Read. More. Books.
The other day I was walking from my coffee shop (it’s not mine but I’m very proud of it so I say “my” in the same way I call Everton “we”) to the library, and on the way I stopped by a recently-opened bookstore. I was curious to see what was there, and while I have plenty on my reading list, I had just finished Annihilation that morning and was looking for something new to start, and one never knows what someone might find on sale.
I didn’t find anything to purchase, but my ignorance of what I would find was well-met. The store is in a mall of sorts – a dimly lit building unit downtown that used to be home to offices for the town’s giant shipbuilding company, but which is now partitioned into a handful of spaces for a hodge-podge of businesses which rarely succeed. It’s like a really sad bazaar.
There were a few shelves of new and used books, magazines, and comic books, with plenty of room for more inventory. There were also some model train sets – which I had really, really not expected. Being one of just two customers in the store, I was soon accosted by the proprietor, who gave me a thorough sales pitch on the shop and its merits, one I must assume he gives to everyone who stumbles in. He
informed invited strongly suggested I come to a card game event at the store later that night. As I browsed the sparse bookshelves, I understood why he had made such a point about their willingness to do special orders. And, while I browsed, he mentioned to me and to the other customer that – if we were thirsty – the store had soda on sale. Because of course it did.
I wanted to buy a book to support the store, but I couldn’t find one that fit the bill. Slightly embarrassed that I had spent so much time browsing every single shelf only to come up empty, I headed for the exit, but not before the proprietor gave me a business card and reminded me about the game night.
I tell this story not just because I think people should always recount tales of their journeys to strange places, but because it was a vivid nexus for the thoughts about reading that have been pinging around in my head for a few days. I had been doing a lot of reading, some writing, and a little reading about reading, and I was hoping to do some writing about reading. I had actually been trying to wrangle some of those thoughts into writing at the coffee shop, but was not having much success, in part because each angle I took crumbled into a ruinous heap of generica echoing with cries of “reading is good you should do it” and I didn’t know if I started sorting through the wreckage if I would find something that was really worthwhile.
But my visit to the bookstore was another reminder – made potent by immediacy – that reading is good and you should do it. I don’t think I would be friends with the shop owner. I don’t think I would hang out with him (I didn’t go to the game night, for those of you holding your breath in suspense). I’m not about model trains and he wasn’t carrying anything I was particularly interested in buying. But we were both there, in that sad little mall, approximately a million miles from the rest of civilization, because reading means something to us – enough to enter into a dying industry or walk into a strange building. And if reading can mean that much and bring the two of us together in that space at that time, then it’s worth trying to articulate these erratic thoughts of mine.
While reading has always been important to me, that importance has increased over the last few months. Evenings alone during the school year tended to be anxious times, and I made a decision to spend the last hour or so before bed reading books rather than watching Netflix. And so I did it – I actually started reading for fun on top of all the reading I had to do as a graduate student. Now that school is over, I have re-entered the ranks of the voracious readers. It helps me fill the hours in a time of transition, a transition which includes a crossroads in my writing. I am writing regularly, but not as much as I would like, and hardly at all on this here website of mine. At times it is easier to just return to my book rather than search for words of my own. This transition is also a time of identity-building, which I alluded to in my last post, and reading is part of my attempt to make up for what feels like lost time. For, while I remained interested in books, I really didn’t read very much in high school or college besides what I had to do for class (which was a lot and often included novels, being an English Major).
This lamentable dearth of reading experience is coupled with my personal quest to increase my geek. For, while I am and have been a geek, there are some very underdeveloped aspects of my nerdiness, and during my formative years it never really defined me or my social interactions, and I often chose to keep it under wraps. My personality was so dominated by sports: playing sports, watching sports, playing sports video games, writing about sports, talking about sports. I’m still a big sports fan (albeit in a very different sort of way), but now I am putting serious effort into becoming the geek I was always meant to be. And geeks read.
