Abundant Reading

I’ve been thinking about abundance this week thanks to the Lenten video series I signed up for. And among other things, I’ve been pondering how abundance features–or more often doesn’t–in my reading life.

Last year for Lent, I gave up book-buying, and that experience changed my habits long after Easter arrived (which, really, is part of the point of a Lenten discipline). I’m less likely to pick up books that only mildly interest me just because they’re really cheap; I try not to buy the next book in a series before I’ve read the last (or first!) one; I don’t browse Harlequin’s website every month determined to pick up a few books (OMG, I’m the reason for their declining revenues!); I rely more on the library. Except for that last one, these changes have had a beneficial effect on my TBR. It’s not shrinking, but it’s growing more slowly.

And that, rather than spending less money, was really my goal. Because the abundance of books in my TBR doesn’t really give me a feeling of abundance–of richness, plenty. It makes me anxious. Buying a lot of books (as I did last week in a Mardi Gras binge with a 90% off Kobo coupon) has a similar effect. At first I feel the joy of abundance: all these great books to read! But as I wrestle with getting them downloaded onto my reader, that feeling ebbs away. Instead I think, Will I actually read these? Why did I buy these, when I already have so much else to read? (I had something of the same feeling about all the great mystery recommendations I got: where do I even start? More or less at random, I decided, with some things I could get quickly from the library).

Most of my reader friends know that the effect of too many books TBR can be the feeling that we have “nothing to read.” How do we choose one among so many? Sometimes it’s easier just to do something else. Confronted with the excess of my TBR, I often have a feeling not of abundance, but of scarcity: I don’t have enough time for all these books.

A really long book can create that same feeling of scarcity: This will take me weeks to read! Think of all the other books I won’t be able to read in that time! I no longer have the attention span for books that long. Nevertheless, I signed on for Sunita’s March Big Fat Book Readalong and pulled Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch from my TBR. (I’d already started listening to Middlemarch).

I got off to a slow start when a cold made my energy and attention for reading even scarcer than usual this week. But at the end of the week I finally got stuck in, and I was utterly engrossed by the first two chapters. From outside, the daunting size of a big book can focus me on the scarcity of my time and attention; once inside, though, sucked into its pages, I have a feeling of abundance. I am happy to live in the richly drawn world Tartt has created for the rest of the month, if that’s what it takes. I’m glad there’s so much more of it to enjoy.

I’ve been thinking about how to create more of this feeling of abundance in my reading, less anxiety about just how much I have to read. It helps that my copy of The Goldfinch is digital, so I’m less aware of its size. I try not to keep checking what percentage of the book I’m at. (I can see how many pages of each chapter I have left as I read, but not the size of the whole book–and even that page count is artificial, as it depends on the font size I set. I actually wish I could turn this feature off and stop measuring my reading altogether). Reading a library book on an iPad app, I turned off my wireless so I’d be less tempted to pop over to check Twitter/e-mail/that review of a new book that sounded interesting/etc. etc.

Because while I might not have abundant time to read, I do have enough, if I’d just make that time. Often I spend a lot of what could be my book-reading time reading about books I’m not reading, looking for more books to read in some amorphous future, requesting and wish-listing books at the library. My reading goal for Lent, then, is to unplug more from the signals that focus me on scarcity and spend that time immersed in the abundant pleasure between the covers of a really good book.

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29 Responses to Abundant Reading

  1. willaful says:

    This is just so spot on. You are my not-reading twin. 😉

    I’ve learned that the times in my life when I feel the most pressured and rushed, the most completely unable to stop and rest, are the times I absolutely *have to* stop and rest. I’ve been coming to the conclusion that this applies to books as well… the times when I feel that I don’t have the time and attention span for a long, rich book are the times I *need* a long, rich book. Because only something really engrossing will break me out of that panic and inability to concentrate. Trying to make myself feel like I’ve accomplished something (what?!) by reading lots of short, trivial things doesn’t work.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      We (human beings generally) are so good at taking our sources of great pleasure and turning them into sites of guilt/shame/anxiety/insecurity instead. I’m really trying to push back against those impulses in myself. This isn’t homework! But also, getting more and more and more books won’t make me feel better or safer.

