What am I, if I’m not a reader of books?

A few of the books I have either bought for myself, or received as gifts (most of those being ones I ASKED for), but have not finished reading.

A few of the books I have either bought for myself, or received as gifts (most of those being ones I ASKED for), but have not finished reading.

Back when we were first married, my wife gave me a coffee mug that I deeply appreciated, to the extent that I never drank out of it, wanting to preserve it. It had a picture on it of a young boy sitting with his back against a tree and his nose in a book, with the caption, “The sky above and a book to love.”

That really described me as a kid, which I was touched by because she hadn’t known me then — she could just tell. That’s who I was.

But lately… I feel like I’m less myself.

Recently, I Tweeted out (with unintentional irony) an essay in the WSJ about how we all need badly to turn back to reading books:

We need to read and to be readers now more than ever.

We overschedule our days and complain constantly about being too busy. We shop endlessly for stuff we don’t need and then feel oppressed by the clutter that surrounds us. We rarely sleep well or enough. We compare our bodies to the artificial ones we see in magazines and our lives to the exaggerated ones we see on television. We watch cooking shows and then eat fast food. We worry ourselves sick and join gyms we don’t visit. We keep up with hundreds of acquaintances but rarely see our best friends. We bombard ourselves with video clips and emails and instant messages. We even interrupt our interruptions….

Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt books; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. You can rant against a book, scribble in the margin or even chuck it out the window. Still, you won’t change the words on the page….

This brought to the fore one of the many perpetual guilt trips I live with: All the wonderful books I already possess — as a result of telling people I wanted them as gifts, and my loved ones acting upon that stated desire — and have not read.

Recently, I confessed that I still hadn’t read Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow — although I’d had it ever since Fritz Hollings insisted I must read it 12 years ago, and I put it on my wish list and received it soon after, and put it on the shelf.

Well, I’ve started it now, and have been reading it for several weeks, and it has all the ingredients of the kind of book I love — I keep stopping to read aloud good bits to my wife — and I’m all the way up to… Chapter 5. Hamilton has just joined Washington’s staff in the midst of the revolution.

Obviously, as fascinating as it is, I can put it down.

Awhile back — more than 18 months ago, I see — I confessed to y’all that while the First World War is one of those areas I really, really feel that I should learn more about, and I had started on it several months earlier and written about how awesome it was (especially that first chapter, which sets the scene), I still hadn’t finished The Guns of August.

Well, I still haven’t. I bogged down somewhere around the time that it shifted to the Eastern front (although I read enough of that to conclude that Tsar Nicholas’ government was too incompetent to run a lemonade stand, much less such a vast country).

When I mentioned that and several other things I needed to read more about at the time, some of y’all very kindly suggested some books to check out. And I was grateful, but at the back of my mind was this awful, nagging doubt that I’ll have the discipline to get around to reading them. The shelves of unread books that I really, really wanted and already possessed groaned with the combined weight of the books themselves… and my guilt.

And I was right. I still haven’t read them.

Sitting around my house and on my iPad, begun but not finished, are the Hamilton book and The Guns of August; The Art of Betrayal: The Secret History of M16 — Life and Death In the British Secret Service, by Gordon Corera; The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914, by David McCullough; The War for All the Oceans: From Nelson at the Nile to Napoleon at Waterloo, by Roy Adkins; Trotsky: Downfall Of A Revolutionary, by Bertrand M. Patenaude; A Tale of Two Cities; The Grapes of Wrath; and Moby Dick. That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are more.

All of them, with the possible exception of the Trotsky book (I’ve officially given up on that one), started with great promise.

It’s not that I don’t read. I read — or at least skim and dig into the stories that interest me — at least three newspapers a day, plus all the many items that social media draw me to. I suspect I read more news and commentary each day than at any time during my long newspaper career — because so much is immediately available.

And it’s not that I don’t read books. I obsessively reread Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels, and occasionally some of my favorites by Nick Hornby, John le Carre (his early stuff, from The Night Manager back), Martin Cruz Smith and, yes, Tom Clancy. I can pass a pleasant moment with them and put them down, because I know that happens next. Ditto with faddish stuff from my youth, such as Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land.

