Reflecting on my reading habits
today at 9:23 am
On my new computer, I bookmarked NPR, CNN, and other news sites one day and removed the bookmarks the next. Their stories were mostly different angles on news I already knew, and nothing was must-know-immediately. And unless my safety is in danger, what is must-know-immediately anyhow?
The depth, analysis, and insight of long-form journalism is what I’m looking for. I reminded myself that I’d replaced a desktop computer with a laptop to enjoy reading long articles away from my desk, ensconced in my reading chair.
I was also reminded of how much high-quality long-form journalism is available online and in print as I looked at a three-month stack of New York Times Magazines passed on by a friend. Giving up trying to read the magazines thoroughly, I skimmed the contents for topics of interest, just a scattering. That brought to mind why I haven’t subscribed to many magazines. There are few I want to read cover to cover.
Reading online, I can pick and choose articles whose topics interest me. Sites such as Arts & Letters Daily and Longform curate magazine-length articles. I make PDFs of articles of interest to read at my leisure. They are in a folder on my computer that isn’t guilt-tripping me as the pile of printed magazines did.
On my last turn as book group suggester, I offered a choice of three novels by African Americans. The group picked Jean Toomer’s Cane from the list. Fortunately, I started reading the selection soon and realized Cane is difficult, obscure, and almost plotless. I sent a panicky email to the group asking to switch to the runner-up.
The last book our group read was Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story. Although less esoteric than Cane, its language is excessively descriptive and its plot is desultory. Not my cup of tea.
I next began Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and quit about a quarter of the way in. This time my compliant was not about the writing but the main character. I couldn’t relate.
In the past I would apologize for my taste if I disliked a book praised by literary critics. After a lifetime of making lists of literary fiction and classics I should read, at last I am letting myself read what I enjoy and give up on what I don’t.
I don’t want prose that reads like poetry. I don’t want to get lost in sentences where authors show off their wordplay.
I want straightforward writing, plots, and sympathetic characters to identify with.
I’m not looking for escapism, but I want to comprehend the characters’ struggles, not struggle with impenetrable stream-of-consciousness ramblings.
While I congratulate myself about being willing to give up on a book, it would be better to not to waste time reading the first however many pages. What I now plan before getting a book is to look at the most critical (one- and two-star) reviews on Amazon. If the reviewers seem to share my taste, I’ll take a pass on the book.
What does it matter if I miss a literary sensation? Life goes on even though I haven’t traveled to every so-called must-see place or watched every must-see television series. Same goes for must-reads. There are always other places, programs, and books.
John Warner, the “Biblioracle” published in the Sunday Chicago Tribune, has a refreshing take on must-reads: There aren’t any.
“[N]ever read a book because you think it will make you seem with it or worldly or cultured. Read for yourself. . . . Read what you want to. . . . There’s no way to do it wrong,” he wrote in a column.
I’ll still make reading lists to remember titles I expect to like, but the list of must-reads can go. Reading is meant to be a pleasure.