    • Mary Chen says:

      I feel the same way. Honestly, reading this post has made me feel like I’ve lightened my burden somewhat. I’m so anxious to get through my review pile and do all of my reviews in the standard with which I set them that I worry and tire myself out everyday. And it’s just so stressful being a reviewer now. So I think I really just need to take a deep breath and slow down these reviews and reading, to actually get some sleep.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        Whenever I write on this topic so many people chime in. I think we need some kind of self-help or 12 Step group! Anxiety Free Reading.

  2. Jessica says:

    I’m reading The Goldfinch too… and listening to it, as we have entered soccer travel hell time of year (Thank you Whispersync!). I really enjoyed Tartt’s Secret History, which I finally read earlier this year, and I am loving the Goldfinch, though I’m only a little ways in. I love the feeling that I’ll get to stay in her world for another 700 pages. Like you say here, it’s not daunting once it becomes familiar and pleasurable.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Even though I had read some reviews, I was totally unprepared for the events of Ch. 1. I expected a slow pace and found myself breathlessly turning pages (um, refreshing the screen?). At the same time, it reminds me of some long 19th-century novels that are not afraid to use their spaciousness for a gradual, exquisite ratcheting up of tension. Some authors would have made Ch. 2 where he’s waiting at home a couple of pages, because “nothing is happening,” but it had so much more power as it was.

  3. Liz, I love this post and the reflection on how too much leads to a sense of scarcity. I think about this in so many aspects of my life as a parent, a reader, a consumer. Thanks for sharing!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The priest who did our pre-marital counselling (when we were broke grad students with uncertain futures) suggested we think “What I have is enough.” We’ve come back to that idea over and over through our married life–even my not-at-all-religious husband finds it really helpful sometimes to focus on the resources of all kinds that we DO have. And so far, it’s been enough. 😉

  4. Sunita says:

    This post hits so many bullseyes for me. I too spend way too much time reading about reading, rather than actually reading. The Big Fat Book Readalong was completely serendipitous and is due entirely to Keishon, who decided she was going to read The Luminarities and I thought, why not join her with my own book? It’s been great to have other people join in, and the actual process of reading the book has been both rewarding and surprisingly free of anxiety. I know I have the whole month, so I don’t fret about how long it’s taking.

    And that sense of falling into the world of the author and knowing you get to spend lots of time in it is something I’ve always loved about reading but haven’t had as much of lately. So many books I read now are pretty short, or they don’t do a lot of worldbuilding, or fail to be immersive for me in other ways. Susanna Kearsley’s books do it, and Jeannie Lin’s, and a few other authors, but they are the minority.

    The first chapter of the Manzoni was a reminder of “oh yeah, THIS is what 19thC literature is like and this is why I read it!” It feels great.

    And now I have to go write my post so everyone can talk about *their* experiences!

  5. Janine Ballard says:

    It helps that my copy of The Goldfinch is digital, so I’m less aware of its size. I try not to keep checking what percentage of the book I’m at. (I can see how many pages of each chapter I have left as I read, but not the size of the whole book–and even that page count is artificial, as it depends on the font size I set. I actually wish I could turn this feature off and stop measuring my reading altogether). Reading a library book on an iPad app, I turned off my wireless so I’d be less tempted to pop over to check Twitter/e-mail/that review of a new book that sounded interesting/etc. etc.

    I find that digital reading helps me with longer books too. Psychologically it makes a difference for me but in my case it’s also easier because the physical object I read is smaller and lighter in weight. I have an RSI in both wrists and reading big, heavy print books can be painful for me– I’ve hurt myself doing it in the past. I still do it on occasion with library hardcovers when the ebook feels like an unnecessary expense.

    Perhaps the physical discomfort has turned psychological — become one of several factors in my shying away from long books through unconscious association. But I am going to attempt The Goldfinch too — I loved Tartt’s writing in The Secret History. I had no idea you guys were doing a Big Fat Book Readalong until I read this post — too much time away from Twitter in the past couple weeks, I guess — but it will probably be good for me.

    Often I spend a lot of what could be my book-reading time reading about books I’m not reading, looking for more books to read in some amorphous future, requesting and wish-listing books at the library.

