500 Words is a blog about the writing process that is published on Thursdays.
How to deal with too much to read?
Linda Holmes, writing on the NPR website, points out reading everything you want to read is hopeless. The title of her article is fitting:“The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything.”
Consider books alone. Let’s say you read two a week, and sometimes you take on a long one that takes you a whole week. That’s quite a brisk pace for the average person. That lets you finish, let’s say, 100 books a year. If we assume you start now, and you’re 15, and you are willing to continue at this pace until you’re 80. That’s 6,500 books, which really sounds like a lot.
She points out that when you add movies and television to your watch list, you guarantee that even at that pace, “you will die having missed almost everything.”
The easy fix is to take out your scythe and cull like crazy — wipe away huge swaths of culture as if they don’t matter. Movies with subtitles? Out. Hip-Hop. Gone. This is the coward’s way out. It allows you to ignore cultures outside of your worldview.
What about the alternative which is surrender? I hate the word surrender. But it might be just what I need. I can’t read and watch everything. I have to be selective.
When you read a lot, you develop themes. There are paths you walk down often. I read stacks of books for work. I am interested in narrative styles, and structures. The topic doesn’t always matter. I will read favorite writers all the way through everything they’ve written. Vladimir Nabokov. Joan Didion. John le Carré. Georges Simenon. Murakami. Helen MacDonald. I have a stack of Jane Smiley books on my desk that towers two feet high. This is pleasure reading. The topics are horses, falcons, alternative universes, crime, spies, California, chess, memory. It’s not a certain topic I seek, it’s the craft.
I read non-fiction to understand the world or to understand a world I am writing about. Parenting. Food. Architecture. Urbanism. The Internet. Online privacy. That stack of books includes work by Michael Pollan, Jonathan Taplin, Jonathan Foer. I read science fiction for fun and to expand my thinking. Asimov. Cixin Liu. These are the books I most often tell other people about.
After reading Chandler, Hammett, and Grafton I don’t need to read more murder mysteries or detective stories. I sampled Agatha Christie and found her oeuvre to be an emotional goose egg for me. Skip. I have read one or two by Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, and Thomas Pynchon. That’s enough. I’d rather make time for more Joan Didion and Meg Wolitzer. I’d even read more Lee Child. I want time to read a book again that I loved. H Is For Hawk. (Helen MacDonald; for the emotional depth.) The Defense. (Nabokov; structure.) Tribes. (Seth Godin; how to communicate.)
You can see a pattern, one I hope is useful for your own reading. I dip my foot into a stream, then move on to the next. Some books I use to study structure, some to understand my world or one I am writing about, some for fun and to recommend to other people. I am missing a lot! But it’s better to appreciate what I can.
One more thing: I no longer worry about forcing myself to read a book all the way through if it isn’t working for me. I donate those to the library and move on.
Thanks for giving this a read,