Fifty shades of reading (or more)

UPDATE: The New York Times ran this piece that is pretty much along the same lines of what I’m talking about. Interesting reading.


I’ve been seeing something a lot lately.

So many bloggers, especially these I’m-an-omnivore-who’s-up-on-the-latest-trends types, stress how many books they read.

Usually it’s per week. Either on their own sites, or in interviews about how Enlightenment they are: “Blogger so-and-so reads twelve/fifteen/twenty books a week, and talks about it on Twitter/Facebook/Her website. Join the conversation!”

A few times I have. I find sadly that the discussions skim the surface, like a junior high book report. Yeah, you read The Long Tail, but you didn’t do anything but sum it up and offer a few words of praise.

What’s my point? I don’t know exactly. I’m happy to see people proud that they’re reading instead of sitting in front of the TV or game console. We all know that reading is better for the mind. …Or is it? I still have a memory in eighth grade of a teacher praising reading, and a student joking with her that while he reads, it’s Mad magazine. And he held up a Don Martin book.

“At least it’s a book,” she said, quite seriously.

But I have my doubts. Really, is the medium the deciding factor,? Should it be any sort of factor at all? Or, to put it another way, I have to wonder if anyone who can read twelve (another blog said fifteen, another twenty) books a week is reading worthwhile books. Currently I’m reading an excerpt of Gibbon’s Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire—not the whole thing by a long shot, just a short excerpt—and it’s taken me three weeks. It’s dense stuff. Often I have to stop and do some side-reading about the early Christians or the backgrounds of the emperors to be able to follow the narrative.

Before that I re-read Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s biography of Mozart—which went quickly—and Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which didn’t. I can’t imagine reading a book like the latter fast enough to read eleven or fourteen or nineteen other books that week. Even if I just sat there all day and made my eyeballs make contact with every word, and I managed to “finish” the Bailyn, I still wouldn’t have absorbed it. (If you don’t believe me, just check out the book. The footnotes themselves—and yes, you really do have to read them to get the depth of the argument—could be their own book.)

But more to the point, I’m starting to think that the claim “I read xx books a week/month” is like saying, “I read a book this thick” [three inches between fingers]. So what? John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is only this thick [quarter inch between fingers] but it’s a very important book, one you should read slowly, and think about as you do.

In short, I’m skeptical of the value of gobbling up information without chewing on it. Are we reading critically? Are we parsing what the author says, examining it carefully, or are we just nodding our heads in agreement because he’s a published author and it’s a New York Times Bestseller? (Ever notice, by the way, how so many New York Times Bestsellers are written by New York Times writers?) What do we get out of this kind of reading, other than the bragging rights of having read a lot, and what’s trendy. (Anyone read The Secret Life of Plants lately? …Didn’t think so.)

I’m also skeptical about all these bloggers who read about ten books a week and then write little digests on all of them. They rarely say anything original. Rather, they just rehash the content, something you can do by reading the flap or the Amazon product description, which is what I suspect some of these people do. That same great (though my classmates thought her annoying) eighth grade teacher (History) made us write papers, lots of papers (bless her!), and she was fond of standing in front of the class with our efforts and saying, “Where’s the original thinking?” before handing the report back, often with a not-good grade. I learned a lot from that lady.

And let’s stop acting like all books are equal. While it’s good for publishers’ bottom lines that Fifty Shades of Grey is doing so well  (or for one publisher in particular, Vintage), it’s a stretch to say this marks some sort of reading renaissance or victory over “dumb Hollywood entertainments.” You can read Fifty Shades with your brain turned off (even though something else may be turned on). Which is fine, but don’t pretend it’s literature. “It’s a matter of opinion” someone opined in the comments section of a recent article. I wonder if it occurred to her that her statement was then, by definition, itself an opinion. But also, it’s instructive to look at the past. A hundred fifty years ago people weren’t toting Moby-Dick to the beach. They were reading dime novels. Sometimes you can still find these tiny books in old “antique” (sometimes just junk) shops in small towns. Look at them some time, if you do, with their gaudy covers and titles like Molly’s Rosie Romance. Read a page or two and you’ll cringe in embarrassment at the naivete. You won’t cringe at Moby-Dick. I wonder what the young woman who thinks the quality of whatever you read is all a matter of opinion would think of that. I wonder how eager she’d be to embrace Molly.

The late Carl Sagan once said, “The key is to read the right books.” He might have added you don’t have to read billions and billions.

6 responses

  1. carvedbytheshadows

    This sums up perfectly how I feel about a lot of other bloggers – they put up targets of 500 books a year, and then write up their progress every week. I hate to say it, but a lot of the time the books they have read are all no-brainers. They don’t try for that much variety, or even to just slow down and enjoy the book. Then they call it a ‘reading slump’ if they have only read five books in the week! I’m going to stop ranting now haha…


    May 20, 2012 at 9:48 am

  2. John – I’e been following your blog for a long time now and I have to say you really hit the nail on the head with this one. I mean, you do that a lot in other posts too and I always enjoy them; in fact, I print them and put them on our bulletin board at work. But this one really summed up the difference between grazing alot, which is what our tech-driven modern “quantity” obsessed culture is into, and really reading for understanding and depth, which judging from the arguments on everything from Fox News to the New York Times, nobody is these days into. Bravo. And hurry up and finish that book…I want to read it. And I _won’t_ skim.


    May 20, 2012 at 12:17 pm

  3. Sheila Jordan James

    Good one, another good one. I’m enjoying following your blog too. Do you write anywhere else?


    May 20, 2012 at 12:18 pm

  4. Maria Poole

    Interesting point (and who did we have for 8th grade history…do you mean Mrs. C?).

    I may not always read the “right stuff” but I try to read what is interesting to me. Give me anything fiction or non about some of my fav subjects, and I will read it. I also read a lot of “popular” fiction, sure, but I don’t think I know one person who read The Wave in my circle of friends, an interesting recent nonfiction read. Other popular stuff like Twilight (threw it across the room the writing is so awful) and 50 Shades hold zero interest for me.

    Sometimes I just want something mindless, sometimes I want to learn something (even if I’ve read 40 other books about Marie Antoinette…). A lot of times I agree with the statement “at least they’re reading”…but its not about he who reads the fastest wins so I do find the bragging a bit silly.

    Great post, friend!


    May 20, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    • Didn’t know you were into Marie Antoinette. Did you see the Sofia Coppola movie?


      May 20, 2012 at 5:03 pm

  5. From one of my subscribers, Susan Gabriel of http://www.susangabriel.com, who suddenly can’t seem to post comments herself anymore, for some glitchy reason:

    Another great post, John. Deep and thoughtful writing. And I really like the tie! Still can’t figure out why I am unable to post. I hope you’re doing well.


    May 23, 2012 at 10:52 pm

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