Reading as a Way of Life

Do you read? You’re reading right now, but is reading a major part of your life? Do you do it deliberately, often, widely, and with intention? I do. Reading is woven into moments of my life— I remember what I read on my belated honeymoon with Max (Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth). I remember what I read on the plane home from India in 2001 (Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer). 

Since I finished graduate school, self-directed reading is back in my life in a big way. Sometimes it’s for pleasure, sometimes its to learn, sometimes it’s to achieve another end, but it’s glorious to have the opportunity to consume words and ideas of my choosing. 

I find that I need to choose to read what I find valuable or else i fall into reading (or just looking at, honestly) a lot of bullshit. Like things linked from social media, or just scrolling through feeds, or watching TV that I’m not truly that interested in, or otherwise letting my attention be pulled into things that aren’t really serving me. That exploring and thread-following can be fun, and it can be useful, but if left unchecked, it creates this shallow, aimless consumption that doesn’t feel fulfilling. So I have a practice of reading, on purpose.

I use several strategies to help myself read widely and well. 

  • I keep a list (in evernote— always accessible on my phone, laptop, or the web) of things I want to read. When I hear something mentioned on NPR, or I see it in a shop window, or it comes up in conversation, it goes on the list for me to look up later.
  • I also keep a list of books I have read (I also use evernote for this). Sometimes I annotate this list with quotes or reactions, but mostly I just keep the list. It’s interesting to look back at it and remember books, and also to look for patterns. In 2018, I read 36 books. Sixteen of them were fiction, and five of those were technically “young adult”.  Six were from the business/psychology/self-help genre. Nine were personal memoirs or essays. 
  • I use the library. I take out books, ebooks, audiobooks. I use the “hold” feature to have them ready at my local branch. This is great, too, for something that’s popular: get on the list, and then it’s a fun surprise when it becomes available.
  • I browse. There are fewer places to do this authentically than there used to be, but I live in Portland now, and Powell’s! In Tucson, there was Bookman’s. Look for the place that has author readings, used books, independent press stuff, zines. . . they often have interesting displays rather than corporately mandated placement.
  • I listen. I mentioned audiobooks. I love them. Some people think this doesn’t count as reading, but I respectfully disagree. I’m a slow reader with dyslexic tendencies, so audiobooks are a boon for me: I often comprehend better in this format. They’re also a huge help to commuters, chore-dooers, runners, and anyone else who’s not sitting still. A truly great narration is also transformative.
  • I explore other formats. Sometimes I read long-form journalism. Sometimes I read the newspaper and some magazines (we subsribe to the New Yorker and the New York Times). Sometimes I listen to podcasts. Sometimes I read articles or blogs published online (Lately, I read The Intercept). This requires some self-discipline to avoid getting pulled down rabbit holes, but it also increases the diversity of the content I’m expsoed to.
  • Speaking of diversity: I seek it out. A few years ago I made a concernted effort not to read books written by cis/het/white dudes. This was interesting, not because it was hard, but because I had to try. I read some truly incredible work in that period and while I don’t keep it as a rule, the principle persists in my choices and what I read now is written by a diverse collection of authors.
  • I’m not an absolutist. I don’t finish every book I start, and I read multiple books at a time. Sometimes I feel like a novel, sometimes I feel like challenging nonfiction, sometimes I just want to laugh. 
  • I read and write first thing in the morning— usually just for a few minutes, but picking something to read before I jump on email or twitter or into work reminds me that I get to choose. It might be something “inspiraitonal” or focused on habits or mindset, or it might be poetry, or it might be something else, but usually it’s bite-sized and it gets me into a space for reflection and writing. Again, just for a few mintues. 
  • I ask for advice. My sister Amy is used to getting a text from me that goes like this: “help! I’m at a bookstore. What should I read??”. And she always answers, and she’s always got something for me.

Do you have reading suggestions? Books? Habits? Tools? Observations?

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