And I occasionally finish a new book, the most recent being, let’s see… Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge, by Anthony Beevor. Months and months ago, I now realize.

Why can’t I seem to commit to a new book, and see it through? I suspect it’s because of a number of factors, starting with all that time spent with ephemeral stuff via iPad.

It’s other things, too. I’ve gotten so obsessed with genealogy that I actually spend huge amounts of time on the weekends building my family tree. Several months ago, I had fewer than 1,000 people on it, now I’ve more than 2,600. And just this weekend, I’ve made some surprising discoveries: For instance, one of my apparent ancestors — who rebelled against King John and was declared an outlaw — may have been one of the inspirations for the Robin Hood legend. Really. So I find it hard to tear myself away from that stuff. I’ve learned a lot about dim corners of history I did not know before, just reading context on ancestors. But that reading, so far, has seldom gone deeper than Wikipedia.

The most humiliating reason of all is that, well, there is so much compelling television these days, sucking up my leisure hours. That is something I thought I would never write, especially as a reason for neglecting books, my lifelong love. But while broadcast television (with the exception of ETV and PBS) is a more wasteful wasteland than ever (with some exceptions — I enjoy “Bluebloods,” and don’t forget “The West Wing” was on broadcast), Netflix and Amazon Prime have almost enough offerings to occupy my evenings completely. And I just can’t seem to get around to canceling HBO NOW, despite my best intentions.

Still, I’m almost sure I watch less than most people. Nielsen reported a few months ago that the average adult American consumes media — using tablets, smartphones, personal computers, multimedia devices, video games, radios, DVDs, DVRs and TVs — a total of 10 hours and 39 minutes each day.

Read that figure again, and think about it. It’s not a typo.

This is embarrassing. It’s actually worse than that. It’s an identity crisis. Who AM I, if I’m not reading books? Maybe the Internet has retrained my brain, making it less patient. For whatever reason, an occasional long-form magazine piece, in The New Yorker or some similar venue, is about as long as I go. And most of what I read is no longer than a newspaper column.

I don’t know what’s happened to me. But it’s disorienting. And I need to do something about it…

Some of the books I've lazily read and reread over the years, rather than read something new.

Some of the books I’ve lazily read and reread over the years, rather than read something new.

36 thoughts on “What am I, if I’m not a reader of books?

  1. Bart

    Great introspection on how the generations that span at least 80 years plus of today probably spend the time you mentioned on social media and watching television or on the computer. I work on my computer anywhere from 6 to 12 hours each day, sometimes 7 days a week depending on work load. Then I do try to watch “interesting” television programs and thoroughly enjoy some of the better British mysteries and programming on PBS.

    Side note – I thoroughly enjoy the new “Sherlock” with Benedict Cumberbatch. It is entertaining and intelligent, not tripe or boring. The characters are so much better than the old Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Sherlock’s “mind castle” is particularly fascinating because I too have my own but nothing to the extent or complexity of Holmes. I find it a relaxing and enjoyable place to visit when I try to contemplate and make sense of the world around me. It presents a challenge and anything that challenges me is welcome. Maybe that is why I enjoy this blog so much and the comments made by some of the most intelligent commenters I have encountered, even in the NYT comments.

    Back to the point. After spending hours working at my computer plus researching subjects and topics to find answers to questions and watching television for a limited time, I don’t have the time to read the way I would like to. My reading time is devoted to a couple of chapters of the Bible each night and afterwards, listening to relaxing and soothing music to wind down from the day’s events. I do have several books given to me over the years that have not been read and probably won’t be so I plan to give them to someone who does like to read and has or takes time to do so. I really don’t enjoy reading a book on an electronic device, Kindle for example. For me it is too impersonal and a book is something to hold, feel, and enjoy the experience of the simple pleasure of reading. My two favorite books of all time are “My World and Welcome to It” by Thurber and “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Solzhenitsyn. In the book by Solzhenitsyn, I could actually feel the cold Ivan felt and could identify his contentment at the end of a day that for most it would be another day of horror. And in Thurber’s work of short stories in “My World..”, they point out the folly of humans in several different ways, humorous and sad and if one reads the book, they can usually identify with a family member or someone they know.

