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?
September! I’m always going to associate the month of September with going back to school and hitting the books. It occurred to me the other day that reading is one of my favorite things, and that maybe with a little planning I can find more time for it. There’s something about that feeling of a fresh start, of a brand-new month, that always seems to have a little extra momentum. Starting on the first, I’m going to treat myself to more reading time.
For the last decade or so, I’ve been recording everything I read. Looking through Goodreads, it appears that I only read five novels in August, two in July, two in June, and two in May. This is the least amount of fiction I’ve read, like, ever. I can’t even explain how it happened. I literally read more fiction than this in grade school, when we still called them chapter books. My favorite thing to do to relax is to kick back with a book, so why am I not doing it?
A few years ago, I started dedicating the month of October to my favorite genre, horror. I always used to watch a horror movie on Halloween, and I had a list of highly rated classics that I would save for my first viewing. I would also read a classic horror novel. Gradually my list got too long, too fast, and I started extending Halloween a few extra days, then a week. When it occurred to me to just make it THE ENTIRE MONTH, I felt absolute delight. Even better than a bag of free candy! I did it, too, and October 2017 was a blast.
Out of nowhere, I suddenly had the idea that I could set aside September and November for special reading projects as well. Immediately I started to think about what these projects would be, and whether it might eventually make sense to do something like that for each month or season of the year. For instance, I usually save dark and dramatic books for January, because why mess up beautiful sunny weather with sad topics?
One of my thoughts is to set aside one month of the year for finishing off any books I had stalled out on. That’s most likely going to be December this year, and probably every year of my life until I learn to quit over...BOOKING myself. No I will not apologize for that pun so don’t ask. I love starting out on New Year’s Day with a fresh slate, and I usually rush around in December trying to close all my open loops, read through my news queue, purge my closet(s) and cabinets, clear out my desk, and not have any unfinished business. Perpetually, my “to be read” pile is the most behind-hand of these areas.
The worst of my “why am I not reading this” categories are fiction and fitness. I tend to buy exercise books that are about three years beyond my current ability, and then just... gaze at them from time to time. I recall a book I bought in college about yoga poses you could do in your pajamas without getting out of bed. Like that. I tend to let my fiction picks stack up, because as it turns out, I hate reading paperback books, but it also drives me crazy to want to read something that hasn’t been released as an ebook yet. It’s a FoMO thing.
Isn’t that the deal with reading plans? With buying books in advance? With having a news queue or a playlist or a bunch of open tabs or a movie queue? We like making all sorts of media choices for Future Self, thinking we know better today what we’re going to want to do for fun someday in the future. Then Today Me is looking at all these stacks and lists and feeling totally overwhelmed. What we do for entertainment shouldn’t feel like homework!
Back to my idea of having a seasonal reading plan. At least right now, this feels refreshing. It feels like something fun, rather than having to industriously read through my TBR list in order. My October “all horror, all day, every day” plan is one of my favorite times of the year, even though it spooks my husband. There’s that sense of getting away with something, of having a secret thrill.
You know what I think I’m going to do? I think I’m going to make September about classic novels that I always wanted to get around to one day. I keep looking at these “100 best books of all time” lists with a wistful feeling. Every time I do, I think, “Oh, I’ll just read one of those every week” or “every month” or “I guess never.”
Right at this moment, I’m also thinking that November could be about memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies. I LOVE that stuff. I often find myself reading a memoir when I’m procrastinating on something else. I particularly like the idea of listening to audiobooks when they are narrated by the author. Maybe there are also some documentaries to add in, since I sometimes watch stuff while I’m on the elliptical.
This is how I do my reading:
Audiobooks for errands, chores, cooking, walking my dog, and otherwise doing boring stuff
The occasional hard copy of a book, if I must, either on my porch or on the elliptical with two giant rubber bands holding it in place
Ebooks for long bus rides, the elliptical, or reading in bed in dark mode
What am I planning to read?
