Literary Malfeasance

August 10 2016

This year I resolved to read 30 books. In high school I was an admirable student, in college less so. But my teachers and classmates always regarded me as bright. As a young person I read a lot, but I’ve changed since then. When I was young I was awkward, academic, bookish, and unhappy. As an adult I'm at ease, and I'm grateful for that. I'm successful, sociable, carefree, and content. But as a consequence of that my habits have changed. I spend less time reading and more time gratifying. Last year I realized I missed the satisfaction, seclusion, and contentment of reading, and I've come to I dislike how I squander spare time. When I started on my 30-book goal my concentration waned while reading. My mind easily wandered. I become distracted, aloof, detached, and I had to wretch myself back into focus.

I thought 30 books was a solid, achievable goal--neither modest nor ambitious. More than half the year has passed, and at 14 books I'm behind schedule. Not discouraged, I logged into Goodreads--which I hadn't used since 2010--to track my progress. I discovered that the friends I admire the most for their smarts have read vast volumes beyond me. In numbers:
Me = 185
Friend #1: 420
Particularly lofty friend #2: 582 (I'll concede that's she was English major, but nonetheless)
Abysmal. Wonton internet vagrancy, and an excessive creativity at otherwise wasting time--puzzle games, iPhone apps, and the like--built up over 10 years and led to an enormous gap in learning. Thankfully, regular reading has brought my focus back; my mind no longer strays while reading. In part this is because I don't view reading as an activity that I can only do after the to-do list is complete, the house is clean, and I've found a quiet corner providing perfect solitude sipping a cup of chamomile tea. I now read "sloppy". I go from distracted internet user to reading for 10 minutes and back again. I read at airports, TVs blaring, and disgruntled conversations with customer service taking place around me. I live a sloppy life--most of us do--and the idea that reading takes place in the silence of a wood-paneled library doesn't work anymore.

Despite these gains, I also suffer from being a slow reader, horribly slow in fact. At the beginning of the year I clocked in at 250 words a minute. Since then I've quickened to 300 words a minute. (I deserve a medal.) That slow pace hasn't change since I was young. I read slowly then, and accepted it because it allowed me to fully absorb and experience the nuance of what I was reading, or so I justified.

But now, instead of politely accepting my sluggish pace and sticking my nose firmly back in a book, I can waste time taking speed reading tests to confirm my lack of progress, and sink further in a hole of hopelessness as I read that the average executive reads 750 words a minute. There go my C-suite dreams. I realized I read slowly when I started dating my husband. He'd zip through a plaque or travel guide at an alarming pace. I'd have a paragraph left, and he was already making travel plans. I assuaged my deficit by telling myself that while he reads fantasy books at breakneck speed I was pursuing serious, sturdy tomes of great literature: Lolita, Brideshead Revisited, and a particularly weighty autobiography Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane. (Again, medal-worthy)

My husband kindly indulges me. Seeing how much my slow pace upsets me he quickly offers that I retain more. (I don't.) I want to improve at this. I don't particularly know why. Surfing the internet--distracting myself with nothing--prevents me from having and attaining goals. I like setting out and achieving something, however small. And after dabbling in other pursuits I know I won't be an internet sensation, reality star, or otherwise stumble into an easily earned pile of cash. Monetary ambitions disregarded, I still want to better myself. Empty uses of time distract me, and make me unhappy from struggles that don't exist.

Do I dare set a goal to catch up to Ms. Total Count 582? 582 is a person I really admire. She's horribly clever, has an irradiate sense of humor, and a seemingly endless talent for retention and reference. I want to read more because I want to provide more. I find it gratifying to have something to contribute. Can I catch up to her? Hardly. Can I keep pace? Her reading goal for the year is 50 books, which I (almost regrettably) also discovered on Goodreads. She, of course, is entirely on track.

Emily Smith
[email protected]
O'Hare Airport

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