Sometime last fall, without really meaning to do it, I quit a six-year habit cold turkey. Ever since January 2013, I had faithfully written down all of the books I read, separated by month, and then collated statistics at the end of each year: number of books read, average number of books read per month, fiction / non-fiction split, ratio of new reads to re-reads, etc. It let me see the patterns in my reading habit, and of course, provided considerable content for all the posts I label “reading notes“. And then all of a sudden… it just became too much. So I stopped. And six-ish months later, I still haven’t started again.
What changed? It was a lot of things. I was in the middle of a difficult pregnancy that sapped my mental energy as much or more than my physical strength, which didn’t help anything. I read, or nearly read, two books in a row that I couldn’t bring myself to finish — and I never wrote down books I didn’t finish, so it felt like all of the time I spent on reading them was wasted. (I do this, though; I think my record is reading over 800 pages of The Strand before finally throwing in the trowel. 800 pages! Why didn’t I just push through the last 400? It’s a mystery.) But at the same time, and this is probably the most important part, I found that the numbers and statistics that I was keeping track of were turning into something other than they were meant to be: not interesting information, but something that I used to pressure myself in weird ways.
Keeping track of the numbers slowly morphed into being all about the numbers. I felt pressured to keep the number of books I was reading high, so that I was increasing the amount I read every year. This felt like progress, although “progress towards what?” is not a question I can (or could) answer. And if my numbers dipped in a month, I felt bad about it — even though reading fewer books might very well have meant reading more than usual, if I was reading longer books. And since I only wrote down a book in the month in which it was finished, I was always rushing to finish things before the month turned, and feeling weird about ‘skewing’ my stats if I didn’t make it. It felt wrong to mark a book as complete in April, if I read 95% of it in March. And so, gradually, I became accountable to the numbers and the system I’d created, instead of the other way around.
Blogging soon became part of the problem, since I started posting monthly round-up posts that would talk about the books I had read. I do enjoy talking about books that I’ve enjoyed, or that made me think — but doing a monthly post that touched on every book, month after month, meant I had to think of something to say about each book (ideally, of course, something clever or funny or both). The need to have something to say actually changed the way I read; it was difficult to turn off that extra layer of awareness and simply enjoy what I was reading, without worrying about coming up with anything insightful at the end of it all.
This is not to say that things were all bad, or that I regret having formed this habit in the first place. It wasn’t, and I don’t. I enjoy being able to flick through the pages of my reading log and remember where and when I read certain things. Some of those dips in my reading pace were for wonderful reasons, like when Anselm and Perpetua were newly born. I can see where I got on particular reading trains, like when I decided to read through as much of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s back catalogue as I could get my hands on. And it helped me to form some good habits: for example, for a long time, I read fiction pretty well exclusively. When I noticed that in my log, I made a resolution to read at least three nonfiction books every month, and writing down everything I read kept me accountable to that goal. The more I read, the more I liked, and now my fiction/nonfiction split is pretty close to 50/50. I doubt it would be if I hadn’t been keeping track of things.
But now? Now I’m not keeping track of things at all. What have I been reading lately? I have a vague idea. What have I read since dropping my logging habit? Mostly I can’t tell you — or if I can remember what, I certainly can’t remember when. I do know that when I read A. S. Byatt’s Possession this past November, an annual tradition, it was with much more enjoyment than it had been for the last few years. For the second year in a row I didn’t read The Lord of the Rings in December, which I had previously done every December since 2003. That felt ok, though; after all, I’ve read it fifteen times. I know how the story goes, and the next time I pick it up (maybe in the summer — what a shocking idea!) I’m sure I will relish it all the more.
Reading without logging is very strange for me. I feel freed; I feel uneasy. Maybe I’ll get the itch and start keeping track again — perhaps in a different, numberless, format. Or not. Maybe I’ll start breaking all my habits. Maybe I’ll start new ones. And maybe I should end this post before my rambling gets completely out of control. The end.