, books were everything in my life, the only thing that mattered. In my twenties I still read voraciously, picking up a book whenever I had downtime between work and a social life. In my thirties I read a lot, but there were other things on my plate now – jobs that demanded more attention, relationships that required additional effort, this internet thing that was full of words that also needed reading, and that was the same as reading books, except that it wasn’t. The ties began to weaken.
In my forties I spent more time working and writing, less and less time reading – but there was still a good hour or more I could devote to books every day, usually during the morning bus ride to work. Until the job changed, the commute changed, my mental energy levels changed. Reading became inconvenient, taxing, awkward to fit into my schedule. There were podcasts and mobile games and social media micro-interactions as alternatives, little things I could squirt into my day to fill up the spaces like packing foam, and they were a lot easier to manage than complicated things like books that demanded concentration and remembering plots and using the part of my brain that appreciated good prose.
And now here I am, with lots of free time, and I’ve still barely glanced at any of the unread books on my shelves, desk and Kindle. Instead I write, I do housework, I walk the dog… and I potter about. I check the same websites every hour or so, I flick through RPG sourcebooks, I poke half-heartedly at a dozen things that don’t matter and then I do it all again. Sitting down with a book never makes it onto the agenda.
Frankly, I’m tired of being a reader that doesn’t read. And I’m horrified by the thought of being a writer that doesn’t read.
I want this to change.
So how to fix this, other than just strapping a Kindle to my face like some kind of homemade Oculus Rift?
As I said last week, I’ve been focusing on structuring my time more effectively – blocking out hours that are just for writing, or watering the yard, or getting drunk while watching Eurovision (oh my god we almost won how crazy and glorious is that?). That’s still a work in progress; it’s harder than I would like to keep to that schedule, or to stay focused on what I’m supposed to do in that block of time. (I need to schedule things in mid-sized blocks of 90 minutes each, rather than half-hour snippets or three hour icebergs of effort.) But it’s helping, and it’s a habit-shaping engine I want to keep using.
So I’m literally putting ‘read a book’ into my daily schedule, with start and end times – again, aiming for 90-minute intervals where that’s all I do. (Ninety minutes is apparently how long a typical sleep cycle goes for, which probably means it’s a good ultradian rhythm for other tasks because, um, because magic.) Tomorrow, for instance, I’ve put down a block in the morning, to do straight after watering the yard, but before I head off to a lunch date. (Not sure what I’m going to read just yet, but I have plenty of options.) Once I get back, the afternoon is scheduled for writing, but I’ll see if I can include another reading block in the evening. It’ll take some fine-tuning, but I’ll fiddle with it, as well as shoring up some habit-enforcing infrastructure (a stack of books within reach of my work desk, going out to read while leaving my tablet full of game distractions at home, and so on).
Will this make reading a chore, another task I have to tick off my to-do list rather than something I actually enjoy? Maybe, but I doubt it. There are plenty of things I enjoy that I have to schedule and organise – I’m a roleplayer, after all, and 90% of my hobby is sending scheduling emails – and that just means that they actually happen, rather than something I just wish would happen by magic.
At age 45, I’m slowly, finally realising that magic is in short supply – even the magic of reading. And it tend to occur only after you do all the work of setting up the trick yourself.
This is some Wizard of Oz shit right here, lemme tell you.
Plus, here’s a bonus – it’s easier to read with a dog in your lap than to write with one. Especially a dog that likes to plant his face on the keyboard.
I’ll let you know how it works out.
And whether Ernie gets addicted to the smell of paper.