    Yes. This is true for me too. And I think because I review for DA, I’ve come to almost see all that as a responsibility that I shouldn’t drop. I worry about not contributing enough, as well as about not being up on the genre enough. But I don’t think the world will end if I take a month to read one book. My reading slump is over and that makes it seem possible. I have to finish the book I’m reading first, and I’m expecting to critique something for a friend next week, but after that, I will attempt a big book too.

    • willaful says:

      I’m so glad to hear your slump is over!

      I’ve taken this post to heart and today am reading the very first book I eagerly bought with the Kobo coupon. It’s not that great, unfortunately, but thems the breaks. I just feel good about reading a book because… I wanted to read it.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        Thanks! I’m very glad it’s over too.

      • willaful says:

        P.S. The romance genre has exploded so much of recent years, I don’t think anyone can be expected to keep up with all of it…

      • Janine Ballard says:

        The romance genre has exploded so much of recent years, I don’t think anyone can be expected to keep up with all of it…

        You’re right, that’s impossible, but nonetheless there are certain corners of the genre the pulse of which I like to try to keep my fingers on.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          One of my problems with romance blogging/Twitter is the pressure it creates to “keep up.” Even if we have no outward pressure (like contributing to a big blog) I think a lot of us start to feel that. Sometimes I have to consciously remind myself that this is something I do for FUN, because otherwise the pleasure starts to drain away into a lot of “shoulds” (should read this, that and the other, should blog more, etc.).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I definitely find digital reading more comfortable. And increasingly I need to blow up the font. I just pulled a book out of my paper TBR and the print is tiny! That’s going to be a struggle.

      Like Willaful, I’m so glad your slump is over.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        The comfy nature of digital reading is one of the reasons I’ve resisted trading my eink readers for a tablet.

    • willaful says:

      I hate this weird reply thing! This is trying to respond to Liz on keeping up. I’m going through the stupidest thing now, where I’m envious of my twitter friends all reading advance copies of the latest book by *an author I don’t care for*. For crying out loud, self!

  6. Lynnd says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I find myself in the same quandary. Last year I followed your Lenton example (mostly, I think I succumbed and bought one or two books). I think I need to follow your example again this year. Hopefully this will kick me out of the reading stasis I’ve been in for the past few months (it’s gone way past a slump at this point).

  7. Jorrie Spencer says:

    Because the abundance of books in my TBR doesn’t really give me a feeling of abundance–of richness, plenty. It makes me anxious.

    I’m like this too. If I have too many books that I’ve bought and lined up on my iPad—my preferred reading device—I start feeling stressed. Then again, if I have too few, I get stressed by the idea that I might not find the right book to read when I have a time to read. It’s a careful balance, at least in my head.

    I just watched a family member rip through The Goldfinch, so that might be up next for me. Though I suspect I won’t actually be reading until next weekend, so who knows what I’ll want to reach for then.

  8. Lucy Warriner says:

    This isn’t exactly on point for your post, but this essay and others on your blog have made me be more mindful of what I’m choosing to read. I’m trying incorporate more literary fiction, which I’ve avoided for about ten years, into my reading this year. The results have been good thus far. In regards to starting a Big Fat Book, I tend to keep waiting for the “right time” to do it, when in truth I’ll always find some reason why it’s the wrong time. S

  9. Lucy Warriner says:

    Sorry for the incomplete post above. What I was saying is that I surprised myself by starting a Big Fat Book while sitting on the floor–I was examining the TBR pile. Ten minutes of reading there got me started on a book I was a bit afraid of reading. It took me almost a month to finish it, but I loved it. So I’m aiming for more of a “seat of my pants” approach from now on.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I hope I never make anyone feel like they “should” read anything in particular! But for me, more variety in the kinds of books I read–and the kinds of demands they make on me as a reader–keeps me happiest.

      When I started blogging I decided not to take review copies or to request ARCs, but just to write about what I happened to read and find worth talking about. I don’t want my pleasure reading to start feeling like my job, and for me they’re so closely connected, it can easily happen.

      I’m glad serendipity is working for you!

      • Lucy Warriner says:

        I think it was more that you reminded me that all literary fiction was not dire and depressing. (For a long time, my judgment was clouded by being a burned-out English major.) It was just a matter of taking the time to look for authors and books that would work best for me. And like you, I’m finding that reading a greater variety of things–lit fic, romance, mystery, nonfiction–is giving me more appreciation for everything that I read.

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