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Reading for Reading's Sake 9 min read

Reading for Reading's Sake

What I get wrong about reading, plus Vox turns 10, journalism drama, racism and high school baseball, productivity, Netflix's Hit Man, and more.

By Cary Littlejohn

I’ve been thinking a lot about reading the past week.

That’s mostly due to the fact that I’ve been in a more dedicated way since I was so excited to get my hands on Greg Iles’s new book. It’s a 966-page door-stopper of a book, and I’ve managed to get about 400 pages into it, which isn’t great progress for a week’s worth of reading nor is it terrible. It just kind of is.

But I can’t stop thinking about my reading via the rate by which I complete it, as if it’s a game or contest to be quantified and the resulting statistics analyzed for optimization. And I know that’s problematic thinking as surely as I know that’s how I’m going to think about it despite not wanting to.

What leads to that sort of thing? Surely I’m not the only one who finds himself sinking into this sort of unproductive thinking.

I don’t rightly know the answer. Could be any of a great many things (or some combination of multiple of them).

Could it be that we just reached the halfway point in the year, which inevitably pushes my mind back to January and asking myself, “Now what was it you wanted to do this year?” Because, I assure you, “reading more” was one of the list. Do I feel like I’ve done that? Not really. Maybe you also selected something nebulous like “read more” as a New Year’s resolution, or maybe you got more specific, “This year I will read X books.” Perhaps I’d have been better off to state the goal so plainly, so that my goal would be more easily measurable. (Because maybe I have read more this year, in terms of hours spent reading or words consumed or even books at this point, but I’m not really sure of anything.)

Could it be that I simply watch too much? I doubt it. I love watching TV and films. I have a near-limitless reach for things to consume between all the various services. I love the form of the storytelling: the striking visuals of film, the rich stories and excellent writing in much of today’s best TV shows. But maybe I get mad at myself for the amount of time that’s spent dithering instead of actually watching or reading (i.e., doing something productive). There could be something to this theory. I’m bad to scroll through lists of offerings on multiple services only to become paralyzed by indecision and end up watching nothing at all. I know that time could be better spent reading, and I always have a few books in progress, so it wouldn’t be hard to do.

But then I remember part of the reason I often feel like I can’t commit to a TV show or film: the mental effort that’s required to focus on it fully. Sometimes I don’t want to watch something because, inexplicably, I don’t really want to turn myself over to it fully. I don’t want to get lost in it, and when I think about that reality, I’m doubtful that my mind would want to increase its exertion to focus on a novel, which isn’t nearly as passive an activity.

Maybe I’m craving a quantitative accomplishment after all. It’s not that I don’t do any reading, even on a week when I fail to pick up a book. I have dozens of subscriptions to magazines and newspapers; I consume all sorts of storytelling. This newsletter wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t. But I don’t feel the need to track and record all of the articles I read, because I doubt that I’d find any satisfaction in terms of accomplishment. But a book? Now that’s something that feels worthy of counting. To check it off as “Finished” marks some kind of mountain summited, showcases some kind of determination and resolve to see a thing completed.

Maybe it’s consuming outside content from people dedicated to books in a way I’m not, whether as their primary job or freelance area of specialty. I take in a book-centric podcast, and I think, “I’d like to be the type of person who’s got a finger on the beating pulse of literary culture. But how do I get there?” The answer is, of course, read more. Same for friends of mine who have books- or reading-centric social media accounts where they share their latest. I like their style and their focus, and I’m quietly envious of them having found their niche.

Or, relatedly, maybe it’s my desire to write fiction, and remembering Stephen King’s admonition in On Writing that if a person says they don’t have time to read surely doesn’t have time (or the tools) to write. So then reading some seems OK, but reading more seems even better.

Or (and there’s probably something to this one) maybe it’s vanity. Maybe I want to have at my disposal the endless references and comparisons and anecdotes and examples from wide-ranging books that people can’t help but be dumbfounded by the breadth and depth of my reading life. Think old-school Christopher Hitchens or Salman Rushdie (as evidenced by this recent Book Riot podcast reviewing his latest, Knife). I dance between wanting the knowledge for the knowledge’s sake and wanting to be perceived as one having the knowledge (kind of like the intellectual counterpart to brute strength versus “show muscles,” neither of which I have, either).

All told (and this probably isn’t even a fraction of the other potential thoughts infecting my mind at a given moment on this subject), I recognize one thing in common about all of these possibilities: They don’t fully capture my opinion on reading, why it’s necessary, or what I love about it. Reading is so much more than numbers or fodder for content creation. Reading is about more than mere knowledge acquisition or intellectual showing off. It’s about story. It’s about words. It’s about craft. It’s about world-building. It’s about the human condition. It’s about suspension of disbelief. It’s about themes. And on and on I could go.

