Recently, author Neal Pollack appeared on Jessa Crispin’s podcast Public Intellectual and said that reading a novel is like going to the ballet. “It’s an art form,” he says, “and it can be done well, and it should be maintained, and it should be appreciated.” We’ve seen report after report that reading is a pastime in decline, yet communities like Read it Forward are built around bibliophilia. We are bibliophiles—we have a “great or excessive love of books.” Am I the only self-professed bibliophile, then, who finds it increasingly difficult to make time for reading entire books?
It started when I began working from home. I had taken the leap to being self-employed full time, and I no longer had a commute. I loved working for myself—I still do. But it also means that I tend to work a lot. When I started this hustle, I was so tired at night that I would either fall asleep immediately or watch TV until I fell asleep. I didn’t have the energy to focus on reading. It took me a couple of months to notice that I hadn’t read a real book. I read plenty of newspaper and magazine articles online; I read quirky boutique email newsletters. I listened, as you already know, to podcasts. When exactly did I find the time to read books before?
Oh, right. It was on the train. On a one-hour commute to work and back again, I always had a book in my bag. And as long as I wasn’t unlucky enough to be treated to a Showtime performance or pick the same train car as a mariachi band, I would read that book. I read on lunch breaks, or standing on the platform waiting for a delayed train. This all added up to two-and-a-half hours a day of built-in reading time that I was no longer using because I was either sleeping or working through it. Don’t get me wrong, I was psyched to be getting more sleep. But I work for myself precisely because I like to do what I want exactly when I want to do it. And one of those things I want to do is to read.
According to The Washington Post, the average workweek in America was 47 hours in 2014. Nothing about our lives today suggests to me that this number has gone down; if anything it’s increased in the past three years. Add on an average commute of 26 minutes each way, and a lot of us spend 51 hours or more on work per week. Assuming we all have lives, too, when are we ever going to find the time to read a good book?
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If I’ve learned anything from writing, it’s that nobody else can give you the uninterrupted hours you want for yourself. It’s up to you to create that time and defend its delicate boundaries. I mostly write for a living these days, but I begin the morning with an hour set aside for my passion projects. Otherwise I would have to say I’m just a copywriter, and it wouldn’t be very different from my position when I worked full time for someone else. Up until last year, I never really thought about making time for reading. Reading happened because I was a student, or because I had a commute, or because I traveled for work, or because, honestly, there used to be fewer TV shows worth watching. For the first time in my life that I can remember, I had to put “read books” on my to-do list.
Reading is an essential part of writing. I know my community of bibliophiles would agree that it’s also an essential part of being human, regardless of your career. I decided to consider reading print books a necessary addition to my passion project time, a precious slice of my self-employed pie. I now read, mostly, before bed. There are plenty of good stories being told on television too, but frankly, I’m fatigued by the inevitable “What are you watching?” conversation, followed by the “I’m behind on relevant entertainment” panic and the binge-watching stupor.
The novel might eventually become like the ballet—an artifact of high culture irrelevant to the public—but that’s okay with me. Just assume that I’m always behind on whatever you’re watching. Ask me what I’m reading. These days, it’s bound to be something good.
Featured illustration: Jeff Gess