    Anyway, thanks for reading my ramblings. Got lost in my “mind castle”.

  2. JesseS

    Like Wealth of Nations, I’m not sure if anyone has actually finished The Guns of August. Granted GoA is much more readable, but it’s also more soul crushing (no matter how well written, some aspect of WWI eventually starts to eat at you and you have to escape it).

    The last few years I’ve been reading a lot of history, mostly Reconstruction. Currently there is a massive unread stack sitting on my coffee table. A few books on the Red Shirts, the U.S.C.T, Sherman and Grant’s memoirs, several tomes on the first Klan, collections on Republican representatives and their legislation, and 10 or 12 books on southern governors from that era. That doesn’t even get to all the books sitting on my tablet like pdfs from archive.org (great resource for stuff that is out of print, btw) and Kindle (man, was Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton a long, repetitive slog).

    The truth is, history is often deeply depressing stuff and as you get older you feel more and more obligated to read it. Meanwhile I can still breeze through fiction. At this point fiction feels like cheating.

    It kind of makes me envy English Lit types. They get compelling heroes and nuanced shades of grey. In the real world, it’s shades of horrible, with revisionism that reminds you that it was more horrible than you could possibly imagine.

  3. Bryan Caskey

    This could be a good thread. Everyone should take a picture of his or her bookshelf and post it. I’m sure Doug’s bookshelf is not the same as bud’s, but it would be interesting to see.

    The only problem with mine is that I’ve started using my Kindle more and more, so my bookshelf wouldn’t have any of the Aubrey-Maturin books physically there.

    Who’s in for bookshelf photos?

    1. Norm Ivey

      I’ll play. Caveats:
      >>I don’t keep physical books unless they are unread or unless I think I may read them again. I prefer to pass them on to others who may enjoy them. We send many to Friends of the Library. I tend not to be sentimental about books.
      >>I do most of my reading on a Kindle. My bride and I share an account so I had to bump her books off the screenshot by opening books I have read in the past–their position on the grid isn’t necessarily an indication that I read them recently.
      >>Not represented are things like cook books, which have plenty to read in them beyond the recipes. They’re all on a shelf in the kitchen.

      I’m sharing two pics–one of my small, physical bookshelf and another of my Kindle library.

      I’m looking forward to seeing others’ shelves. An observation about my own shelf. It’s nearly barren of fiction, which I read almost exclusively through my years as an ELA teacher. When I changed to teaching science, I seemed to have left fiction behind.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        Nice! I should have guessed you would have some books on brewing. The screenshot of the kindle library is a good idea. I have the same issue with my wife where we share an account.

    2. Doug Ross

      I don’t have a bookshelf. Everything I read is on the cloud. I guess I could send a screenshot of my Kindle library. Here’s some from 2016. I usually have 2-3 going on my Kindle for reading on planes and treadmills.


      1. Norm Ivey

        How’s Hiaasen? I’ve had him recommended to me a couple times in the past 6 months or so. Elbow Room sounds interesting also.

        1. Doug Ross

          Have read all of Hiasen’s books and frequently read his column in the Miami Herald. All good stuff.

        1. Doug Ross

          Not sure. It’s next on my list after Terranauts (a story of 8 scientists living in a dome in Arizona to simulate what it might be like to live on Mars – less science, more relationships).

          I got the Custer book because it was a $1.99 special that popped up around the time of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.

          My favorites from that photo are A Man Called Ove (old guy who is suicidal after his wife dies becomes a mentor/supporter of an immigrant family) and Underground Airline (what if the Civil War never happened and instead four Southern states were allowed to keep slaves?)