As is often the case, this personal change has coincided with an increasing awareness and involvement with others who are also doing a lot of reading. I am a fan of the podcast Binge Mode, and I continue to listen even as they turn their deep-diving attention to the Harry Potter books, of which I’ve only read the first two. Mallory and Jason are a delight to listen to, and part of the reason for this is their infectious love of reading. Their defense of fantasy – while inspired by Game of Thrones – is clearly based in their love of books.
I notice with what seems like increased frequency people posting this or that about reading on social media, and right now on my feed there’s a book cover sharing thing going on. Sometimes it seems like “no one” reads anything besides online articles anymore, but these posts and conversations online remind me that people are reading, and they put my reading into a social context of discussions and recommendations.
Speaking of book recommendations: they are great. There is a moment in Game of Thrones where Samwell enters the library at the Citadel for the first time. Faced with this unfathomable amount of books, Sam the bibliophile is clearly pleased, but also awed and daunted. Where is he to begin? Which books will he have to neglect? Choosing the next book to read can feel like this, but getting a personal recommendation can help us go forth and read without worrying about what we aren’t reading. It’s even better when someone gives or lends you a book, and so, looking for a new fantasy novel to read and overwhelmed by the choices, I was happy to take on the 1,000 pages of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings when my friend handed me his copy after bringing it up in conversation the day before.
Now’s the part where I turn this on you. I beseech you to read. You’re reading this, and that’s great – thank you – but read some books when you are done. Please trust me and my reading friends when I tell you to do it. And, if you do read, read more. Talk to others about reading. Share recommendations. Share books.
Reading books is good for you, as this article from the New Yorker explains so well. It is not mere escapism, even if it can help relieve the stresses of our lives. It is not anti-social, even if it is something we usually do alone. I know you’re busy. Really, I do. But you can find the time. My unsolicited advice: start by reading books instead of – not in addition to – some social media posts and online articles. I’m not asking you to ignore the world’s problems or be uninformed or stop supporting any sneaky good bloggers out there – far from it – but consider the amount of manic whirling your brain does as you speed-read 1,000 tweets, scan a few comment sections, glance at headlines and first paragraphs of daily news, and skim a couple of articles (one from your echo chamber which makes you feel invincible and one from the other side which makes you hopping mad). Perhaps this doesn’t apply to you, but many of us (me included) spend way too much time looking at our phones. Slow down, focus your mind, be present, and immerse yourself in an extended text. This is Tao.
Sure, reading takes time and it’s possible to read too much and not all books are created equal. But I sincerely believe that more reading of books has the capacity to make us better people, and the benefits of reading are in many ways well-suited to the particular ailments of the contemporary moment.
We’re way into summer already, and maybe you haven’t made the desired dent in your summer reading list. That’s okay. Start now. And if you don’t get to it until the leaves change color, okay. Start then. Try it, please. Even if you didn’t grow up with Reading Rainbow and Between the Lions, even if your elementary school teachers didn’t instill an interest in you, even if your parents didn’t buy you books (thank you, Mom and Dad), it’s not too late to pick it up now. There are entire worlds out there, and in exploring them you may just come to understand this one a little better. You’ll develop yourself too. And, along the way, you will come into contact with others who are spending their time the same way.
And as you walk out of their strange little store into fresh air and natural light, you can smile knowing it’s for good reason that your paths crossed.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
1 As opposed to what? Why do we say “the other day?” Is this a colloquialism, or is it a useful distinction? And why don’t I just tell you which day it was? It was July 23, 2018.
2 If you’re in the area, please, please visit Other Worlds Books & More at Park Place Plaza on 3rd Avenue and see if you can find a way to support your local bookstore.
3 The one I haven’t done recently is reading about writing. I have done a fair amount of that though. Douglas Wilson has a lot of very trash opinions and he is kind of a jerk, but he wrote a good book about writing called Wordsmithy. Stephen King’s On Writing is worthwhile. But most of all I suggest Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.
4 There are a number of great moments about reading and stories in Game of Thrones. Of course there’s the famous “Why do you read so much?” exchange between Jon and Tyrion, but so much good stuff with Sam and I love Bran’s openness to the idea of the blue-eyed giant.