What are you reading? And when?
I had an undergraduate literature professor who frequently liked to reference earlier works by the authors of the assigned reading during lectures, usually to underscore how little we earnest, bespectacled English majors actually knew about the context of the work we were discussing. “In your mythical free time,” he would intone dryly, “you might peruse ….. (insert three or four titles here) … ,” which had those of us in the front two rows frantically scribbling titles in the margins of our looseleaf paper binders. (No laptops in class for those of us of a certain age.)
I still jot down down titles on the backs of envelopes at stoplights in the car (NPR will get you, won’t it?) at restaurants on napkins (I rarely ask what other diners have ordered, but have been known to sneak peeks at their books) and scribble frantically on programs and schedules at conferences and events. Post-it notes and receipts are rarely discarded from the bottom of my tote, as most of them contain at least a part of a title or two on the back, all to be requested or downloaded or just ordered outright, for there’s just so many riches awaiting every season. Margins of publisher paper catalogs annotated with backlist are an especially dangerous multiplier to the TBR pile, and online ordering is simply an exercise in literary clickbait to those of us with a healthy reading appetite. “Backlist addiction” surely appears in the DSM-5, right after “paranoia over loss of a hot sequel ARC” and (shudder) “book hoarding syndrome.” I have even engaged in the completely suspicious behavior of smartphone book cover photography, but I PROMISE it’s only to remind myself to get the book, not to order online from the-river-that-shall-not-be-named.
“Do you read all these books?” is a frequent customer question in my store, usually after I have hand sold three or four titles, and I’m ready to leave them with a stack to choose from. It’s a bookseller quandary, prioritizing the reading for each season to cover the big frontlist books, the upcoming author visit titles, recommendations from bookseller colleagues and sales reps, and the teetering stacks of ARCs and manuscripts forwarded in shiny padded envelopes and sleek boxes full of swag.
Then, too, the lists arrive of colleague picks, debut author notables, and other bookselling “helpers” that just lengthen the queue. My non-bookseller friends assume that ALL I do at work is read — “what a fun job!” they exclaim, “reading all day, and playing with toys!” Truth be told, most of us booksellers never read at work. We read late at night, early in the morning, on our lunch break if we scheduled one that day, in the car while waiting for kids, at sports practices and doctors appointments and oil change places. We read while we eat, when we should be exercising (I just can’t do the book-on-the-treadmill thing, as hard as I try) and on planes and trains and buses and subways. I read instead of watching TV, which makes me woefully uninformed about the latest Bachelor season and who got eliminated for a poor foxtrot performance, but keeps me from being crushed under the weight of a stack of books tipping over beside the bed. I don’t keep score of the number of books I read, or log them on social media as part of a personal challenge to be completed or bested, any more than I count the number of paperclips I use (not many) or new blank journals I purchase (quite a lot).
There are a few reading habits I have developed, which keep books moving through the house (and car, and office, and myriad of free tote bags.) I don’t finish everything I start. Books, like meals, can “hit the spot” or be just the wrong thing at just the wrong time. (Note: there is NO WRONG TIME for pizza.) I will read three or four things simultaneously, or sequentially. Some things are just not for me. I do try to write something, anything, about a book or manuscript as soon as I complete it, even if it’s just the name of a person or two that I want to hand it to next. I don’t read with a red pen in hand, but I do write in books, circle things, or often take some later-indecipherable notes as I go. I sometimes read out loud, oftentimes only for the dog, as some books just sound better with air around the words. Reading aloud, too, slows the process, which can make all the difference in absorbing the story at the pace it was intended to be consumed, instead of the “skim-and-flip-pages” habit of the semi professional reader. I don’t keep everything I read, unless it was personalized to me by the author. Books, like cookies, need to be tasted and then shared, so I leave them behind in airports and nursing homes and little free libraries. Several times a year, I just take a box to the gas station/convenience mart at the edge of our neighborhood during that seven o’clock morning rush, as the store fills with contractors and landscape workers buying giant slurpees and lottery tickets. A box of paperbacks can disappear into overall pockets faster than I can fill my coffee cup, and my car’s back seat and my heart are both left a little lighter.
When do you find time to read?