Free isn’t free. It’s better to understand that going in. Anything you take, any object that you handle, has strings attached.
One of the great paradoxes of clutter is that it’s usually harder to get rid of “free” stuff than things that we bought at retail price. Why? No idea, I just know that it’s true.
We had a give-away party after our last move, and one of the items in the pile was our last set of plastic shelving from when we had a garage. We were 100% sure the shelves would go, and we were astonished when they didn’t. The other half-dozen sets had so much traction on Craigslist that we probably should have sold them for cash.
We don’t look at it that way, because we don’t necessarily want to advertise our home as a place full of valuable stuff. (It isn’t). Giving something away attracts gratitude, while selling something seems to activate scarcity mindset in everyone involved. Do I really want to spend my free time dickering over $20? Do I really want a lot of random strangers driving to my specific home address, wondering what else I have?
The thing about shelves in particular is that they have no intrinsic value. They are not beautiful to look at, and their only use consists in storing and/or displaying other items. Nobody just wishes for a house full of empty shelves, and then leaves them that way.
I had a good laugh the other day because one of the apartment units in our building is visible from the pool. What we could see from our perspective was a wall of built-in shelving with about a dozen paperback books on it. There was room for several hundred and they looked a little lonely, all on their own.
This is dangerous, an attractive nuisance. Nature abhors a vacuum and for this reason, empty shelves attract clutter like nothing else.
Once clutter is stored or displayed on a shelf, it never leaves. It merges with the shelving unit and becomes an unremovable part of the whole. It becomes impossible to imagine the object and the shelves separately.
The strangest thing about shelves is that they tend to be inexpensive and easy to find. Yet the people who need them the most never seem to have any. I have a theory about this.
When my eldest nephew was a little boy, we had a conversation about money and stuff. He came running in breathlessly asking to get into his piggy bank because a neighbor kid was willing to sell him a plastic truck for ten dollars. What the heck?? [insert static noise] I told him that sounded way too expensive and that he’d have to ask his dad. Then I gave him a homily about how we save money so we can get something really cool later.
“I like to buy lots of small stuff and then I don’t have to wait,” he replied.
Yeah, you and all my hoarding clients, I thought.
My people, caught in scarcity mindset, all share a knee-jerk reaction that goes NO I CAN’T AFFORD THAT. They are unable to process the idea that a $40 set of shelves costs the same amount as ten $4 items or forty $1 items, which I can clearly see scattered, stacked and piled all over their home.
I “can afford” infinite amounts of $1 and $5 items. Never in life, in no alternative universe, could I even hypothetically afford any item over $X.
That’s the line. That’s how it works. In the scarcity paradigm, there is a permanent cutoff of any price tag over a certain amount, forever and always, for all time, the end.
The other issue with something like a set of shelves is that it needs to go somewhere. Any set of free shelving is virtually guaranteed not to match either the existing furniture or the dimensions of the room. In a cluttered room with a lot of big furniture, it’s never obvious where such a thing could go.
Our utilitarian beige plastic shelving wouldn’t look good anywhere except for a garage, and none of our friends has a garage, because few of the homes in our region do. We live in small apartments or condos because that’s mostly what is available. Who wants to live in a small place dominated by an ugly set of shelves? We all operate under the assumption that our homes should be comfortable and reasonably attractive.
My people, on the other hand, plan everything around THEIR STUFF, what they already have and whatever else they might carry in.
How could I set up these shelves? I’d have to move all these bags and boxes first.
The free shelves that are easy to get are only free because there’s something wrong with them. Either they are rickety or unappealing, or the original owner tried them and found that they didn’t do the job. They’re designed for a purpose. Our shelves are designed to hold medium-sized moving boxes or storage tubs. They work great for that, but they’re too tall for most stuff, either in the garage or indoors. Other “free” shelves might be designed specifically for DVDs or paperback books or some other standard size unit.
A standard shelf will either attract more items that fit it, because it feels right, or it will fill with random clutter that has nowhere else to go. It’s either manifest destiny or lebensraum.
Ideally, a shelf empties and refills. Clean dishes, clean towels, fresh groceries, they’re all supposed to come and go. It’s hard to tolerate clutter on shelves that are constantly in use, because anything that isn’t being used is always in the way. That’s what clutter IS, of course. So what is it that we think we’re doing with any shelf if it’s filled with stuff we don’t use?
The goal is always to be intentional. With something like shelving, it should be clear what is being stored, why, where, and for how long. Then it’s simple enough to find a set of shelving of the right size and dimensions. Maybe sell off some existing clutter to pay for them, thereby solving two problems: too much stuff, and nowhere to put what’s left. Good luck finding any free shelves that will magically do that job.
Secret confession time: I’ve been cheating. Blatantly. Right there in plain view, too big to miss. I have a bunch of review books to read, and instead I’ve been reading Neal Stephenson’s new book Fall. In hardcover. Over 800 pages of it.
It’s summer, and it’s hot, and I’ve been traveling and I had oral surgery, and, well, no book review.
Instead I’m just going to talk about how we choose what to read, and why, and when.
