Something people don’t tell you about hobbies is that sometimes they are tedious and occasionally even boring.
This is how I’ve been thinking about reading, lately, and I feel guilty just for admitting it.
This year, according to my Goodreads, I have finished reading exactly seven books. They were great books, to be sure. Among them were Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble, and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. By all accounts, all of these are as objectively and critically sound as books can be. I enjoyed them. I recommended them to other people. They left me feeling both contented and wondering at the same time.
So why do I feel bad? In part, of course, because of the incessant comparisons that social media all but forces me to participate in, whether passively or actively. Some of my bookish friends read as many as one book a week — a feat I both respect and deeply admire. But while I certainly wonder where the hell they find the time, I mostly just wonder why I spend so much time doing other things, like falling asleep watching It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or laying in my bed scrolling through an Instagram feed that grows less and less interesting by the day, when I could be doing something that I know will make me feel significantly more accomplished and fulfilled.
I’m starting to worry that maybe reading just isn’t as fun as I remember.
Hear me out.
Do you recall what it was like to be 13 years old and discover a new band? I do. I remember sitting in front of my family’s desktop computer in our makeshift basement office, playing illegally downloaded Death Cab For Cutie albums on loop as I followed along with lyrics posted to websites with way too many popups. I remember the sensation of having made an astonishing discovery, the combined feelings of eagerness and what I can only describe now as a near-tangible awe. I remember what it felt like to go through entire discographies, to search Wikipedia for band member names and the titles of EPs I hadn’t yet tracked down. It always felt like what I imagined a treasure hunt would be like. A bit of labor, but so worth it in the end.
But as I grew older and my list of responsibilities grew, I stopped doing this. Now, I hardly go through any effort to find new music at all. I wait for album releases. I listen to more pop music than ever before. I actually take recommendations from friends. The thrill that once was has faded over time and listening to music is now not really something I’d classify as a hobby. Not an active one, anyway.
For many reasons, I don’t want my love of books to follow this same trajectory, but I must confess that I am worried. Seven books is less than the number of books I was assigned in a single class for a single semester of grad school. To be sure, I didn’t devote the attentive care that one sets aside for pleasure reading with nearly any of those books — it was very much a perfunctory task focused on just getting through from beginning to end — but the very act of completing them made me feel like I was doing something, participating in the behemoth of literary existence.
Perhaps grad school made reading books feel like work, even when it’s not. Perhaps it’s just an association problem. Perhaps I really did have the academia hangover I joked about in the months after graduation. But why do I start so many more books than I actually finish? Why has my attention span gone the way of my fiendish obsession with indie rock?
I’m starting to suspect that it might be a self-perpetuating problem — that perhaps I already feel so bad about not finishing a book before I even open it, that I go into the entire task prepared to fail, expecting to be distracted, anticipating that while I may sit down for two hours straight on Wednesday, by Thursday that memory and drive will be entirely erased by the multitudes that life throws at us all every day. But still, I can’t figure out why it is sometimes so hard to do things that we actually, genuinely enjoy — even love.
I’m not giving up on books — they provide too much warmth, and frankly, I am far too personally invested. And besides, I don’t know of any other thing I have ever done that makes my brain feel like it’s actually being massaged. But I do feel bad, and I do want to not feel bad, and I’m afraid that giving myself permission to feel bad will only make me read even less. So, I’d like to do better. I’d like to stop falling asleep watching sitcoms and instead make my leisure time a little bit more constructive. I don’t know if I will but I am, at the very least, hoping to speak this will into existence.
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