Tag Archives: A. J. Jacobs

Reading with Intent

Reading with purpose? Don't just pick up any old book; you've got to choose it carefully.

While it is true that I always know what book I’m going to read next (as if having some kind of hole between books could open up a chasm of non-reading out of which I could never emerge), my choice of books has generally been whimsical. Except for school books, I read what I like, what I think will interest me, what I expect will be good for me, and what trusted friends or reviews recommend. However, I always admire readers who read book with intent, according to some kind of plan, which they set up for themselves and follow carefully, sometimes in the hope that some kind of literary (or other) illumination will ensue. These long-term literary cures seem to be all the rave these days, and countless blogs detail the lives of readers as they lumber through lists of must-read books or calculate the average number of pages per hour (reminding me of A. J. “The Know-It-All” Jacobs, who spent a year reading all 32 volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica) in order to… well what exactly? Why would you read according to a plan? In order to learn something about yourself by implementing restrictions on what books you read? In an effort to gain sovereignty over your reading habits by setting your own limits? So that you are forced to read stuff you know you should but never get around to? Let’s take a look at a few people who read or have read by design, and see what they’ve gotten out of the experience.

The first type of intentional reading I encountered was Susan Hill’s memoir Howard’s End is on the Landing, in which the author recounts her year of reading “from home” (you can read the introduction here). Hill explains that she has a country home full of books, many of which she hasn’t read, while she has always wanted to reread many others. The solution: Hill locked herself up in her dusty old home for a year and read, refusing to buy new books and minimizing her use of the internet during that time, as a way to get to know her library again, “to repossess [her] books, to explore what [she] had accumulated over a lifetime of reading, and to map [her] house of many volumes”. The idea is interesting, but the memoir she wrote as a result — although I was a very excited about it at first — turned out to be rather uninteresting. Indeed, Hill’s perusing of her bookshelves is a way to recall her past, and to revel in some poorly dissimulated name dropping. The book could by a bibliophile’s dream, a charming account of the pleasures of reading and rereading; it turns out to be the wild fancy of a frustrated old English lady with something to prove. I’m being harsh, but then, I’ve had something against Susan Hill every since her unnecessary rant from last year about being asked to display a short story she wrote anonymously beside stories by other writers, some of them — God forbid! — amateurs.

At least the cover is nice.

On a more human (and certainly less self-indulgent) note, last week saw the long-awaited publication of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, by Nina Sankovitch. As a way to recover from her sister’s death, Sankovitch, after three hectic years, decided to stop and sit and read — one book a day for a year. She is living proof that bibliotherapy works, that there is something fundamentally human and helpful in literature. For Sankovitch, turning to reading allowed her to slow down, to pace her life and find a new center, and, in her own words, “not a way to rid myself of sorrow but a way to absorb it.” The phenomenon of intentional reading is also greatly aided by the internet, whose new platforms urges people to constantly update, to always keep everyone out there posted. Nina Sankovitch therefore decided to blog about her year of reading, writing a review for all 365 of them on her website Read All Day. She’s also very active on Twitter and now writes book reviews for The Huffington Post. I haven’t read Tolstoy and the Purple Chair yet, but it sounds very promising, and since I’m incapable of not getting books about books I will no doubt be reading it soon.

Sankovitch's highly praised grief memoir cum reading diary.

The final reader I wanted to talk about is a recent discovery of mine; I found out about her blog by seeing a picture of her library on a “my bookshelves” picture group on Flickr. This picture immediately caught my attention (and the attention of many other bookshelf-savvy commenters) as, with its rows and rows of glistening, faded penguin covers (orange, blue, green, and the unifying beige stripes), this woman’s bookcase is simply stunning. Her blog is called A Penguin a week, her goal is to collect all 3,000 penguin titles published before 1970 (they’re numbered from 1-3,000, which facilitates the collecting part) and to read and review one of the books each week (she now owns about 1,500 of them). The rationale behind the project is that the only interest nowadays in these old penguin titles is purely aesthetic, for the book design and the history of publishing paperbacks, and while many of these titles are certainly good books, they remain unread because many of them aren’t in print anymore. The blog seeks to give these books a new life and rediscover a number of long-lost, really good books — saving them from the abyss of time. It’s a highly intriguing, laudable project.

Ample proof that books do, indeed, furnish a room (or two).

At the heart of all these purposeful readings is an urge to discover, or rediscover, something that was lost — either in the reader or in what is being read. Perhaps the intentional reader feels that his or her relationship with books has become too whimsical and fleeting. You read a book, and then you put the book down and read another one. For all the time and energy you spent reading and thinking about the first book, once you’ve turned the last page, you move on quickly to something else. What remains? In truth, very little. Perhaps giving a purpose to one’s readings is a way to fit all the books one reads within something more vast, and more lasting. It’s a way to implement order upon the act of reading, a way to keep track and leave traces. As for the blogs and memoirs that emerge from these (apparently life changing) reading experiences, they are definitely a way to break the boundary of solitude which usually rules upon the act of reading; it’s a way of reaching out to the community of readers. That, maybe, is the wider purpose of these journeys: to communicate and instigate more widely an interest in books.


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