Books have always lit me up more than anything else. When I am invited to someone’s home, I’m going to read every title on their bookshelf to see what we have in common. If I see someone reading or carrying a book, whether on public transportation or at a cafe, I’m going to try to get a look at the cover to see what it is, even if I have to turn my head sideways.
Often it’s something I’ve already read, because when a book is very popular I have to find out why, even if it’ll terrible, with the exception of Fifty Shades of Grey which I couldn’t manage even on principle. Not sorry.
Like most readers, I have a list of books I plan to read one day. I also have a working stack of books I “am reading,” which means I started them and intend to finish, and another pile of books in the house that I haven’t started yet.
In my mind, this is enough reading for a few days. In reality, experience shows that it will take me longer than that.
How much longer?
This is an actual calculation that can be performed, just like the timeline of knitting up yarn or eating up cans of soup can be calculated.
Since it’s summer, we don’t have to, we can just do a freshness test like we would with some nice fruit.
Let’s say we can read a book a day. Most people are not reading that much, that fast, which is fine of course, though we can compare our reading habits to our propensity to binge-watch several television episodes and rate that against our reading quota.
(If we wish we had more time to read, the time may be there, that’s all. Everything is a tradeoff).
If I read a book a day, then I have enough books to keep me busy for over two weeks.
Wait, no, four weeks. I forgot to count audio.
In my imagination, that’s the fresh stuff. It’s the lettuce in my produce bin. In reality, sometimes that fresh lettuce is more like the limp white celery that’s been there since who knows how long.
On top of my active reading list, I have books on hold at the library. Well, libraries plural. That adds up to...
Almost seven weeks, that is if I actually read a book a day. Seven weeks plus the four I already have.
The good thing about having plenty of books piled up and in the pipeline is that I always have something to read. I can’t think of the last time I was stuck in a boring situation without a book at hand. I read more than most people because it’s something I love to do, I make time for it, I would miss it if I didn’t do it, and I wish I had more time for it than I do.
On the other hand, it seems that Past Me has been dictating a lot of my reading choices.
I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be “done” with a book and wander around looking for something new to read.
I think I may have been in that place during summer vacation between the ages of nine and twelve. We lived two blocks from the city library, which was housed in an old grocery store where I used to get a free cookie. I even had a “cookie card” with my name on it. The association between fresh hot sugar cookies and BOOKS is probably just a Me thing, but it’s there. I started with the Nancy Drew books. Then I would go in and read the jacket copy on every book in the young adult rack. Once I’d read my way through the children’s section, I realized that nothing was stopping me from crossing the building and looking at adult books. That’s when I discovered Ray Bradbury.
I used to come home with as many books as I could fit in my bag. I realized I could read a book a day, then two. My record was four, the month I was reading Lois Lowry.
That was discovery mode, walking in desperate for a book and walking out excited over my score.
Then I had the idea that I would be able to read “every book in the library” and I started at A. That was the beginning of feeling like I had a mission, the beginning of the feeling that I was not completely caught up. I’m afraid I became a completist.
Most readers believe in being surrounded by hundreds of books at home, even if they haven't read most of them. These books are aspirational even if they are not elitist choices. Much ink has been spilled in outrage over the concept of getting rid of books, any books, for any reason. Sure, fine, whatever. If having shelves full of books you haven't read genuinely gives you more passion and inspiration for reading the books you do choose, then great.
Me, I’m starting to wonder if maybe I should dial back. Start over. Dump my list. Venture forth with “nothing to read” at all.
What if I didn’t let Past Me choose the next seventy books I plan to read?
Or does having that list add some kind of illicit thrill to playing hooky and reading something just because I can’t wait, because I need to drop everything and read it right now?
That’s my suggestion. At least in your mind, if you love to read, or used to, play a little visioning exercise. In your imagination, picture that you don’t have a dusty stack of partial or unread books next to your bed. Imagine that you never made a mental or emotional commitment to read these books before you’re allowed to move on and read something else.
Play book hooky and see how you feel about picking something fresh and new.
This is a story about all the important things:
Showing up for things, even when you don’t feel like it
Talking to people, even when you feel awkward
Telling the truth about your life
Leaping before you feel ready
Doing the Obvious
We went to the opening party. I felt moody and cross and out of sorts, partly because of the weather and partly because I had made a dumb mistake and missed an event I had been really excited about.
Honestly I was being my Worst Self, not my Best Self. Judging myself for being sloppy and disorganized, which I’m not. Feeling shy and not wanting to approach people. Hiding out in a corner instead of going out and making friends.
Suddenly, there appeared a gentleman with a name tag bearing a fairly uncommon name. I asked him, “Are you related to Chris?”
“Chris who?” he said.
I won’t share all the details of my conversation with this fascinating and funny man, because it was personal and because I want to hog it all to myself. It was transformative for me, though. Not only did his kind attention completely turn around my mood, his advice definitely changed my event and may have changed my life.
I like asking other people about themselves. It’s usually an effective trick for avoiding talking about yourself. It’s a great way to get to know people, draw out fascinating stories, and also pick up book recommendations, travel tips, recipes, life hacks, etc. They win because they get an attentive listener and I win because I can keep it light.
There was no thought in my mind about my book proposal, because I’d scheduled it for July through December this year.
How did we even wind up talking about my book?