SEPTEMBER - CLASSIC FICTION
Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
The Adventures of Augie March - Saul Bellow
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers
Wise Blood - Flannery O’Connor
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton
NOVEMBER - MEMOIR, BIOGRAPHY, AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Life in Motion - Misty Copeland
Bicycle Diaries - David Byrne
Leap of Faith - Queen Noor
West With the Night - Beryl Markham
Oh the Glory of It All - Sean Wilsey
Choose Your Own Autobiography - Neil Patrick Harris
When I was seven, I tried to learn to read two books simultaneously. I was lying on my stomach on the living room floor, reading Alice in Wonderland, when it struck me how much more fun it would be if I could read faster. I figured I could just read one book with each eye. I jumped up and got a second book and started to experiment.
One on the left, one on the right. That’s how it’s done, right? Wrong. Dang.
One above the other? Hmm, no, either they’re too big or I’m too little.
What if I... overlap them? This felt crazy and very sophisticated. I set the right-hand side of Alice on top of the left-hand side of the other book. I could then read a line and jump over the edge of the page onto the other book’s page. This actually worked, except that the sentences ran together. Unexpected complication!
My best idea was to interleave the pages and hold them up to the light so that I could see the text of the second book between the lines of text of the first book. Like a scrim, or a palimpsest. Unfortunately this also resulted in merged storylines and some mirror-image text.
At that point, I realized that this was probably just too hard for little kids. I resolved to try again when I was bigger. After all, I was only just learning how to read chapter books.
Naturally, some naysayer or other in my family looked over to see what I was doing and explained that it wasn’t possible. Scoff! Scoff! Maybe for you! Tell me that something won’t work, that it’s unrealistic or dumb or technologically unfeasible or that it violates the laws of physics. Go ahead, try it. It won’t get you far. I’m not even annoyed by that sort of thinking, much less discouraged. I was stone-cold certain that I would have more fun if I could read faster, I knew there was a way, and I was NOT WRONG.
I read pretty darn fast. One year, 2009, I read 500 books just to see if I could. That was before I learned how to listen to audiobooks on 2x.
Let me briefly outline the ways I reliably read faster, and then let me tell you about my white whale, my obsessive search.
There are a lot of valid criticisms of speed-reading. Fine. Great. I will never be satisfied with the amount of content that I can mull over deeply and ponderously. I love reading the slow way as well. I read poetry, I read literary fiction, in high school I read Don Quixote in the tub until my bathwater was cold. I also happen to want to slurp up vast amounts of trivia. I want to stay current on a bunch of topics from multiple sources. I want to read my second tier and skim my third tier while still immersing myself in my first. Why choose?
I like a certain amount of true crime, thrillers, best-sellers, popular psychology, memoirs, business books, and other pop culture ephemera. I like following current events while still having time for lengthy investigative pieces. I want to keep up on the transitory while setting aside time for the evergreen.
Hence, my obsessive quest for a way to speed-read library ebooks. The white whale!
I have tried EVERYTHING. It’s maddening. I believe that it constitutes fair use for me to read a library book in whatever format I please. As long as I’m not hacking anything, using it for personal profit, or keeping it past the due date, why does it matter what font or format I use? I can read upside down at a fairly brisk pace, and that doesn’t seem to bother the public library when I bring home a physical copy of a book. Why can’t I read an ebook in a speed-reading app?
Why do I want this feature? I want to be able to whip through a book hands-free. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be fast; I’d like to be able to read while I eat or work out and not have to touch the screen. Or the, book, I guess you would call it. That wood thing.
There are two methods that would satisfy me. 1. Auto-scroll, like the text at the beginning of the Star Wars movie. I used to have a PDA app that did this. Why was it possible 20 years ago, but not now? Kindle doesn’t have scrolling, iBooks has scroll format but no auto-scroll, Adobe Digital Editions doesn’t scroll, OverDrive doesn’t scroll... Y U NO SCROLL?!? 2. Spritz. This is the gold standard speed-reading format. It highlights a couple of words at a time, and you can keep your eyes stationary while the text moves rapidly off to the left. There is also no reason why Spritz couldn’t be an option in OverDrive, Kindle, iBooks, etc. It just isn’t. Bah!
