What I’ve Stopped Reading

Reading, as Dorothy recently pointed out, has its phases, ushered in and out by one’s attention span, which in turn is influenced by what is happening in life outside the reading chair. And so it is that sometimes I have gone for long stretches happily turning the pages of big books. And then weeks or months go by when all the words I need can be found in the New Yorker and Dorothy Sayers. And quite often, the back of a cereal box is good enough.

This rise and fall in attentiveness is as normal as the change of seasons. But also normal, although a little rarer, is when a certain type of text becomes something we know we no longer need. Like an unreliable boyfriend, some reading material will seem to meet your needs, but then it begins to exact such a toll or bore you to tears, which might be the same thing, and so a break-up is inevitable. Here’s a list of the things I’ve given up, permanently, I’m pretty sure.

  • Political Blogs. Before the 2004 election, I read Daily Kos, and The Talking Points Memo and the many links on their sites not just religiously but obsessively. The buzz and hope and hype on those blogs was intoxicating. But then, after the election, people who’d loved John Kerry suddenly hated him. There was a lot of anger and angst. It made me feel awful. But what really made me stop going there was when I posted something and someone was just so gratuitously MEAN to me and then another person did the same thing. It wasn’t a nice place to spend time in. And I didn’t need that. I want kindness mixed in with my political chatter. Now I know that’s not going to be possible and I have returned to the New York Times and a really large dose of scepticism about everything I read there.
  • Books about writing. For several years, I read a lot of books about writing. They were helpful, sometimes inspiring, and every once in a while led me in a very wrong direction. But that’s not what put me off them. What happened is that I reached a saturation point with them. I discovered there isn’t any more room in me for more information about how to write a story. Now, what’s needed is story writing.
  • Cooking magazines. This might be temporary. But I’ve cancelled my cooking magazines in favor of just, well, cooking. A little like the books about writing category. I can never give up cookbooks though.
  • Best Seller, Much Buzzed About, Contemporary Fiction. The Secret Life of Bees, The Three Junes, things like that. After reading several disappointing books in this category, I realized I don’t have time to wade through the mediocre to get to the great. It’s a little like when you’re single and you decide you really, really don’t need to date anymore because you already have a lot of great friends to hang out with (I can always re-read Jane Austen, I mean), and when there’s nothing to do on a Friday, you are fine being on your own (there’s always the cereal box). The truth is, when something really good comes along, someone will point it out to you. Or it will find you. That way I don’t miss things like Sebald’s great book, Austerlitz or the fun of Alexander McCall Smith.
  • Legal advance sheets. These are the reports of the most recent cases to come out of our state court and the federal courts. If you don’t keep up with them, they start to multiply, like dust bunnies. A few days ago, I recycled a pile of them and felt great about it. And then it occurred to me that, like good contemporary fiction, the good cases rise to the top. My colleagues tell me about them. Or I’ll find them when I’m working in that area.
  • Book reviews. I like the ones I read on your blogs better.
  • Fashion magazines. Charlotte has become my fashion goddess. Don’t mix pink and black and you’re home free.

Oh, and one other thing reading related — this morning, I picked up the September 2006 issue of Poetry magazine, a magazine I like because it doesn’t require a huge commitment of time. And there was a review of Seamus Heaney’s new book District and Circle. It’s a book all about something I’m in love with: objects — how they outlive us and contain us. I’m thrilled to have been reminded this is out there to be read, and that I can read it, because I’ve made room for it by abandoning Daily Kos and In Style and The Secret Life of Bees.