  4. Norm Ivey

    Of the books on your shelf, I have read Dune, Stranger, Tolkien, and I’ve been reading Hitchhiker’s Guide off and on for several months. I just can’t get into it for extended periods.

    I would like to read the Oppenheimer biography, the Little Big Horn history, and the AL Gore book.

  5. Dave Crockett

    Me, too! Me, too!

    Photo here .

    I’m not anywhere NEAR the voracious reader that Brad or my wife is! My two small shelves (she has more than a dozen large ones), features a lot of journalism non-fiction (Dan Rather, Daniel Schorr, Tom Brokaw, et al., along with a Dictionary of Cultural Literacy and Jonathan Livingston Seagull on the top shelf) and several Star Trek novels, Star Trek coffee, Star Trek models and even a short Star Trek Federation Travel Guide on the second shelf.

    I also would like to second Bart’s tip o’ the hat to our little Communitariat here.

    1. Norm Ivey

      I ordered Jonathan Livingston Seagull out of the book order thing at school when I was in 6th grade. It was the first grown-up book I ever read, unless you count things like Huckleberry Finn or Robin Hood as grown-up. I still have fond memories of reading it, but scarcely remember the story.

  6. Kathryn Fenner

    After reading The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, I agreed with Marie Kondo’s observation that books that you have read are extremely unlikely to be reread, and sold or donated those, except for poetry, foreign language dictionaries and a handful of ones I do reread (John Stillgoe’s Outside Lies Magic–a quirky take on the margins of urban and suburban life). Books you bought a while ago meaning to get to are never the next one you read–so I was honest about the ones I was never going to read, and sold or donated those, and made a concerted effort to read at least two of the remainder for every new book I buy. My book shelf is shrinking (I prefer paper books to e-books, and use my Kindle only when I travel). I like that. Right now, I am reading Ethan Canin’s America, America, which I bought in 2008. I just finished The Accidental by Ali Smith, which I bought in 2007.
    Any book I start and do not finish is out of here. There are too many books I enjoy reading, for me to read the ones I struggle with.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I do NOT agree “with Marie Kondo’s observation that books that you have read are extremely unlikely to be reread.”

      I direct the court’s attention to Exhibit B above — my shelf of tattered paperbacks I’ve read an absurd number of times.

      This is one reason why I’m not a big borrower of library books — if I LIKE the book, I want to possess it forever, and have it handy where I can read it again and again as the mood strikes me. It’s not that I’m so acquisitive; it’s that I feel that a book I love is part of me, and I just like to keep all of ME handy…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        By the way, that’s one of several copies I’ve had of Master and Commander, the first book in the Aubrey-Maturin series. I have multiple copies because I like to lend it to others to try to get them hooked as well. I arranged this copy prominently on the shelf because I read the books of that series more obsessively than any others these days.

        Currently, my excuse for rereading them is that Bryan is reading them for the first time, and I’m staying about one book ahead so I can discuss them with him and have them fresh in my mind.

        Strangely, I’ve not read ALL of the 20 books in the series. I’ve been saving the 20th, so that I still have one that I can have the pleasure of reading for the first time.

        But on this read-through, I’m going to go ahead and let myself read it, lest I get knocked on the head before I have the chance to savor it….

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Now my WIFE is a huge reader of library books, as in several every couple of weeks. I marvel at the volume of books that pass through our house under her auspices.

        She reads a LOT faster than I do — I read at a pace hardly faster than reading them aloud — and doesn’t become as obsessively attached as I do. But as a result, she’s far better-read…

      3. Kathryn Fenner

        Marie Kondo would say that you should keep every one that still sparks joy. For me, they are an albatross.
        a dustcatching albatross

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          This is one of those things that irreconcilably splits the human race — like the difference between word people and numbers people. Or people who would actually consider voting for Trump and others who cannot imagine it. Or highly intuitive people versus “show me” folks.

          There are people who see NO reason to experience anything more than once. And others who would find it unbearable not to be able to experience pleasant experiences repeatedly. And it’s hard for one group to explain itself to the other…

          Anyway, I’m very much in the “I want to do that AGAIN!” group.

