Monday, August 23, 2010

Time Enough At Last

If you are a reader, you've no doubt heard a reaction from someone in idle conversation which I would like to discuss.  It's one that I have heard dozens of times from various people.  It's a phrase you've no doubt encountered so let's say it together: "I don't have time to read."

Of course you want to read, you want to fill your head with greatness, you know what my Auntie Mame used to say, "Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death."  You don't want to be a poor sucker and sometimes, in the grip of a fever or midway through a fitful night's sleep, the stark terror catches up with you that you may leave this mortal coil without having read Don Quixote.  But what do you do?  You have three full time jobs and eighteen kids?  Why are you even in bed in the first place?

Worse, you are acutely aware of the kind of crap your head is filling with against your will.  You haven't read Shakespeare since high school, but you somehow know you've probably heard I Want To Know What Love Is by Foreigner about 7,000 times in your life and you hate that song!  You are right to hate that song.  You want to fill your brain with greatness in hopes that greatness is what will come back out, but you are constantly assaulted with the din of Sturgeon's Law.

I am here to help.

I thought it might be fun and helpful to compile a short list of a few simple ways one could move toward cultivating a lifestyle of reading and bettering one's self in this hectic modern world.  Off we go:

1. Become the Captain of Your Own Consciousness:  We see or hear, on average, upwards of 3,000 advertisements per day.  This is what is collecting in our unconscious.  This is the modern urban dilemma.  In fact, it's not even a particularly novel observation on my part.
 "I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can't stop eating peanuts." -Orson Welles
I'm not going to tell people to kill their televisions (although I would strongly advise it.  The danged thing is used by broadcasters as nothing more than a vehicle for advertisements.  And don't tell me you don't get commercials because you watch cable shows!  Don Draper drives a what?  What kind of a laptop does Carrie have?)  Personally, I don't watch television, but I probably spend way too much time on the internet.  It's a bad habit that I am working on amending.  Much as a personal trainer would tell you for different ends, those are "sometimes foods."  Books are your "5 a day."  Engage with the world and gather ye rosebuds while ye may.  I know from personal experience that things have a way of creeping up on one and sometimes one doesn't even notice why one's time disappears so quickly unless one starts looking for the culprit.  Very often, it's 30 minutes here and there parking oneself in front of a lighted screen projecting things that one isn't even particularly enjoying.  What we do each day is what our lives become.  Identify and exterminate the Time Bandits.  Hand in hand with this:

2.  Alternative Book Sources Are Entirely Valid:  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.  I've just had a epiphany about my new commute which adds up to nearly an hour a day.  This is entirely redeemable time which I could fill with audio books and lectures of which there are vast resources of free material online.  Books are a human way of communicating with one another and a good deal of human writing (stories, poetry, certainly plays) were composed for the tongue and are meant to be heard!  I kept telling Gina when she was struggling with reading Hamlet for a class last year, "Go rent a film version.  It's a play.  You're supposed to see it!"  Here's a good place to start poking around for audio books.  I even have some pieces available of me reading aloud that you can download.  I'll have more soon.

3. Take a Book With You Everywhere: Seriously, this is key.  When people ask me how I find time to read, this is the answer.  It doesn't really take much more than this.  I am rarely without a book.  If they made an action figure of me, it would have a book (possibly not detachable from the figure's hand.)  I actually have a practical lesson in reference to this point which happened to me this past Friday.  On Friday, Laurie and I had to drop by the post office and then pick up a pair of pants we had ordered at Gates Resale (yes, folks, that's Gates Resale, for all of your heavy duty clothing needs!)  I figured we'd be back in 20 and I would be chattering away with Laurie the whole time as I am wont to do.  It was a rare moment when I left the house without a book.  So, we got the post office and the line was all the way into the next building.  I suggested to Laurie that she go pick up the pants while I waited in order to save time.  Then I waited in line alone, staring at the back of the person's head in front of me, for about half an hour.  Do you realize how much reading I can get done in half an hour?!!?  And it really adds up.  You may take a whole trip away from your house without cracking the book once, but don't worry about that.  Five minutes in the car while your spouse goes in to refill her soda, 20 minutes at the DMV, your lunch break at work, and suddenly you'll find yourself with a different title to report for each week's #fridayreads.  Charles Eliot, when he first talked about the concept of the Harvard Classics Library Five Foot Shelf of Books, claimed that one could gain a Harvard level education in the time it takes to gain an actual Harvard education simply by reading from that collection for 15 minutes each day.  An ocean is made up of many single drops.

4. Caffeinate:  There is a reason books and readers are associated with coffee and tea.  I had this exact experience this afternoon.  When at leisure to sit with a good book, one seeks out a comfortable place.  Oftentimes it's a very comfortable chair or bed.  This oftentimes leads to waking up an hour later with your book on your chest.

5. Know Thyself:  First and foremost, read what you like.  It will likely open doors to more interests and more authors to seek out.  I do encourage everyone to read the classics.  There are good reasons why they endure as classics and I assure you that they are quite good.  Much like how a wise person tries to seek out the company of people wiser than themselves, it's always good to be seeking to better yourself.  Ad astra per aspera.  Books can change your life and help you to become a better person.  In the past two months, I've read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and The Journal of John Woolman, both of which I can tell you already have aided me in striving to become a better man and will most likely end up being two of the more important books I've ever read.

However, if the book you are reading is torture or boring, I hereby write you a permission slip to stop reading it and go find something you like instead.  Maybe you'll find yourself coming back to it and enjoying it in a decade or so.  Or maybe you've discovered that, in spite of what you've heard, you really don't ever need to get all the way through Finnegan's Wake or Infinite Jest or Heidegger. 

So, there you go.  Hopefully this wasn't too pompous of a post and perhaps this may actually be helpful to someone out there somewhere.



  1. On 3, "Take a Book With You Everywhere," this is where ebooks really shine.

    Because of my large family I had gotten out of the habit I once had of always having a book with me. A lot of times my current book was too big to comfortably carry around -- think War & Peace or Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels all in one book.

    Also, when I was in my early 20s I kind of enjoyed people seeing me read the classics, or rather I enjoyed the thought of it. Fact is no one pays attention, but I realized I was being a pretentious little snot. I started to become self conscious carrying around 19th century Russians or ancient Greeks or Romans. I adapted a habit of carrying my books with the front cover facing me. Understand that I'm not embarrassed to be reading them. I just don't want to act on my condescending impulses of judging others for not reading decent literature.

    My ereader solves all of these problems. One ereader plus a decent cover make it very convenient to carry everywhere, and no one can tell that right now I'm reading Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Tolstoy. It also solves problems that I've developed as a result of arthritis or whatever else might be plaguing my hands. I *can* cuddle up with War & Peace now with less risk of it slipping and hitting me in the head.

  2. I could totally see how this would be an advantage of an eBook reader. One of the major problems of taking a book with you everywhere is that the book is not always appropriate to the situation. Sometimes they're too large. Sometimes they're too expensive looking. Sometimes I don't want to be a 30 something man in line at the library reading Spengler.