December 25, 2001
11:45 PM   Subscribe

"But at some point along the path to discovery, the reader confronts his or her reading mortality. There's only so much time. And there are so many great books." I must come to grips with this myself, even as I anxiously await the inaugural book club discussion. I must admit, though, that people like this [NYT link] make me feel my own "reading mortality" more acutely. (I wish I could read that much so quickly...)
posted by arco (18 comments total)
same goes for seeing the world, not living to see new technologies, not living to travel into space, etc, etc, etc.

sure, we feel our reader mortality, but really, what's the point in lingering over the sensation (other than becoming a living work of art)?
posted by kv at 12:17 AM on December 26, 2001

I feel a particularly acute sense of reading mortality as a student of mathematics. The books of mathematics that I work my way through tend to use far more difficult language than the average book, such that it is not uncommon to find myself getting through no more than a chapter a day, if I have nothing else to do but read. And so, at the end of such a day, I'll want to sit down and unwind my brain a bit, but find myself with a certain aversion to reading. I expect it's the same feeling that a computer programmer would have towards playing video games after an eight hour coding marathon.

As such, over the last couple of years, the amount of recreational reading I do has gone from prodigious to nearly halted. And of course there's a million books I want to read. But I find more and more often that the time I once would have spent with a good book I am now using to watch a couple of films or play a few games of chess. Or work a couple of interesting problems, for that matter. But maybe that's just one more reason to praise the ascendance of film.

Film has a number of advantages over the book when it comes to recreation. Just as I've read very few books that really needed to be of novel length rather than short stories or novellas, so to would few books suffer from the abridgement required by a translation to film. you can also watch a film a couple of times without getting the feeling that you're shortchanging all of those other films that you really should be watching instead. And I think that the amount of information one can hope to convey with a two hour film has greatly increased as the common audience's media savvy has increased. We're getting better at 'decoding' information, and as such the extended format of the novel is less necessary now than it would have been even fifty years ago.
(commence your flaming!)
posted by kaibutsu at 12:46 AM on December 26, 2001

The heaps of new non-fiction constantly printed cannot be read by anyone, but that is why we specialize. As for fiction: professional readers (reviewers and their ilk) may have reason to worry about their so-called reading mortality, but the casual reader does not.

Only an idiot would read fiction for information, for the plot, for dreary flippable bits to be instantly and thoroughly comprehended and applied or laid away like cordwood in some outbuilding of the soul. Read fiction and poetry for aesthetics, for joy in the way the thing is expressed.

Read the best works over and over, regardless of your short time on earth, and ignore the latest tripe, no matter what Oprah instructs you to digest. Don't read Hamlet once, or three times, or five, and consider it done; don't wish for a condensed, modernized, simplified, illustrated version from which you could have three neat, sanitized conclusions drawn for you; and don't say you have no time for good reading when you have time for garbage television, mindless mall shopping, and trivial pop songs repeated dozens of times. If you must consume, and be consumed by, the likes of Stephen King, make that consumption your screen-staring time; reserve reading time for the best things.

Don't try to "keep up" with your reading. There is nothing to catch. If there is any progress in art, it is nothing you would notice from year to year, decade to decade. If anything, try to keep back; let the hordes sift the dust for treasure. If everyone with a decent mind still loves a book a few years later, maybe it's a gem you should look on awhile. Meanwhile, you will have been reading and rereading great things. And if you die in the middle of your third time through Middlemarch instead of your only time racing through the latest disposable bestseller, you will not have missed a thing.

And don't waste time on web sites.
posted by pracowity at 2:03 AM on December 26, 2001

If you can get past who it's written by, this may be useful. The moral is "can't win, don't try". I don't heed it myself, there's a pile of books a mile high at the end of my bed.
posted by vbfg at 2:19 AM on December 26, 2001

Reading anxiety is just another symptom of our time. We want to do everything but is faced with the hard truth that we haven't got enough time. I think there is a big longing among most people to whole-hearted do the things they like or see as 'good things'. We want some kind of mission in our lives but set higher goals than we can achieve. I know it's cliche, but in this fast world no one have the ability to dwell on a single subject, no one has the courage to just live in the present and forget what we should do or never will be able to do.
posted by kabell at 5:04 AM on December 26, 2001