          And of course I’m an intuitive words guy who cannot imagine a universe in which he would vote for Trump….

  7. Brad Warthen Post author

    Some of the TV shows that have distracted me over the last year or so:

    Boardwalk Empire – I’ve finished the first season and am taking a break before plunging into the second.

    Vikings — I’m in the second season. This is tied to my genealogy obsession. Ragnar Lodbrok, the star character, is a direct ancestor of mine — if he existed. His sons are considered historical, and I’m apparently descended from one, Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. But whether they were all brothers and Ragnar was their father seems less certain — he’s a figure in Norse folklore. Sigurd’s mom, Aslaug, may also be a fable.

    The Last Kingdom — This is related, although fictional. It’s sort of a real-life alternative to Game of Thrones. It’s about the Viking conquest of all of England except Alfred the Great’s Wessex — the titular Last Kingdom. The hero is fictional, but historical figures a prominent characters, such as the aforementioned Alfred and Ubbe, the brother of Sigurd.

    The Crown — We’ve watched all of that; look forward to another series.

    Orphan Black — Taking a break from it after watching the first season.

    Mr. Robot — I’ve seen all of what’s available on Amazon for free, waiting for more. Rather silly in a political sense — full of anarchist ravings — but engaging. A plus is that the star is Rami Malek, who was so weirdly good as “Snafu” in “The Pacific.”

    The Walking Dead — I haven’t watched the latest season to appear on Netflix, which means I’m two years behind the people who watch it the old-fashioned way, as it appears on broadcast TV.

    The Night Manager — I’m a HUGE fan of the novel and ran out and BOUGHT the series as soon as it appeared — only to have it show up on Amazon Prime for free, so I feel stupid. It was good, although there were changes. One GOOD change was changing the hero’s case officer to a pregnant woman, which really worked. The BAD change was the ending, in which… well, I won’t give it away.

    House of Cards — I have NOT been able to get into the most recent season. I watched one episode and turned away.

    Grantchester, Endeavour, Inspector Lewis, Midsomer Murders — Just to toss some of my fave British murder mysteries into one item. I’m sure I’m forgetting some.

    Poldark — Watched the first season, but just haven’t gotten into the second.

    The Man in the High Castle — I haven’t even made it through three episodes of the FIRST season. I was expecting something awesome like Len Deighton’s SS-GB (another book I’ve read obsessively over the years), but no dice.

    The Wire — Loved it, but it kind of slowed down for me after about three seasons. The first two were awesome, though.

    Wolf Hall — This may not count; it may have been more than a year ago. I should watch it again, though, because since then I’ve discovered that a bunch of the characters are apparently related to me.

    The Tudors — I try and try to get into this and fail. I like that the first character addressed by name in the very first episode is an ancestor of mine (diplomat Richard Pace), and I love Maria Doyle Kennedy (a Commitmentette!), but the soft-core porn approach is rather silly.

    OK, I’m tired of making this list, so I’m not going to get into The Americans, Justified and others. Suffice it to say that I find TV very distracting these days…

    1. Norm Ivey

      I find it difficult to get into ongoing story series anymore. I watch Big Bang, Modern Life, and Life in Pieces ( which is remarkable in its ability to tell a fully contained story in just a few minutes). Gotham is about the only dramatic series I’m currently watching. I keep wanting it to be better than it is. Frankie and Grace on Netflix is really good, but there haven’t been any new episodes in a while.

      I have American Pickers, Man Fire Food, Broad City (guilty pleasure), Austin City Limits, Nova, Nature, American Experience, Star Talk, and Years of Living Dangerously patiently waiting for me on my saved programs. All the Way (Bryan Cranston as LBJ) and Peter and the Farm are on my Amazon Watchlist.

      This time of year I mostly watch holiday movies. Joyeux Noel about the WWI unofficial Christmas truce or A Merry Friggin Christmas with Robin Williams is lined up for this evening.