Oh, yes, probably because Mike Guilleabeau is an award-winning published author! Multiple awards, I might add. He has writer’s radar.
He drew me out about my potential book and told me I should develop it. Well, sure, yeah, that’s the plan, sometime a million years from now!
More specifically, I should sit up and write a logline, work it into a 30-second pitch, and deliver it to a specific person at a specific time slot.
The person: Literary agent David Fugate, who is attending WDS
The time slot: A “lunch and learn” at noon (15 hours away)
I should practice by approaching three people I don’t know and asking if they would critique my pitch.
This is smart advice, okay. I know this. It’s entirely actionable and NOT SCARY AT ALL, oh no, cough cough, and further, it will probably work.
I know how to give a brief pitch. That’s exactly why I joined Toastmasters 3 1/2 years ago. Evaluations are part of the package, something we’re trained to seek out and receive with keen interest. In fact I win ribbons for impromptu speaking and one-minute speeches all the time.
I know everything about my book, too. I’ve written 180 pages of it and spent years thinking and talking about the topic.
I even approached David Fugate last year and asked, heart in my throat, “Would you publish a book about minimalism?”
Sure, he said.
I know the drill. Write up a proposal and email it in. It will get looked at.
This isn’t a case of not knowing what to do. It isn’t a case of laziness or lack of organization. It’s a case of nerves. It’s a case of putting off for later what feels intimidating to do today.
How you do one thing is how you do everything. The reason you give for not doing something is the same thing that will hold you back everywhere. It’s mind-boggling how often that thing is talking yourself out of going for the thing you want the most.
Too old, too young
Not right now
Not until I can do it perfectly!
The focus and energy we give to eating a donut or a taco is available for planning and tackling a dream project, one bite at a time.
The trouble with my book proposal is that it’s one among many. Not other people’s book proposals - those are no threat to me, because what else would I read if other people quit publishing their books? My book is one of several that *I* plan to write. They exist in my mind as their own independent entities.
If I do one, won’t I then have to do them all? THEN WHAT?
What I have to tell myself, what you should tell yourself too, is that other people deserve a chance to appreciate your work. Why hold back? Someone out there is waiting on it. Waiting to be moved or entertained or challenged.
I think of my own reaction to other people’s work. I think of myself dancing around in the aisle at the bookstore or squealing with delight because one of my favorite authors has a new book coming out. I think of my friends who wait in line for hours to buy concert tickets or movie tickets or a new book or game. We’re hungry for fresh stories and talent in a way that we aren’t for anything else.
Who am I to deny this call?
I have no good reasons whatsoever to pass on Mike Guileabeau’s dare. The worst-case scenario is that I waste thirty seconds of four people’s time, and I can do that in so many other ways!
Just think of all the time in my life that I’ve wasted already, dithering and waffling and hemming and hawing.
I’m going to do it. I’m going to do this thing because if I don’t, I’m a welsher. I’m going to do it because I’ve made a public commitment. If I could finish the marathon by dragging my leg the last eight miles, certainly I can make a 30-second pitch to a man whose livelihood it is to evaluate this kind of pitch.
Okay, now your turn. I dare ya.
As a news junkie, I’ve noticed that news consumption increases to fill the time available. I would find myself reading the news over breakfast, over lunch, or even while brushing my teeth. The more I read, the more important it felt to read yet more. No matter how many sources I followed or how many versions of a story I read, I never felt like I knew enough about whatever it was. It never stopped, it never even slowed down. It took a week of vacation to step back and realize that this wasn’t a positive habit. What I needed was a news upgrade.
There are lots of approaches to upgrading a news habit. One is to replace it with something entirely different, like a cooking class or an extra hour of sleep. Another is to switch to books. Often reading a non-fiction book about a topic can bring clarity to a subject in a way that a dozen news articles never could. (A biography, the history of a particular country or region, an explanation of the stock market or self-driving cars, any number of topics could be an improvement over a news habit). One of the easiest ways is to upgrade the news itself.
What I did was to rearrange my news sources. I did this in several ways.
I have a side project, a tech newsletter that I put out on weekdays. This requires me to stay current in a few fields that are outside my area of expertise. The advantage of my layman’s perspective is that I bring in a broader range of material in adjacent subjects. I’m stronger in trend analysis than I am in STEM. Working in this field reminds me that ‘trend analysis’ is valuable and interesting in its own right, and it helps me to reinterpret what is meant by ‘current events.’
What do I cover? Robotics, astronomy, biomimicry, technology, and science news are my working categories. All of these fields are booming. Usually it feels like I can barely keep up, that there’s too much happening to fit within my remit. As with everything else, the more I know, the more I want to know, and the more I get out of what I read. Often, I’m reading about things that were pure science fiction in my childhood. I’ll think, “Wasn’t this a movie back in the Eighties, but now it’s real?”
Admittedly, science news is often over my head. That’s why I married an aerospace engineer, so he can interpret this stuff for me. (Joke). I can only handle so much in a day. That’s where the news aggregators come in.
A news aggregator pulls news on various topics from multiple sources. I simply made sure that mine included more non-current-events, non-political topics and more neutral sources.
