How Do People Read So Much?

I once said aloud that I wished I had been born in the Middle Ages because then, if of course I didn’t die in childhood from the Bubonic Plague, I would actually have had a real chance at reading all the books in the world. (I don’t know exactly how many books there were then, but there couldn’t have been many what with books being copied by hand and from those hands probably falling off eventually from The Plague.)

I suppose that’s missing the point a little. If I like books so much, why would I want fewer books? (“And, hey, um, remember how you have a little something called a book that you want to see published?” the agent might remind me.) Well, because. I would want fewer books because there would be satisfaction in knowing I could accomplish the task of reading them. If I were a fast reader, I could probably finish in a year or two. I’m not fast, so slow turtle here could probably finish in four or five years. Then I could reread them! Wow! What a feeling of accomplishment!

“I read all the books in the world… twice” would read my tombstone.

Instead, I am surrounded by half-read stacks on counters, piles next to the bed and in the bathroom, and boxes of books in the closet. There are way more books than people and animals in my home.

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There are probably more books than people in some towns. It’s just such abundance. And then there are magazines and journals and online things like this blog!

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I used to keep a piece of paper with a list written by Daniel Pennac entitled a Reader’s Bill of Rights posted in my various cubicles to remind myself that reading is fun and not a competition and not something to feel shame about. When Katie Couric asked Sarah Palin what which newspapers she reads to establish her world view, and Palin said, “Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years,” I felt for Palin. I mean, it was only briefly, and then I went back to despising her, but still, having only sixteen, maybe eighteen hours in a day to do being-awake stuff, shower, eat, be in a relationship, work, go outside, shop for groceries, and then kid awesomeness in every other open moment until they sleep, I dunno, not having a structured all-day daily reading regimen you can recall at any moment seems normal.

In an interview in the September/October 2015 issue of Poets & Writers, BuzzFeed Books Editor Isaac Fitzgerald gives the run down of his typical day; it’s ALL reading ALL day and sometimes reading and eating yogurt-covered pretzels. In an interview in The Atlantic about what writer Susan Orlean reads every dayAre you kidding me? It is all day, every day, too, and from many, many sources. I can barely shower every day. In fact, often I don’t. If the bangs don’t look too greasy, I just make a couple confusing-looking braids and hide the rest of the greasy mess in a bun.

These are only two people and they are book people, of course, not the average Jane. Considering that all my degrees and jobs in the past and have involved books or writing and that I hope to continue contributing to the world in that fashion, though, I’m concerned for myself.

Right now, I have Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Joan Didion’s Blue Nights out from the library. I am close to the end of my second renewal of them. I have placed AHWOSG next to my spot on the couch, and Blue Nights next to the dining room table. I am also working on Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies in the bathroom. That one is mine. (Don’t worry: I don’t take library books into the bathroom.) I bought it because someone told me she is funny, and now Traveling Mercies has become my bathroom book and has been sitting there for who knows how long. It’s atop a stack of National Geographics and Scientific Americans. I’ve discovered that bathroom books get read the most though—not during the day because that’s when Kid Number Two comes to grab onto my leg and wail because he is not being held by me and Kid Number One comes in to bark like Hundley on Curious George and ask me to tie a balloon around his neck to duplicate Hundley’s “necklace.”

When Roberto comes home, I say I have to pee and run to the room with the bathroom that has the white plastic thing on the door handle that the kids miraculously haven’t figured out how to break through. I sit in the bathroom and read. I’m on page 157 of the Anne Lamott book now. AHWSG, the livingroom book—only page 53. Then I go to the library or a coffee shop to write. I write a little and then if I don’t get sucked down the rabbit hole on Facebook or some other random thing I searched online—“What are the health benefits of apple cider vinegar?”—I read one or two things from The New Yorker. Maybe I look at Slate or read something someone posted from The Onion. Then I look up “Jobs at the Onion.” Because that’d be cool. And by that time, I have to go help my husband get the kids to bed. I have to return my unread pile of Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic, Outside, The Economist and any other colorful thing that caught my eye to the library shelving cart and wonder if I’ll read any of those before next week’s edition arrives! I think about how I haven’t even exercised or done much writing either! Ugh! What would Middle Ages me be doing right now with all that free time?

I don’t know how people do it.

How do you do it? When do you get to read? What are you reading? What would Middle Ages you be doing?

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