      1. Norm Ivey

        Looks like I may be subject to moderation due to my excessive posts on this thread. (There’s a pun in there I can’t quite put together.)

        I’m on Winter Break, and it’s been a truly dreary day outside.

      2. Doug Ross

        Have you seen Brew Dogs? A pair of goofy Irish brewers who travel around America creating unique beers in different cities.

  8. Bryan Caskey

    Here are my three bookshelves at the moment. I also have various other books scattered around the house. Like Norm, I have separate shelves in the kitchen with about 25-odd cookbooks.

    Also, like Kathryn, I try to get rid of some books when I don’t read them anymore. However, it’s very hard. For about three years in a row, I would donate books to the Junior League’s Clean Sweep event because my wife needed to make her quota.

    However, because this was a donation made under a bit of an artificial requirement, I would get “donor’s remorse” and I would regret giving the books away. Each year, I would go to the preview party for Clean Sweep (where the league members can buy things before the public at double the regular price) and I would literally buy my books back (at double price) from the Junior League. My own books. Three years in a row. I should have just written them a check and cut out the middle-man.

    Also not pictured are some Pat Conroy books I have in my closet, some other books on my nightstand, and Books 1-9 of the Aubrey Maturin Series.

    In any event, here are my shelves.

    1. Norm Ivey

      Several years ago when my bride and I were regular auction goers, I picked up a complete set of the Churchill WWII volumes. It seems they were first editions, but not first printings. I forgot what I paid for them or what I sold them for, but I do remember doing very well with them.

      Is How to Live in the Woods a survivalist guide or a back-to-nature book a la Walden?

      1. Bryan Caskey

        How to Live in the Woods was a gift to me from my sister a few years back. It’s like a field manual. I learned most of it in the Boy Scouts, but it’s a nice quick reference guide.

        The Churchill books are wonderful, tactile experiences. It’s quite different from the sterile feel of holding a Kindle.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Speaking of the Scouts… when I was a little kid I used to read every word of my uncle’s Boy Scout Manual, an edition from about 1960, or maybe late 50s. I thought it contained all the knowledge a boy would ever need. I marveled that so much essential information had been collected in one place…

  9. Kathleen

    This thread is a wonderful example of why I enjoy this blog. Bryan’s Churchill books made me wonder what happened to my father’s collection. I belong to the camp that has difficulty disposing of books. I have books from my childhood, my brother’s genealogy books as well as a lot of his science fiction collection and at least one copy of Master and Commander and I may have kept one of his Hornblower novels. Half of my grandfather’s Harvard Classics disappeared in one of my parents’ moves; I have the rest. My cook book collection needs a serious thinning, actually I think it’s past ready for harvesting. I have , or have read, at least one book on everyone’s “shelf.” A History of the World in 6 Glasses is just as informative, and far more readable than, many of the survey course texts I’ve seen. In summary, I respect everyone’s intellect and identify with some quirk which makes it possible keep my blood pressure in check when I “strongly disagree” with an expressed opinion.
    Merry Christmas to each of you.

  10. Jim Cross

    I arrange my books by subject/genre so you would only see what I happen to be reading in one area. I also have too many book shelves (and book piles …) to be able to give you a photo of just one. However, if I had a book shelf devoted to books I’m reading or plan to read in the near future, it would have the following books on it (in no particular order):

    The Golden Age of Piracy (Benerson Little; I’m reading this one now)

    They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else (Ronald Grigor Suny)

    Rasputin (Douglas Smith)

    Tom Clancy’s True Faith and Allegiance (Mark Greaney)

    The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood (Patrick H. Breen)

    Sally Ride (Lynn Sherr)

    To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis)

    The Second Battle of Winchester (Eric J. Wittenberg, Scott L. Mingus Sr.)

    Teresa of Avila (Shirley du Boulay)

    Three Parts Dead (Max Gladstone)

    We March Against England (Robert Forczyk)

    The Odd Clauses (Jay Wexler)

    Apprentice in Death (J. D. Robb)

    The War Over The Steppes (E. R. Hooton)

    The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio)

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