Some of my topics? Dinosaurs, archaeology, ornithology, longevity, tiny houses, and Alzheimer’s research, among other things, fill out my news feed. For some reason, I also get quite a lot of articles about snakes and alligators.
Pulling news from international sources can be intriguing, especially when it’s health news. I’ve found that the British or Australian take on health research can be really punchy compared to the mainstream American perspective.
I read plenty of political news, and I certainly follow the headlines, but I’ve found that it isn’t productive to let this dominate my news consumption. I utterly refuse to discuss modern US politics. The reason is that it tends to destroy friendships. We have this absurd idea in our culture that “a debate” is the only appropriate format for a political conversation, and I can’t seem to dispel this notion. I don’t owe anyone a debate on any topic, from whether I have the right type of phone to whether tights qualify as pants. If I talk about politics with people who agree with me, it reinforces what I (and they) already think. If I talk about politics with people on “the other side” (as if there were only two sides, which is too silly for words), they always want to argue. I say, fine, I’ll talk pre-Industrial politics with you. Which do you prefer, antiquity, the Dark Ages, the Reformation? When someone asks which way I’m voting, I say I’m voting for myself as a write-in candidate. When in doubt, go with theater of the absurd.
What we do well to remember is that passive news consumption isn’t actually doing anything about anything. Arguing with our friends, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues doesn’t move the needle. Getting worked up about a topic and ranting about it all around the house doesn’t even qualify as a good workout. Staying informed is only useful if we do something with that information.
It also helps to remember that everything humans are doing, in every sphere of activity, qualifies as ‘current events.’ An invention that helps people with paralysis to walk, or congenitally deaf children to hear, is relevant. These advances are more likely to change the course of history than most election results. Every day I see news about archaeology or paleontology that claims to be one of the most important finds of the last hundred years, and that’s relevant too. I see news about space exploration and technological innovations that about blasts me out of my chair. The world is going to be nearly unrecognizable in twenty years once all these trends combine along their current arc. It’s relevant, it’s newsworthy, but are we noticing it? Or are the settings on our news feed causing us so much stress and distraction that we develop a misleading picture of the world? Upgrade your news habit and find out.
Is it weird that when I plan to go on a trip, the first thing I think about is what I’m going to read?
I’ve always been disciplined about what clothes I pack. The main reason is that, back in the bad old days, I needed to leave enough room in my bags for all the books I wanted to bring. People would help me with my suitcase and ask, over and over again:
“What have you got in here, bricks?”
Or, sometimes: “...books?”
Now we have e-readers and I can bring literally dozens of books everywhere I go without adding extra weight.
My formula: (BxD)+2
Where B = book unit and D = number of days
So, for a five-day journey, I would need a minimum of seven books.
This policy has served me well. An example would be the day that I flew home from New Zealand and got bumped from my connecting flight five times in a row. I had an eight-hour layover. Not only did I finish an entire paperback book while I sat there, I can even tell you which book: The Two Mrs. Grenvilles by Dominick Dunne. Fabulous.
In practice, I know that I have maybe an hour a day of solid reading time on vacation. That’s maybe 60-100 pages, depending on the book. I don’t plan my reading material based on Plan A.
This is my backup plan, Plan B for Book.
This is the plan that served me while I sat on the floor in an airport in North Carolina for five hours while everything was closed.
Likewise, five hours on a snowy afternoon at Portland International.
I have a special file folder for all the vouchers we have collected after delayed flights. That folder tells me that my flights are more likely to be delayed than to be on time. Delay means reading time. That’s not even a bad thing!
The last time I flew, I had the middle seat (of course) between two people who did not bring a single thing to do for a three-hour flight. I ask of you.
What did you think you were going to do while you were crammed into two square feet of space for three hours? Count threads in the upholstery?
Apparently you thought you were going to interrupt me and regale me with the details of your family tree.
I’m not just a reader of novels, I’m a storytelling coach. I can tell you right now that even if we were closely related, I could never possibly be interested in the story of your family tree, and neither could anyone else. I don’t care if you’re a direct lineal descendant of Leif Erikson and Mata Hari, there’s no way to make that entertaining. BRING A BOOK.
I’d lend you one, but honestly, what are the chances that you’ll share my interests? I usually can’t even coordinate reading material with my husband, my brother, or my niece, much less a random stranger.
My dad likes the commercial paperback form factor. Since he works for an airline, he travels constantly, and his practice is to give away whatever he’s reading when he’s done. Then he doesn’t have to pack it home. It’s surprising how hard it can be to find a taker for a free bestselling book!
Aren’t people reading anymore?
It’s starting to become apparent why I have travel reading anxiety. Other people worry about what they’re going to wear, and what if they change their mind, and whether other people will like their outfit and want to talk to them. Obligers! I prefer to use my wardrobe as a sort of social gatekeeper. Hopefully my clothing choices will deter uninteresting people, because my reading choices tend not to.
A book in hand is a universally misunderstood symbol. The reader is saying, I so looked forward to this quiet time to enjoy my book uninterrupted. Every remaining inhabitant of the known galaxy interprets it to mean, You are lonely unto death and it is my moral obligation to talk to you every single minute of this journey.