Okay, so it isn’t built in. Surely there’s a way that I could simply read my library ebooks in an alternate app within the 21-day limit?
I tried several elaborate methods of transferring an ebook file into a speed-reading app. Using my laptop, download the file into Adobe Digital Editions, transfer it into Dropbox, and then try to open it in Gerty, in Outread, in anything I could find. That’s a no-can-do’er. Open the book in OverDrive Read and try to use various speed-reading browser extensions. Nope. They don’t work because a book in OverDrive Read is really an image, not text.
The only thing that does seem to work is that I can get my iPad accessibility text-to-speech to speed-read a book to me in OverDrive Read. I just haven’t figured out how to get it to start from any point other than the beginning.
Apparently a lot of people strip the DRM from their library ebooks. I don’t want to mess around with that, partly because it would mean futzing around with each book, and partly because I believe piracy exposes me to undesirable things like viruses and worms. Besides, what I’m trying to do shouldn’t BE piracy. I don’t want to keep these books; I just want to speed-read them. I would in fact be returning them more quickly!
One day, every single book ever published will be available digitally, to read in any way we please. That day is not yet here. Right now, not even all the digital books are available on audio. I mean, I ask of you. Am I honestly to be expected to track down paper copies of things that I want to read? What am I supposed to do with them after I’m done? Stack them in my house? Perhaps one day in the distant future, you’ll find me lying on the floor of my living room, wearing a cranial electrotherapy stimulation helmet, happily buzzing through two books at one time. Until then, I guess I’ll take what I can get.
I’m about to mess with your head in a big way. What would happen if you *gasp* *clutch the pearls* considered getting rid of a bookcase?
Okay, okay, I get it. Being a reader and book lover is a huge part of your identity. Mine, too. I read over three hundred books last year. I like hiding in the aisle of a bookstore and sniffing pages just like anyone else. I’ve gone on many trips where my carry-on was heavier than my suitcase because I brought more books than clothes. Just because my entire life is built around books does not mean that I need to demonstrate that by showcasing a bunch of them in my home.
Yes, and you’re going to continue to do that at your place. Granted. I hear you! Nobody is going to come and make you give up your books. Just hear me out for a minute.
What would you do with the space where your books are now, if you could put them somewhere else? Hypothetically speaking... what if you pushed on your bookcase, and it suddenly swung aside and there was a secret room or tunnel back there? Then what would you do?
What I literally did was to get rid of a bookcase and use the space to put a desk. You have already cleverly grasped this from the title of this post, of course, so let me elaborate.
My apartment is small. Not the smallest space I’ve ever lived in, no, but 680 square feet for two adults, a dog, and a parrot is pretty modest. We had to get rid of a bunch of furniture and other stuff when we moved in, because even though we wanted to keep it, there simply wasn’t a way to make it fit. My husband is an engineer and we literally drew schematics of alternative floor plans. Having a bookcase was a firm tradeoff for other uses of the same space.
Why not keep it? You can put almost anything in a bookcase, right?
First of all, I don’t have a lot of other stuff. I’m not a keeper of tchotchkes or collectibles. My life is my husband, my electronics, and my little parrot whose beakie I kiss throughout the day. Also the dog, who needs enough space in our living room to chase his tail in both directions.
I was annoyed with this particular bookcase. The Roomba won’t fit under it and Spike keeps throwing his ball under it. One day, a lizard got in and hid out back there, much to the consternation of the dog... It’s old and scuffed up, and it comes from my bachelorette days, when all my furniture matched. Over the years of marriage, merging households, relocations, and furniture upgrades, it is now the lowest-quality, oldest, and most worn out furnishing we own. Since we’ve downsized, it also has to be in the same room as our couch and dining table, when in the past it could be in a room where it didn’t clash. In short, the bookcase I assembled myself with so much excitement has now become an eyesore.
But the BOOKS!!!!!!!!