So many books, so little time. Why be anxious? Enjoy as many as you can.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:20 AM on December 26, 2001

I've reversed the formula of my youth, and now read far less fiction than non-fiction. Whether a novel is better than the film made from it is a moot issue. Usually the book is better, but when I find it impossible to slog through the book, as in The Shipping News, I can still enjoy the film--less time, more aural and visual stimulus, favorite actors, etc.
posted by gordian knot at 6:15 AM on December 26, 2001

there is a great short story by tibor fisher, bookcruncher on the subject, and I think that he proposes a great solution to reading anxiety.
I heart tibor fischer!
posted by goneill at 6:28 AM on December 26, 2001

This link is timely for me, as I have a huge pile of half-read books right now and I'm going out at lunch to get more. I'm on a history binge and I feel like I can't learn fast enough...I want to know more NOW. I want that thing they had on the Matrix where you can learn to fly a helicopter in just a few seconds. *Sigh* Don't get me wrong, I LOVE to read. I just wish I had more time.
posted by airgirl at 6:39 AM on December 26, 2001

fret not: in the end we all die. Sam Johnson advised getting the reading done before 40; after, he said, it got very difficult. Thoreau noted Why read books when you can read Nature direct... and then there is the autodidact in a novel by Sartre who is systematically reading every book in his local library, beginning with the letter "A," only to discover that they add new books faster than he is able to read what is there. Or, finally, a dean at Yale who pointed to the holdings in their fine library and said no one, no matter how fast a reader, could read all that was there. So, he advised, pick, choose, and read carefully.
posted by Postroad at 7:42 AM on December 26, 2001

You guys are making me feel real guilty about reading the back of my Captain Crunch box at breakfast this morning...

But really, when I wake up, I have a strong 'need to read'. Anything. Content is completely irrelevant, just need to process something.

Anyone else have a mental boot process?
posted by groundhog at 8:15 AM on December 26, 2001

I always read in the morning as well, no matter what is lying around. It is a great way to start the day.

I guess I read insanely fast. I can usually finish a book in about the same time others watch a movie. My main problem is reading series of books that are still being written. The book comes out, I finish it the day I get it, then I have to wait months and months for the next book.

Pracowity made a good point about rereading the best works. I'd much rather reread something I know is great then spend time reading something 'because it's there.'
posted by MrBrett at 11:29 AM on December 26, 2001

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren is a useful read in its own right, as it can help you be a more effective reader. If you haven't read it, you might want to give it a try.
posted by alumshubby at 12:46 PM on December 26, 2001

ohhhh, mrbrett, you are so cool.
posted by goneill at 1:03 PM on December 26, 2001

if you people don't read my original link, i'm going to post the whole text...
posted by goneill at 1:28 PM on December 26, 2001

goneill, play nice.

i wish that i could read a whole entire complete chapter book (no pictures) in 112 minutes, and i'll bet that you do too. i think you're just jealous of mr. brett's mad reading skillz and that's why you snarked at him. besides, it's obvious that the poor guy is suffering, anxiously awaiting the latest hardy boys release.

why do i call you out? because such behavior is unbecoming and reflects poorly upon your previous post, which contained a quality link.

tibor fischer is a genius, and "bookcruncher" is a great short story. what serious reader hasn't considered pursuing the bookcruncher's goal at some point in her/his lifetime?
posted by mlang at 1:55 PM on December 26, 2001

Sorry, goneill... can't read bookcruncher... too little time...

Maybe part of the responsibility lies with authors. Maybe there should be several layers of granularity in texts, fiction or otherwise. The technology is there: WWW hyperlinks, or even choose-your-own-adventure type reading paths. The discriminating reader will read those passages that are most relevent/fascinating to him/her.

At least in theory.
posted by SilentSalamander at 3:59 PM on December 26, 2001

Groundhog, I ALWAYS read the back of the cereal box...have since I was a kid. I have memorized the back of the milk carton from my childhood..."Selling or giving away commissary privleges..." My husband says I'm a compulsive reader. Which, perhaps, is why I'm HERE! I could be using this time to read some of those half-read books...
posted by airgirl at 4:00 PM on December 26, 2001

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