This is part of why I like to be in the B group of flights with unassigned seating. I can walk down the aisle and look for another middle-aged lady with a book or a tablet. We can sit companionably reading side by side and protect one another’s bubble of silence.
I had to confess to my husband, early into our marriage, that I read on airplanes as a way of dealing with my white-knuckle flying phobia. If I start reading before takeoff, I can pretend more or less successfully that we are on a bus. If I have to look to either side, the jig is up.
I’m not an introvert; in fact, I think a lot of people who believe they are introverts are actually shy extroverts like me. I’m an empath. People have been plunking themselves down next to me and telling me their entire life story since I was four years old. Part of why I am such a good and sympathetic listener is my reading habit. It also sets me up to have my energy drained without fair exchange. You want my attention, you want my attention, you want my attention and sympathy (like everyone else does) but all you intend to offer in exchange is a timeline of when you had your children? Or how many cousins you have?
Can’t you just recommend a few books that I might like?
I’m more than happy to do the same. In fact, I might even offer a few titles for your children, your aunties, and your third cousins twice removed.
My next trip is weeks away, and I’m already planning my reading. Audio books for packing, for walking through the airport, for waiting on ground transport. Longform news articles to read offline at the gate. Novels and nonfiction for the flight. I’ve got a wide variety of choices for the wide variety of disruptions that might come up. The next time I’m delayed for five hours with no wifi and nothing to do, I’m ready, and I suggest that everyone else do the same.
This is not a drill. I finally figured out how to speed-read OverDrive e-books! February 16, 2019 will remain one of the greatest days of my life, the day I got my heart’s desire. I’ve been trying to learn to read faster since I was seven years old, and now I can, and I’ll never ask for anything else as long as I live. Well, except for more pants with pockets.
Oh, and one other thing: an e-reader that continuously auto-scrolls like the old app I had on my Palm 3 PDA.
This is my position. I support DRM to the extent that people shouldn’t rip off copyrighted material. Artists deserve to get paid. I’ll never understand why people are willing to take material from their favorite musicians or authors, refusing them just compensation. On the other hand, if I’m reading a book for my own personal use, I should be able to read it in whatever format I like.
Purple type on a fuchsia background, or vice versa
Whatever I like! If I want to buy a paperback and read it upside-down, nobody will stop me. Why would they? If I want to design an app that allows me to read upside-down, and I have to strip the DRM to do it because none of the apps on the market have this feature, then I’m a criminal?
Anyway. I’ve figured out this secret and I’m going to use it until someone stops me.
I’ve loved Outread for years now, and I got a second gift when I figured out how to speed-read books. I suddenly realized that the top speed in Outread has increased to 1500 words per minute! It was 1000 when I first downloaded it. I was able to build my speed from about 700 to the full 1000, and all this time I thought I had maxed it out. Will I ever be able to read faster with full comprehension? No idea, but it’s nice to know the option is available.
Next question: Is there a way to do this on anything other than an iPhone or iPad?
Answer: I don’t know, but you’re welcome to research this on whatever device you have.
Next question: Does this technique work with e-books in other apps?
Answer: It could, with considerably more effort. I tried with both iBooks and Kindle, and while I was able to highlight and drag to copy text, I wasn’t able to Select All for a whole chapter. If I were hellbent on doing this sort of thing with a Kindle book, I would play an audiobook while mindlessly highlighting and copying a bunch of chapters into Outread. I suspect it would take at least an hour per book.
Next, next question: Would this work with scanned pages, like from Google Books?
Answer: Not sure. I haven’t yet found an app that will do OCR and then turn it into text that I can copy and paste. Curiosity is compelling me to poke around, though, and I’ll certainly try.
People are justifiably skeptical about speed-reading. It’s basically a party trick, like memorizing long strings of numbers or playing cards in a series. Neat, but why would you want to?
I speed-read for personal use, because I want to and it’s a free country. Possibly I’m a mutant. I also listen to audiobooks on 2x, sometimes higher if I feel like the narrator is slow enough to make it worth digging out my old laptop. People do weirder things in private, at least I suspect they do. I also talk to myself and laugh at my own jokes, so heckle away.
There are limits to speed-reading, though. I speed-read news if it’s entirely text, but it doesn’t work if the story is based around charts, graphs, or strings of numbers. I have to pause if there is a lot of specialized terminology, like engineering jargon or Latinate scientific names. I might skim an article on something that’s only of tangential interest to me (coffee or parenting or dating, for instance), but I’ll speed-read something if I really want to read the whole thing. I do read at normal speed if I’m there for the authorial voice.
This is how I will probably break it down:
Normal speed for horror, high speed for suspense
Normal speed for literary fiction, high speed for pop fiction
Normal speed for self-help, high speed for business books
Normal speed for memoir, high speed for how-to manuals
Readers tend to be traditionalists. Book sniffers, the lot of you! Oh, I’ll never let go of my... I’ll never use an e-book... Audiobooks don’t count... *shrug* whatevs. You do it your way, I’ll do it mine. I do sometimes savor a book the slow way. I don’t feel that every book performs at that level, though, and probably 90% don’t. That doesn’t mean I’m going to read fewer books!
