Like many bibliophiles I know, I like to keep a tally of the books I read. It’s useful, and good for the ego, to keep the list on hand.
Sometimes, I take the number crunching even further. I can tell you, for instance, that, as of May 1 of this year, I’d read 13 books, for a total of 3,698 pages. When I’m speeding through a book, I like to measure my rate. It ranges, on average, from 30 to 60 pages per hour.
It’s probably not hard to see the attraction of such record keeping. When we’re inundated with forms of entertainment (as we most certainly are), reading, watching, listening, and playing can all seem akin to participating in an eating contest. The more we consume, the closer we come to “winning”—to being ahead, in the know, intelligent, savvy.
I sometimes wonder if this is the best way to think about books. Is “bingeing,” to employ that oft-used term, which we once applied to food, a viable approach to literature? Lately, it seems to me that my most enriching reading experiences are the ones in which all my fretting about how quickly I read, or many books I hope to read in a given month, float away, leaving me to enjoy the words in front of me.
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Ironically, the book that put me on this train of thought was one that seems to demand speedy reading. At more than 800 pages, Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories threatens to occupy multiple weeks of any busy bibliophile’s reading schedule. Its pared-down entries—most stories run no longer than two pages—can give the impression of being easily digestible.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Take the entirety of the story “Young and Poor,” for example:
I like working near the baby, here at my desk by lamplight. The baby sleeps.
As though I were young and poor again, I was going to say.
But I am still young and poor.
In just 35 words, Davis gives us a conundrum—a troubling intersection of art and parenthood, of imagination and penury—deserving of many hours of contemplation.
When I first cracked the spine of the Collected Stories, I was tempted to speed through each of its bite-sized stories. I was accustomed to blazing through 60 pages per hour. I wanted to meet my goal of four books per month!
But I realized that, as with so many books, Davis’ collection, if binged, would leave no lasting impression. In trying to save reading time, I’d waste it. If a story opened up a new world inside me—as Davis’ most certainly did—what did it matter if my monthly book count suffered, or if my average reading rate decreased by half?
Next month, I think I’ll be revising my reader goals. Instead of setting out to read four books, I’ll pledge to try slow reading just one—and maybe I’ll be changed by it forever.