19 thoughts on “What I’ve Stopped Reading

  1. Good for you, bloglily, and, may I add, good luck to you. These will not be easy categories to resist forever without relapse. But I agree there are far better things to read than those you’ve given up. For years I’ve had an accidental policy to avoid fiction until it’s aged for 25 years or more, but not without feeling guilty about it—I’d like my own stories to be read now!—after all, the best of today’s writers deserve some encouragement, too, even a livelihood. As for reading about writing, I have patience for just one writer on the subject. William H. Gass collected his literary criticism into three volumes in the early 90s that are such rich reading in themselves I recommend them as heartily as I would the best novels. Finding a Form. Fiction and the Figures of Life. The World within the Word. The essays can be savored one at a time without interfering with the writing you should be doing yourself. And, yeah, you can’t go wrong with Seamus Heaney no matter the vintage.

  2. That Seamus Heaney book sounds great — I’m interested in people’s relationship to objects too, and I should check it out. I went through that same political blog phase, and right after the election, I stopped reading them. I don’t miss ’em a bit.

  3. Good for you! I love your boyfriend analogy, but I was never too good at letting go of boyfriends who were bad for me.

    I go through ups and downs with all newspaper and magazine reading, but then eventually return to them. (I particularly miss certain sections of the NY Times too much when I do that.) I’m beginning to slowly wean myself off book reviews, though (despite being in the publishing business. My little area of publishing doesn’t rely in them, thank goodness) since I’ve discovered through blogging so much more, better, and inciteful information from those who really seem to be kindred souls when it comes to books. However, I still read them in the NY Times, and I am still extremely grateful to my friend who subscribes to the TLS and passes it on to me when he’s done.

  4. I loved this post because so often I feel that I must read what “everyone” is reading and then I go to great lengths to place a library hold or find it cheaply and then… I just don’t like it. Don’t understand all the buzz.

    And what’s worst about this is that I feel stressed and like I’m “not keeping up” and what I really want to do is read Proust, really sink into his works and I’m not getting to it because I keep sampling the latest It Writer and being disappointed.

    It’s all about freeing up time to do what we think is important, not what “everyone” tells us to do. I’m 40 and my daughter is 12 and we’re in the same place with this lesson. :/

  5. i’ve written a similar post as yours, and i’m also in the same frame of mind about book reviews. i don’t particularly read book reviews in blogs either but if i want a review, i’d rather go to amazon and read the users reviews.

  6. “A smooth libation of the past, demenses staked out by consonants…” I have no idea which Seamus Heaney poem that is from but we studied it at school and now, whenever I’m writing, it goes through my head on a loop. Bizarre! But he is a genius (maybe I’m hoping it will rub off…)

    I read The Secret Life of Bees when it first came out. I remember thinking it was quite OK but now I can’t remember a blind word of what it was about. Yet I have read so many books that haven’t been trumped up to high heaven and the stories will stay with me forever. Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone is one example.

    These days, instead of buying cookery books and magazines, I get them from the library, copy out the recipes I like, then return them. I’m sure the authors wouldn’t thank me but it means I don’t get the guilt of buying a cookery tome and using only one recipe out of it.

    My husband has caught me browsing blogs when I should be writing. Better go! Heh!

  7. Hi Jeff — You’re CANADIAN! There’s no way you can be overly political. Your sense of the ridiculous won’t allow that, which is why most Americans secretly (or not so secretly) wish they were Canadian.

    Hi Helen, I think I might not be right about contemporary fiction. There’s so much of it, and I hate being disappointed by it, but then again, as David points out, it’s important to read and support our peers, so maybe this is a category I should rethink. But I do like having other people’s recommendations. And I just got up to find that poem, but discovered that the whole collected S. Heaney has been put somewhere, and I have no idea where that is!

    Diana, That’s a good way to look at this winnowing of what we want to read. It’s probably not a bad idea to have a little space to be surprised by something, but then it’s also nice to be able to decide we don’t have to read the big book when we want the small, or the other way around. Reading for pleasure should, after all, be just that.

    Hi Sulz, I think this is a subject that’s on many minds. Maybe it’s because it’s fall, when book reading feels like “required” reading!

    What a nice friend you have Emily. It’s lovely when people share things like the TLS. I do enjoy the NYT book review, although I am getting much better at making up my own mind about what books sound like they might be good.