Sometimes I feel that the audio recording is richer and more nuanced than the text, especially if the author is narrating, and that the print readers are missing a layer of intent. Likewise, sometimes the e-book is better designed, making it easier to refer to footnotes or references in other chapters. About speed-reading, it’s possible that some authors would be delighted by this, especially for thrillers and suspense. Ultimately I think they all prefer that their books are read and enjoyed.
Is speed-reading somehow worse than buying stacks of books off the remainder table and stuffing them into a bookcase, displayed but unread? I think not.
All right, now I’ve shared my secret. I’m off to speed-read my next book.
News junkies like myself often have a lot of trouble constraining our news consumption. That’s because the news cycle has been deliberately designed to hook users. It sells advertising and bumps up ratings. (“Ratings” as defined by number of viewers or readers, not by quality the way we rate other products). Constant news engagement is stressful and often pointless, since it’s planned around program schedules rather than merit or relevance. There’s a better way to stay informed. More books, less news, might be the answer to reclaiming some perspective and mental bandwidth.
‘More books, less news’ is not the same as recommending a complete news blackout. Not at all! The premise is to limit news time to a pre-defined chunk of the day. This is much easier to do when the first priority is to read a book. Headlines can be fit in the time that’s left.
At some point during 2018, I realized that I had only been reading maybe half the number of books I did in the past several years. I knew exactly where my time had gone, and it made me disappointed with myself. Five years from now, I probably won’t remember how many versions of speculation and guesswork I read about the latest hurricane or whether various royals might be expanding their family. I probably will remember the novels and non-fiction books I chose instead. I can stay informed on current events without sacrificing my lifelong reading habit, as long as I keep my book nearby.
An extra hour of news consumption a day is likely to raise my blood pressure, give me a headache, or make me want to crawl into my closet and hide. An extra hour a day of long-form reading is likely to keep me both informed and relaxed.
Choosing the right book is key to this enterprise. Sometimes certain books can only be appreciated in the right mood, and other times a poor fit can stall a reader’s progress for weeks or months. Don’t feel obligated to finish a book that isn’t working for you. Maybe it will seem like the perfect choice a couple of months from now. Something suspenseful or funny may remind you just what it was that you always loved about reading.
Books have, dare I say it, a shelf life. I’ve found that buying too many books in advance can put me off ever cracking a certain cover. If a particular title has caught my attention, I like to use that curiosity to get me into the book right away. If I set a stack aside, I might not touch it again until the next time I pack up my bookshelves to move to a new place. When that happens, I might as well give up. What was once an enticing treat somehow becomes boring homework.
Some people are devoted re-readers. I am not one of those people. Every time I have re-read a book, I’ve found that it ruined my first impression and spoiled my memory. I’ve never liked a title as much the second time around. This is why my book collection continues to shrink, as I move more toward e-books and sell off the hard copies I have finished reading. I share this because anyone who does love reading the same book over and over will be so offended and protective of these cherished favorites that it might inspire a mass re-reading marathon.
Shared reading is something I enjoy very much. My husband will occasionally read a book with me, if it interests both of us, and he prefers hard copies. He does a lot of business travel and it’s a good habit for the long flights and the endless waiting. He has this bizarre habit of picking up a book and starting to read it the very day he brings it home. This keeps me on-trend, reading our shared books while they are still fresh enough in his mind that we can discuss them. (A point of contention in the past is that I would foist a book on him and then not get around to it for several years). These hard copies often get passed around at his work when we’re done. It can be really exciting to sit down to dinner with friends and find that everyone has just finished a book we have in common. Discussions about a book tend to be much more interesting, nuanced, and provocative than discussions about current events.
(Particularly when the discussion veers off into professional sports, and not everyone knows anything about that sport or those teams...)
Books are great in so many ways and so many formats. I like reading in dark mode while my hubby is sleeping next to me. I like reading a hardcover library book on the elliptical. I like reading an audiobook while I do the laundry or walk around town doing errands. I like reading in the comfy chair while my hubby stretches out on the couch, and our poor dog has to decide who has the snuggle token for the day. It’s one of the best things to do when daylight is scarce and the weather is icky.
Reading is contagious, like most social behaviors. When one person turns on the TV, all heads swivel toward it. When one person whips out a smartphone, everyone else uses the opportunity to do the same. When one person curls up with a book, somehow it looks so cozy that others want to join in. Then, when everyone is done, all that’s needed is to swap books and begin at the beginning again.
I’m not a housewife, because I married a man, not a building. Perhaps it’s also fair to admit that my heart was already taken. I gave myself over to books so long ago that I had to remind myself to save room for gentleman callers. Not so much as an entire shelf; that would be quite an ask. Ah, but a massive multi-volume epic can fit in just a few inches. Coziness is one of the many fine features of the bookwife as a mate.
A boyfriend asked me once: “You love books more than me, don’t you?” I gaped at him. What a foolish question. Did he really and truly believe that he, a mere mortal boy, could rise in importance above the sum total of human art and wisdom? That he could embody a personality more fascinating and engrossing than every novel combined? That one lifespan could be greater than millennia of accumulated knowledge?
The year: 1991.
An updated version of this question would have to go something like this:
“You love the internet more than me, don’t you?”
Um, don’t go there.