Look, I read constantly. Like most people, what is in my bookcase is not actually representative of what I actually read. Most people use their bookcases to display books they read IN THE PAST. The active reading is usually on the nightstand, the coffee table, or perhaps the top of the toilet tank. My grandma buys purses based on whether they’ll fit a thick paperback. My dad keeps his daily read in the cargo pocket of his pants. Me? Almost all of my reading is either digital, or it’s a library copy. The books I have in my bookcase are books I bought and put away without reading them. It’s an anomalous and foolish habit. I hang onto them, moving them from house to house, packing and unpacking them, because they’re not available as digital copies, the library doesn’t stock them, and I can’t bring myself to give them up.
Can’t seem to bring myself to read them, either.
This is a project I’ve been working on for the past five years.
What finally happened was that the desk I’ve had my eye on since last August went back on sale, after a price increase of $70. I bought it and called a Lyft to bring it home, even though I knew I wasn’t done with the bookcase downsizing project yet. My mounting frustration with my lack of a desk led me to the breaking point. Time to find a way. I want a desk more than I want two feet of unread paperback books.
My husband thoughtfully dropped everything and helped me. When he came home, he culled his own bookcase, freeing up a full quarter of the available space so I could have my own shelf. He also assembled the desk and helped me rearrange all this heavy stuff. His bookcase went two feet further along the wall, and the new desk sits exactly where my old bookcase used to sit.
That very evening, I pulled up a chair and set to work. Almost immediately, it became my favorite spot in our apartment. While my husband sits at his desk, a combination of soldering station, robotics workshop, and auxiliary workstation, I have somewhere to sit and work on my own projects. We both got a massive lifestyle upgrade.
What would be different for you if you did something similar?
What this is about is a focus on creation instead of consumption, making a work space for something you do rather than a storage and display area for things that you have. (Don’t argue with me; when they’re on a shelf you are not interacting with them or reading them, unless you have laser eyes). This is about stasis versus motion, your home as wallpaper and decoration rather than your home as a place where you live, work, create, and do things. Does your space serve you and your interests, or is your stuff physically blocking and preventing you from doing that?
Could you really use a space to spread out and make things? A work table? What would you do there? I can think of quite a list:
Making armor for your cat
Finishing your thesis
Writing a book
Playing a keyboard, piano, or organ
Labeling and shipping products for a side hustle
A lot of people have garage space that they have theoretically dedicated to a craft. This works better for a lot of projects that involve grease, wood dust, metal shavings, loud noise, fumes, shop tools, or special power outlets. In practice, garage workspaces usually have poor lighting and they’re either too cold in winter or too hot in summer, so they wouldn’t get used even if they were empty. The sad reality is that nearly all would-be project spaces are packed full of boxes or sporting equipment, mostly belonging to the kids or the romantic partner. The space can never be used because it’s being bogarted by someone else, and that’s a conversation/confrontation that will never happen.
Now hold that example in your mind: the would-be workspace that is unusable because there’s stuff in the way. Do you see how that can apply to having a bookcase where a desk or art space could be instead?
Most desks, in practice, aren’t functional desks either. The desk itself is there because it was inherited, because of inertia, or because it suits the decorating style of the owner. The reality is that its style doesn’t suit its supposed function. The knee well is too narrow or shallow. The drawers are heavy and they stick, and they’re the wrong dimension for what would logically go in them. They face a wall in an isolated room where the owner does not like to work alone. The lighting is, again, not good enough. Mostly, the desk is buried under depressing stacks and piles of papers and other objects. It’s not a functional workspace, it’s a storage area for stuff that has nowhere else to go. It’s like a kitchen for cooking boring things that taste bad. Making a desk into an art space would seem to require many hours of hard focus and concentration.
At my home, I no longer had a desk at all. This is why my battle was not between the desk-that-was and the art-that-could-be. It was a battle between the books-I’m-not-reading and the writing-I-do-every-day.
You can, as usual, do whatever you want. I encourage it. Do what you want! While you’re busy doing what you want, also pause for a moment and consider whether you are also getting what you want. Do you have adequate space to actively work on all your favorite hobbies? Are you getting to do what you want to do in the space that you have?
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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