    Dorothy, I’ve ordered District and Circle and when I finish it, I’ll try to write something about it.

  8. I agree with you, BL, there’s too little time to be wasted on reading that does not give satisfaction or reward. I’m still reading a lot of contemporary fiction, whether highly hyped or not, but I think blogs are a good forum for finding out which ones are best avoided.

    Thanks for the fashion plug. I blush. I must remember to groom a little before slipping out to the bakery for our Sunday Broetchen.

  9. Another kind of letting go of reading is something – Nadine Gordimer? Doris Lessing? – wrote something somewhere about being old enough to not bother finishing books you don’t like. I found that incredibly liberating. My own guilty secret is a mountain of unread London Review of Books. Unread and (gulp) unopened.

  10. love this! I’m still reading those “writing books” tho I probably should’ve stopped after Writing down the bones, by Natalie Goldberg.

  11. I realised about 90 minutes ago that though I’d like to belong to a book group and read a book every month, I would much rather belong to one which only reads non-fiction. I’m sure I’ll start reading fiction again.


  12. Regarding what and what not to read, I have a method that may seem odd. I let books come to me, rather than going out in search of them. Let me explain.

    Often, I find out about a book because a close friend recommends it after a heartfelt conversation. That is how I read “The Secret Life of Bees,” which I adored at the time and still adore. I find that books arrive in my life just when I need them most, carrying a message that I need to hear.

    Two years ago I left my full-time job as a computer guru and started devoting my energy to writing and performing my work. Before I left my job, I reached a point where I felt very stuck, and was unable to decide whether to leave or stay or what in the heck I should do. In the privacy of the women’s bathroom, I threw up my hands and asked whatever powers be for help, because I knew I couldn’t make such a weighty decision entirely on my own. Then I dried my tears and went back to my desk.

    Waiting in my email inbox was a message about a workshop being given by a woman named Kathy Cordova. I scrolled through the email feeling bored and depressed, completely uninterested in the workshop. When I got to the end of the email, there it was: the book I had been waiting for! Ms. Cordova had written a book entitled: “Let Go, Let Miracles Happen (The Art of Spiritual Surrender).” I went right on Amazon and ordered it. Sure enough, when it arrived, it proved to be exactly what I needed.

    Apologies for the overlong post, but the subject is a juicy one for me. Thanks, Lily!

    ~Love and Blessings,

  13. Hope you ARE still planning to read Half of a Yellow Sun! And thanks for the heads up about the Heaney book. It was on the periphery of my consciousness, but you just pushed it to the front.

  14. Oh dear, I feel I’ve been an idiot about contemporary fiction. I didn’t mean to single out any particular book as being mediocre.  In fact, the trouble for me is I’ve picked up and read through a lot of books I thought were supposed to be incredible, and they were good, but not stupendous. I think we all have books in that category, they’re just different for each of us. With time so divided among working, childcare, and trying to write, I don’t take the same pleasure I used to in winnowing through current things to find the gems. (Which is why I love hearing about books like Half of a Yellow Sun and yes I most certainly am going to try to fit in.)

  15. This post really hit home to me! In fact I (finally) wrote a new entry relating in an obtuse way to this very subject.

    I get ‘obsessed’ with something and all the other stuff starts to collect. I’ve learned over the years that my obsessions have a time limit, so if I want to take advantage, I have to go full steam ahead before the steam runs out.

    But I know what you mean about saturation points. I used to read a lot of computer books, project management books, etc. But I’ve really been moving away from the ‘technical’ of late and more to the ‘creative’. It’s like when you try to feed your kid cooked green beans and they say they’re full, but they’ll have a slice of pie. “My green-bean place is full”…


  16. Pingback: Of books and sunglasses « White Thoughts No One Sees

  17. Excellant post and a wonderful source of inspiration to continue with my own recent decision to streamline and prioritize. 🙂 Thank you Lily.

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