Mostly, reading simply deserves better from me. It’s plenty in its own right; I don’t need any ulterior motive for doing it. And I’d do well to remember that the next time I pick up a book.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. It’s always the anniversary of something, and this wide-ranging package from Vox reminds that they’ve been doing their explanatory journalism for an entire decade. There are some interesting features in this package, especially the ones about the random collection of things that defined the past decade, the "dress" meme, the Serial podcast, and predictions for the next 10 years.
  2. There’s a lot of drama ongoing at The Washington Post over its executive editor abruptly resigning last week. Her exit was connected to the paper’s publishing of two stories about recent developments in the court proceedings on British tabloid phone-hacking scandal of years ago, which involved the Post’s new publisher and CEO, Will Lewis. He pressured her not to run the stories, telling her there was nothing of interest there. (Lewis has denied this, but reporting from The New York Times and the Post’s own media reporters both reported it.) Then, NPR’s media reporter, David Folkenflick, not only recapped the story, but added a new twist: He detailed a time in which Lewis, just after being hired, had offered him an exclusive interview about the paper’s future if Folkenflick would drop his coverage of developments in the phone-hacking case.
  3. For a more positive journalism story, here’s another entry from Justin Heckert, this one for Slate, ostensibly about the release of a new book about journalism but actually about so much more. Matt Tullis hosted was a professor and the host of the Gangrey podcast; both pursuits were dedicated to journalism and feature writing. The book he was so excited to bring into the world, Stories Can Save Us: America’s Best Narrative Journalist Explain How, came out last week, but Tullis wasn’t alive to see it; he died in 2022. I listened to hours of the Grangrey podcast, and I loved how infectious Tullis’s enthusiasm for the topic of narrative journalism was. I would have loved to experienced his classes firsthand. Maybe this book, plus old episodes of the podcast, are the next best thing.
  4. The Sound School Podcast recently aired a recording of a presentation that This American Life’s Ira Glass gave back in 2001. It begins with a simple lesson on audio storytelling (and storytelling, more generally, Glass argues) that feels not that dissimilar to the point that David Kwon made in a story I shared last week: Once you learn the “secret” to this strategy, you’ll be almost annoyed that it’s so simple.
  5. From behind the scenes of journalism to actually presenting a good example of it: Check out this in-depth report from ESPN on a truly bonkers display of culture wars infecting a Florida high school baseball team. The lede of the story paints such a haunting image: A baseball team, its coaches, and some of the kids’ parents seemingly staged a walk-out of a baseball game, and the act left only two players standing on the field: the team’s only two players of color.
  6. A surprising addition to the long list of #MeToo allegations is contained in this story from Outside about Nims Purja, the Nepalese climber who was the focus of the Netflix documentary 14 Peaks: Nothing is Impossible. I wrote about the film not long ago, having just watched it.
  7. In The New Yorker, Cal Newport discusses productivity systems and how the ever-changing nature of knowledge work requires an ever-changing approach to how we get the most productivity out of ourselves without letting the productivity become the be-all, end-all. I really appreciated the article’s insight on tiered goal-setting or to-do lists: A seasonal, weekly, and daily to-do list, and how the higher tiers can inform and help populate the lower tiers. (For the record, I just downloaded a new to-do app, so I’m pretty much going to be the most productive person alive now. Right? That’s how it works?)
  8. Ron Charles takes aim at the posthumous team-up between Michael Crichton (RIP) and James Patterson in this Washington Post book review. It is deliciously smarmy about the book, which seems like a bad idea in all ways except the combining of two of the biggest names in action-thriller fiction which is sure to sell oodles of copies. I loved every second of the review and don’t think I’ll be checking this one out any time soon.
  9. When going back through my read-later app’s collection of stories, I realized that I’d saved two stories about the same author and book without even meaning to: Joseph O’Neill’s Godwin.”Of the two, I enjoyed the framing of this one from Vulture about “lyrical realism” in novels.
  10. Recipe for some great entertainment: Step 1: Watch Richard Linklater’s newest film, Hit Man, starring Glen Powell, on Netflix. Step 2: Read about Powell’s real-life character, Gary Johnson, in this Texas Monthly classic by Skip Hollandsworth that inspired the film. Step 3: While you’re already at Texas Monthly’s site, check out this interview between Hollandsworth and Linklater.

More From Me

Over on my blog, I’ve been writing about various topics of interest to me.

Trying Out A New Writing Workflow: Ulysses

The Magic of David Kwong

Chess Genius or Genius Cheater?

Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film, Italics is a book, and bold is a live performance or show. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

6/6: Memorial Tournament (Peacock); EVIL DOES NOT EXIST (theater); I SAW THE TV GLOW (theater)
6/7: French Open (Men’s Semis) (Peacock); Memorial Tournament (Peacock)
6/8: French Open (Women’s Final) (Peacock); Memorial Tournament (Paramount+); HIT MAN (Netflix)
6/9: French Open (Men’s Final) (Peacock); Memorial Tournament (Paramount+)