Fast forward a few years. My ex-husband said to me: “The amount that you read is unnatural.” I might have replied that the amount of time he spent playing video games was unnatural, but I didn’t bother. What is a natural amount of reading? Zero? Reading is a function of civilization, not nature, although I adore the thought of a squirrel or zebu curled up around a good book.
I had nothing suitable to say to a man who felt uncomfortable with my reading habits, a man who challenged my whereabouts because I stopped at the library on my way home from work a few times a week. A woman has needs.
Whatever there is to love about me, it’s come from books. There is no way to separate the person I am from the books that have shaped me. My vocabulary, my ability to empathize with people from different walks of life, my curiosity, my ability to attend to long, drawn-out stories with dubious payoff, all are bedrock features of my personality.
Personality isn’t as important in the long run as behavior. It’s what we do or don’t do, how easy it is to live with our habits, that makes us good mates. As a bookwife, what I need most is a certain amount of private time and a certain measurable amount of mental bandwidth. Well, that, and access to large independent bookstores, plenty of shelf space, the most comfortable chair... Think of all the things you can do while I’m reading. While I’m occupied with my book, you’re free to be yourself and give yourself over to your own interests.
I make no apologies for my habits. They’re mine, and they were well in place long before I met you. Surely you noticed that I never went anywhere without a book, that I never walked past a bookstore without pausing to scan the titles in the window, that my bag and car and apartment were full of books. You saw the red flags, the satin ribbons marking the pages. Did you think that love would change me? Did you think I’d turn over a new leaf?
Look at me. Look at the upside. You always know where I am. The only recreational shopping I do is for new titles. Go ahead and laugh as I hold a book in one hand and stir the risotto with the other; who else do you know who’s getting homemade risotto tonight? Whatever else you can say about us, a bookwife has many fine domestic qualities, and being predictably at home is not the least of them.
There’s a book-shaped place in my heart that will never be filled with anything else. Why have it any other way? I belong to books, and I belong to myself. Books are entitled, and I’m entitled, too, entitled to my own interests and pursuits.
I’m a bookwife, first and foremost. It’s what I have to give. Be proud that you’ve captured my attention and confident that no man will ever come before you.
I set aside the entire month of October to enjoy Halloween as much as possible. I’ve read some really great stuff that I thought I would share. What I’ve found has been that a lot of “scary” books are actually dark comedies, or humor written along horror themes. Still, the imagery can be too much for someone who is genuinely frightened by this material. For instance, someone might be fine with zombies, but get nightmares from a movie preview that includes a ghost, or afraid of werewolves but able to tolerate scenes about serial killers. My taste for necromancy, skulls, giant spiders, and the like might not be for everyone. Be forewarned. You know who you are.
Without further ado, here is my list, in no particular order.
The Dresden Files. There are fifteen of these, written by Jim Butcher. I’m eking them out because I couldn’t bear burning through them all in a month and then having none left to read. Reader, I’m in love. HARRY DRESDEN! You thought one wizard named Harry would be enough for you, but you’re wrong. Contemporary fantasy meets detective noir.
Johannes Cabal. Jonathan L. Howard has put out five of these, plus some short stories. I will not lie; these are the books I’m listening to when you hear me going around the house chortling to myself. Cabal SLAYS.
John Dies at the End. This is a trilogy by David Wong, who also writes for the Cracked website. The second book is called This Book is Full of Spiders, and the third is What the Hell Did I Just Read. This guy is an absolutely brilliant writer and I continue to be super blown away by how hilarious he is.
Heck: Where the Bad Kids Go. Dale E. Basye. This is a kid’s series, and it’s a total panic. Chock-full of egregious puns and gross-out imagery that will bring out your inner child. If you have kids, consider reading these books aloud with them.
The Gates by John Connolly. This is a trilogy, another kid’s series about Hell that is funny, gross, with surprisingly deep moral moments.
Sharp Teeth, by Toby Barlow. If you can find it, read it. It’s a long poem about urban werewolves and it’s freaking great. Barlow also wrote a novel, Baba Yaga, about witches in mid-twentieth-century Paris.
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. The first two books of this trilogy are two of my favorites OF ALL TIME. I’ve read like four thousand books and I’m not joking. Hubby and I are huge fans, and we also dig the TV show, although it is like a parallel universe version of the books.
Ghostly, by Audrey Niffenegger. Amazing. You may recall her from The Time Traveler’s Wife.
Mr. Splitfoot, by Samantha Hunt. I wish I had written this.
Basically anything by Grady Hendrix (too clever by half and actually scary) or Paul Tremblay, who does it right.
Joe Hill, did I need to say Joe Hill? He’s Stephen King’s son and I think he *might* be the better writer of the two.
All right, that’s enough for this year. I have a big stack of Halloween novels and movies to get through this week. Did... did you hear something just now?
The reason there aren’t more chronic procrastinators is that we tend to fall into one of three categories when it comes to projects. Finishers, maintainers, and initiators, we tend to fit in one of these groups the majority of the time. The Finishing Game is aimed at initiators because we’re the fun ones.
