I am what you might call an optimistic reader. I think that the simple act of carrying around a book on my person at all times will magically create the time to read it. Sometimes it works – delayed trains, late friends, slow buses. But, for the most part, it doesn’t. I’m ashamed to admit that reading has increasingly become a luxury that I crave to do, but rarely manage; like having a spray tan, finishing any New Yorker article or swimming.
I’m not alone. On mentioning this article to The Pool office, the team groaned with wish-I-read-more fatigue. The diagnosis is troubling. We’re too busy and we have the collective attention span of a puppy. To boot, I schlep round London with a load of unread books. (And reading books is actually part of my job).
There is only one time of the year we fulfil our book-reading desires and that’s when we're on a beach, too hot to move, literally doing nothing else. (Although, a healthy wi-fi connection can even interfere with this sacred reading time).
So, why is it so hard to find the time to do something we love so much – and is good for us in so many ways? Oliver Burkeman of the Guardian suggests there might be motivation for not reading. Burkeman cites Tim Parks, who argues that the modern mind “is overwhelmingly inclined toward communication. It is not simply that one is interrupted; it is that one is actually inclined to interruption.”
Our always-turned-on, always-connected, social media-addicted minds now actually want interruption. We’re not sure how to deal with just our own thoughts and lots of words that can’t be refreshed or instantly replaced with other words. During the process of reading a book, we can’t share the really brilliant opening line or retweet someone else’s insightful, witty take on the protagonist. It’s just us and the book. And we’re no longer sure how we feel about that, apparently.
There is another reason – that is older than the internet yet still inexplicable. Reading a book never feels very productive. It’s a luxury we allow ourselves when we’ve given ourselves permission to do nothing, ie on holiday. As Burkeman writes, “Immersive reading depends on being willing to risk inefficiency, goallessness, even time-wasting.” Of course, this is nonsense. Reading a book is not time-wasting, and we all know it. It sits on an emotional scale that covers informative, interesting and at the top, life-altering. And yet it still feels like, well, time-wasting, which might be the real reason we don’t have the time. We do have time, we just can’t bear wasting it.
So, what to do about it? Burkeman's advice is to schedule it in. Make it a task not a time-filler or a privilege. Prioritise it as part of your day. He also suggests removing distractions by reading only physical books, or on single-purpose e-readers.
Now, look at your diary. Find half an hour and put in “reading”. You might actually find yourself finishing that book – and if you’re an optimistic reader like me, you might save your back a bit too.