Monday, September 03, 2007

Reading Isn’t Easy

One typical reaction I get from people is “Oh, you read so many books!” It’s their text book response after seeing me holding a book in my right hand and after asking some ice-breaker questions. Of course I don’t know why but people have the illusion that I read more books than them (which isn’t necessarily true), even from fellow readers such as my boss or other bibliophiles (honestly, I don’t know how many books I’ve read in my lifetime, much less yours, so it’s not necessarily fair to say that I’ve read more than you—I guess people have an inferiority complex when it front of other readers: they think the other person reads more than them). One thing I’d like to clarify however is that reading isn’t like breathing. It’s not automatic, it’s not reflexive, and most of all, it’s not passive. Reading still takes effort, even for fellow bibliophiles.

First and foremost, I have to set aside time for reading. Every hour I spend immersing myself in a book is an hour that could have gone to watching TV, doing chores, or doing some writing (perhaps readers have this easy—they aren’t conflicted whether to read or to write; but then again, I don’t think I’ve ever met a reader who didn’t attempt to be a writer [not necessarily a professional one] so maybe the concern is moot). I may consider myself a bibliophile but by no means do I have a special power which stops time. Unlike other activities, reading can be time consuming. A TV show might last an hour while movies two. One of the “features” of books is that for the price you’re paying, it provides you hours of entertainment (depending on reading speed and length of the book). And to be honest, reading is such a huge time sink. I think it’s rare to find people who’ve managed to read thirty books in thirty days. Reading simply involves too much time and before you pick up a book, you have to (unconsciously) promise yourself that you will make the time.

My solution to the first problem isn’t skipping work or depriving myself of sleep. One trick I use is focus. I don’t turn on the TV for more than one hour a day (and some days it’s never turned on even). Also, don’t ask me if I’ve watched the latest movies. There’s a lot of good movies out there but unfortunately for me, I appreciate good books more. Another, more practical tip however is to leverage your time. That simply means finding ways to sneak an activity without disrupting your usual routine. For me, that’s as simple as bringing a book wherever I go. Because honestly, there will be idle moments and those times can be spent reading. Early for an appointment? (Or in the case of the Philippines, the person you’re waiting for is late!) Instead of aggravating stress, pick up a book. For me, any period wherein I’m idle is an excuse to read. It could be waiting for my dentist/doctor to be available, waiting for paperwork to be processed, waiting for the rain to stop so I can leave the mall—I turn “waiting” into “reading”. Think back to yesterday and dwell on times that instead of impatiently getting angry that the traffic isn’t moving or that everything seems to be going so slowly, you could have read a book. (One advantage I have over smokers is that at times when they have an urge to smoke, I have an urge to read instead. A five-minute reading break can amount to a lot of reading time!)

The second “myth” people have about bibliophiles I think is that reading comes easy. A lot of people have the impression that books are boring and they rationalize this by saying they feel sleepy when they read books. To be honest, some books bore me too. There are also several books that I enjoy reading but make me sleepy (I’m looking at you my RPG books even if I love the Monster's Manual). In the case of the latter, I still work at it. Reading isn’t always comfortable or easy. In the case of the former, it’s your choice whether to drop it and pick up a more compelling read or work at it. I’ve done both but lately, I’m more likely to discard the book and move on to a more exciting novel (there are, after all, so many book goods and not enough time to read them all).

What people don’t realize is that it isn’t an issue with reading per se but an issue with the writing style of the author. Some books easily immerse the reader in their text. I think these are the strengths of “mass-market” authors—they’re able to quickly grab and retain the attention of the reader. I remember reading Terry Brooks and it took me only four quick hours to finish reading his latest novel (this was of course a few years ago). A lot factored into that such as the vocabulary he uses, his writing style, and the length of his work. Reading Lovecraft, on the other hand, might be too time consuming even if it’s just a short story. There’s a certain “break” in my reading as I strive to make sense of words I don’t encounter often and try to overcome his less-than-melodic dialogue.

Overall, I think a writer’s style affects how much we can immerse ourselves in the text. This is a generalization but for me reading concentration can be classified into one of three categories (of course in reality, there will be more distinctions): lots of concentration, a modest amount of concentration, and little concentration. Reading something like Harry Potter involves little concentration on my part, not because the book isn’t complex but rather because the language is simple and to Rowling’s credit, it’s really a compelling and immersive read. Reading a book like Harry Potter isn’t arduous for me. An example of work that requires a modest amount of concentration is George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Now not only are the individual novels long but so is the series. The language reconciles both aspects of the vocabulary, utilizing what’s best for the moment. This probably would have been a more difficult read if I didn’t find the story—and the characters--to be compelling. I remember reading James Joyce’s Ulysses and to this day, this is my extreme example of books that need lots of concentration. I need to utilize 100% of my brain into reading the book. I can’t let anything distract me, whether it’s the sound of a TV show or pangs of hunger. I need every single moment to decipher what’s going on and to make sense of what the author is talking about. To a lesser extent, other examples of scenarios like this (in my personal case) is reading Lovecraft or hard science fiction. If my mind “blinks” for a page or two, I seem to have missed a lot.

Of course while I classify some books to be easier reads than others, that’s not an excuse not to work at reading. I think when people are just beginning to involve themselves with books, most readings will be “difficult” and take a lot of concentration. Slowly however, as people start to think more critically or expose themselves to a wider vocabulary, reading becomes slightly easier and hopefully, more enjoyable.

But that doesn’t change the fact that reading takes time and effort. Bibliophiles might read a lot of books but those two factors nonetheless come into play. We work around those two factors, not make an excuse out of it.

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