Finishers like to get things done. They chase the feeling of accomplishment. Finishers will add an item to a to-do list just to feel the satisfaction of crossing it off, even if the item was extremely minor and inconsequential. Finishers also like to boss other people around, trying to get them to finish their projects, even if those projects are nowhere near the circle of influence of the finisher. A finisher may feel organized and in control - because that’s the central goal, after all - while never really moving forward in life or doing anything cool. Finish alphabetizing your socks, and then what?
Maintainers like to get through the day on autopilot. There’s a comfort in routine. I have a friend who has turned down opportunities for promotions at work (read: tens of thousands of dollars of extra income) because his current position allows him to listen to podcasts while he works. I have also had coworkers who would get marked down every year in their annual review because they had no goals for advancement. One wailed, “I don’t want a promotion! I just want to come in, work, and go home for the day.” It’s pretty common, and smart, for someone to realize that a promotion would result in a lifestyle downgrade. When you’re salaried, you usually don’t qualify for overtime. Is it worth giving up your weekends? That’s a question of overall life philosophy. A maintainer at home is likely to be more interested in the process of a hobby than in the finished product. Not so much “I want a knit cap” as “I love to knit.”
My own knitting languished at the same level for several years, until I forced myself to learn to understand knitting diagrams and teach myself at least one new stitch for every project. Suddenly I vaulted from basic k1 scarves to hats, socks, and pose-able toy animals.
Initiators like three things: planning projects, shopping for materials, and learning new things. As soon as we see a path to completion, we tend to lose interest. The vast scale of our daydreams quickly turns into the harsh realization that we’ll be working on this darn thing for months, maybe years! Actually finishing one of our grand creative edifices also eats into the time we’d set aside for our other 87 projects. Finishing all of them? ALL of them?? Why, that would take up years! Years I fully intend to spend dreaming up yet grander, wilder, fancier projects!
The truth is that we’re not obligated to finish past projects. We’re not obligated to finish every book we’ve started or purchased. We’re not obligated to pick out stitches for hours and re-do our work. We’re not obligated to finish projects, even when we’d earmarked them as gifts, especially when those gifts are ages past the occasion for which we’d planned them.
I bought materials for a dollhouse once. I relocated with those materials SIX TIMES before leaning on my husband to help me build it. The kids who were supposed to get it were near college-age at that point. It went to a child who had not even been born when I first saw the plans. (Fortunately, I never told the other kids, or their parents, that I was planning this awesome gift for them).
As dreamers, we’re most into the process of exploration. We’re planners and designers more than we are artisans or producers. The architect, not the carpenter; the engineer, not the mechanic. We’re never going to stop learning new skills, improving our abilities, refining our aesthetic. Because of this, guess what?
A lot of our earlier project “commitments” aren’t worth finishing.
Just because we once decided that something would be a good idea to make, does not mean that this is still true.
Just because we’ve put hours of work into something, does not mean that it would be worth finishing.
Just because an idea once popped into existence somewhere in the ether, does not mean it’s worth bringing it into physical form.
An example of this would be a wedding sampler I began for a dear old friend. I made a mistake on it and put it aside, planning to pick out those stitches on another day. Years later, it still hadn’t gotten done. But guess what? That marriage didn’t survive. When I was culling my old projects, I realized that that $1 piece of aida cloth had about 50 stitches on it, and the design was seriously dated. I threw it in the trash.
Yep. I really did. I threw an unfinished craft project IN THE GARBAGE.
It was biodegradable. It turns out we can do this. There are no project police. Nobody comes for you and hauls you to a dungeon if you quit working on something. You don’t even have to declare bankruptcy if you trash $5 worth of materials.
Culling old projects that have become irrelevant or have lost their luster is the only way to reclaim the energy to finish the good ones. Beyond this, it turns out that waking up to a clean slate with no unfinished projects unleashes an astonishing wave of creative energy and power. No guilt, no boredom, no nagging reminders, nothing. We don’t owe any of our free time to anyone. To ourselves we owe the ability to live in the present moment, without bits of our attention snagged on obsolete past choices.
At some point in the year 2000, I decided to use up all of my accumulated materials and try to finish my existing projects before starting anything new. I wasn’t perfect in implementing this, but I did stop buying attractive yarn or fabric or kits without a very specific project in mind. I went through my stockpile several times, giving away bags of stuff, throwing away bits and scraps, questioning whether I still wanted to make stuff that had appealed to me years earlier. I chose to finish many of the projects in my burgeoning work basket.
IT TOOK TEN YEARS.
Now I’m still crafty. I still have all the skills I ever had. If I wanted to make a pair of baby booties, I could do it this week. I just don’t have any yarn or knitting stuff in my home anymore, not so much as a pair of straights or a set of DPs. As a writer, I can go through my folder of notes and start on anything in there at any time, in the full knowledge that I already have too many ideas to complete in one lifetime. Inspiration is not obligation. This one lifetime is for me to live and enjoy, not to thrash myself because I am more likely to invent new ideas than to carve them into reality.
The Finishing Game works like this:
What will you do when you’ve finished everything? What will you do when you no longer have a towering pile of incompletion in your life? What I did was to run a marathon and learn enough of a foreign language to travel around, buying train tickets and getting directions. What would be more interesting, more challenging, and more fun than the never-ending to-do list?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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