Thursday, August 5, 2010

Can a Person Read Too Much?

Recently I bought two soft comfy recliners at the thrift store. They're not very attractive, but I do like the way they smell slightly of baby powder and age, and also the way the cranberry padded velour envelops my body when I sit in it. I'm guessing they belonged to an old couple who has died, or maybe one of them has died and the other had to go into a nursing home; sometimes it makes me sad to think of them. Anyway, they were $25.00 each, a steal really, and though I wouldn't dream of putting them in our real living room, I've placed them side by side in our back sun room—a jumble of secondhand furniture, lacrosse sticks, stray Lite Brite pegs, dog toys and giant picture windows that look out into the backyard. This is where we read, my husband and I. Sometimes we read and then we nap. We jack the recliners way back, spread the books flat upon our stomachs, and doze. We wake, read some more, refill coffee or wine, depending on the time of day. We are very much like retirees, even though our small children mill around us playing Legos or asking if they can have some more Hawaiian Punch or begging to have Van or Kiera for a sleepover. The kids read, too, of course. We keep a large wicker basket of kids' books in the sun room. We have family reading time every night from 7:30 to 8:00. Our kids know that to live in our family is to read. Sometimes, though, when my daughter, Lily, asks me to play Old Maid with her, say, or really, really wants me to log her onto, I'll say, "Just a minute. Mommy has to finish this chapter. See?" I'll show her the book, how many pages I have to go, and she'll sit right beside me, waiting.

We have jobs, of course, my husband and I, but they also involve reading as their primary element. We're both professors, and there are always books to sample, review, read, study, test, assign. We live in books. We live for books. We write books, too, but that's another story altogether.

* * * * *

Recently I figured out that I read approximately 2.5 books a week on average. That's 130 books a year. During a Cape Cod vacation this summer, I read 2 novels and 1 memoir in 7 days. I spend a great deal of time figuring out what to read that involves a complicated tour through, Liftbridge bookstore and the Seymour public library. Lately I've been drawn to memoirs about grief and loss (The Mercy Papers, Making Toast), autism (The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes), domestic abuse (Crazy Love), and parenting (Waiting for Daisy, Lift). Thrown in between are always, always, novels.

When I read an excellent book, I type the title into, then click through the "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" section. I then choose roughly 5-10 books, then go to the "Search Inside" feature and read the first pages of each book. Then, I make a short list, see if any are available at my local library; if not, I go to Liftbridge Bookstore to see if they have them. If not, I search and then do the "Check Store Availability" to see if I can get it at the Greece Ridge Mall Barnes & Noble. I also write down in my journal the title and author of every book I've read, then give it a star ranking, 1-5. Currently I'm reading Ann Hood's novel, The Red Thread about Chinese adoptions (it's going to get five stars for sure), and I already know what's next: People Are Unappealing (Even Me), a memoir by Sara Barron, a woman who started writing porn at age 11, was on the Jerry Springer show, and grew up with a hypochondriac mother and a "homo" father. I have read the first chapter "Lady Daddy" and can't wait.

I detail all of these logistics to highlight how deeply important reading is to me, but also how time-consuming. I have never been one of those people who can find a book lying around the house and read it. I need to plan, hit on exactly the right mood and interest of the moment; it takes time. I also have a fifty-page limit: If a book is not compelling me to get back to it by page 50, it's out. "Life is too short to waste on a half-assed book," I'll say.

* * * * *

Reading is sedentary. To combat this, I'll go to the gym, pound around on the elliptical for awhile, watch the Food Network as I'm doing so (sometimes HGTV if Rachel Ray is the only thing going). I'll put the treadmill on the highest uphill setting and pretend to climb a mountain. I sweat with ear plugs in my ears. Across the street I see people pull up and head into Dr. P's chiropractor office and remember what a bozo he was when trying to fix my lumbar; he was all about sports. "You play anything?" he always asked me, just waiting for a chance to tell me about his glory days as a rugby player. I watch this one red-headed guy I'm pretty sure is a drug dealer wander past in black jeans and black t-shirt on 90 degree days. He's always smoking. He always looks in the gym's plate glass windows with a look that suggests we are all the biggest idiots he's ever seen.

When I'm done, I weigh myself then drive back home. This is how I don't read.

* * * * *

According to tax records, in 2004 I spent $985.48 on books.

In 2005, I spent $1,141.00 on books.

In 2007, I spent $1,150.91 on books.

One year, it reached over $2,000.00.

At this rate, considering I've been reading like this for most of my adult life, this would total, so far, roughly $25,000 spent on books.

Dear god.

What else could that $25,000 have bought, I wonder.

•An old classic Jaguar (my dream car)?
•A trip around the world?
•An in-ground swimming pool?
•A new kitchen for my mother?
•A semester off from teaching?

But, I remind myself, what remains after reading a book is permanent. It can't be lost or stolen or die. I like to think of it as a sort of life insurance against despair and hopelessness. Or like getting another college degree in English over and over and over again.

* * * * *

The problem with too much reading is that it's silent. You don't talk or interact with other people. One time my husband and I had an argument about my reading too much, which was really about the way I sometimes stepped out of our real life and into the world of books. It was true. If you read too many books, too often, there can be negative consequences.

•Lost sleep
•Neglected relationships
•Sadness funk
•Tendency to spout facts at parties and gatherings only to realize they were gleaned from fiction and therefore dubious and unsubstantiated
•Social anxiety disorder
•Fuzzy eyes
•Loss of touch with reality

I could slow down. I could do a book a week, but then what? The only television shows I really adore are "Intervention," "Hoarders" and "Obsessed" on A&E—all documentary shows about people struggling with addictions. I am riveted as I watch these shows, only stepping into the kitchen during commercials to refill my chardonnay. If you can be addicted to buying birds and collecting toothbrushes and cleaning the bathroom, you can also, I'm afraid, be addicted to reading books.


  1. Wow, quite profound. I wish that I read with one tenth of the voracity you have. I keep telling myself I must read more than I do; especially if I hope to become a professor anytime soon, but life always seems to intervene.

    As far as your rationalization over the money spent:

    - Cars rust. English cars are notoriously feisty and difficult (read: expensive) to fix. I never figured you for a car, let alone Jaguar person. That's cool.

    - While epically awe-inspiring as it may be, that vacation would be but one, and the trips that you take within the aforementioned books will be just as vivid (if not more so) and last longer. We tend to get bogged down by 'the real.'

    - A swimming pool in upstate NY is an exercise in futility I've realized. It either doesn't get used enough when the weather is nice, or you want to use it more than you do but can't because the weather is not cooperating.

    - Can't argue much with a new kitchen, but I still say that the books will bring more 'bang for the buck' over the years.

    - 4.25 months off. While cool, those days would go by too fast and yet again, the memories from the books will last a lifetime.

    Great post, thanks for sharing. :)

  2. as another addicted reader (perhaps not quite as intense), i would have to say that i think you have made a great choice. recent happiness research has clarified that people are happiest when they spend money on experiences rather than things, so the only other thing on your list that might have qualified would be the trip around the world. since you travel a lot though, i think you will be okay with your choices.

  3. there are lots of strange and terrible things to spend money on and books are neither of those things. and like anonymous said, the experience of reading makes you so happy that it is ultimately worth it.

  4. I think sense that a person should be selective in what they read... garbage in, garbage out. I figure any book that has a practical benefit in some way is worth the time to take away from actually living, otherwise it is just fantasy