Monday, June 14, 2010

On having time to read

Jodi Chromey over at I Will Dare takes a few minutes to rant about a little phrase that secretly (well, maybe not so secretly) rankles book lovers everywhere: "I just don't have time to read."

She gives two primary reasons for why this is so off-putting to true-believers: it minimizes the value of reading as being somehow frivolous, and it implies that time for book-reading is something "found" rather than "made." Her take, one with with which we largely agree, is that the phrasing is condescending, subtly equating reading with "leisure." In a comment on her post, the Ape contributed the following:
Pretty much agree here, though I think the phrasing is more defensive than condescending. If people don’t watch American Idol, they say “I don’t like American Idol.” Saying “I don’t like reading” is culturally gauche, so instead someone’s aversion to reading gets couched in “business.” It’s not that I am a lazy, uninterested, intellectually stagnate gadfly–it’s that I simply don’t have enough time in my busy and important/glamourous life. Had I more time, I would be re-reading Proust for the third time. In French.
Upon further reflection, though, we know that there is something else going on here. Readers are not righteous, and non-readers aren't sinning, even if those of us who kneel at the altar of literature might feel it otherwise. No, it seems to use that the defensive/offensive nature of the "I don't have time to read" comment is born of an intellectual paradox; most educated people "know" that reading is somehow valuable, and yet they don't "feel" it. That is, they have been taught, in the classroom or elsewhere, that reading is good and noble, but in their daily lives, the echo of that instruction is not supported by their lived experience of reading; Reading well is always time-consuming, largely isolating, sometimes unsatisfying, and frequently difficult.

The truth of the matter is that the value of reading for oneself, not for a degree or for information or even for entertainment, is elusive. This is a sort of open secret among teachers and scholars of literature. If you ask one of us to list the benefits of being well-read, you'll receive numerous reasons, from cultural history to personal edification, but the plurality of the reasons belies the lack of a conclusive, central one.

So I can't help but think that my frustration at the "I don't have time" phrase stems, at least in part, from my inability to articulate a cogent reason why you should make time to read, why you should fight for time, why you should make reading seriously a core element of your life. I could give reasons, of course, but the main reason is not one I can use--I think you should read because reading makes my life richer and that I feel the lack for those who don't read. I can't make you feel that nor can I call logic to my aid to prove it to you. And that is a frustration that borders on despair.


  1. (this may post twice, having trouble with Chrome)

    Any reader-especially one that blogs about it-will get that statement often. My general response is something snarky because they don't expect me to have an intelligent response. They expect you to say something along the lines of "you're right, you're so busy and important and my interests are so inferior to yours- let's watch Real Housewives of Atlanta and snuggle". What I ACTUALLY say is something like this: "Well you should make the time. It's our responsibility as educated, intelligent human beings to investigate what thoughts are out there, and digest them ourselves. If you don't, you'll believe whatever the TV tells you, and you'll never contribute anything significant to the body of human thought. Lazy ass." (I don't say that last sentence, but I think it LOUDLY).

  2. I'm really bothered by all the commentary going on about "making time to read" and I think you really nailed a portion of just why I'm frustrated with hearing people talk about it.

    We're allowed to comment on someone's workout schedule - to be impressed - without having any inclination of make it to the gym ourselves. Same with eating habits, familial aspiration, and yes, reading.

    In fact, I'd say it's rather condescending of readers to try and offer a list of benefits as though we were somehow intellectually superior because we can turn off the tv and pick-up a book. People are being hypocritical by stating how we're being judged and then in turn doing the exact same thing.

    Sometimes people are just making conversation or are truely impressed without being interested in reading themselves. "I'm too busy to read" is just filler for ambivalence or disinterest in reading. They aren't interested in a diatribe that essentially puts them down and makes them inferior - no differently than a meat eater doesn't want to hear why a vegetarian lifestyle is healthier and vice versa.

  3. This is beautiful. I know exactly the feeling you express in the last part of that final paragraph. But look on the bright side and think of the wonderful feeling when a friend becomes a reader, or one of your own children! Nothing beats it.

  4. Jane- I think that too, though am I really being truthful if I say it is their "responsibility"? And does reading literature really help us contribute to human thought? I'd like to think so, but if I'm honest with myself, I'm just not sure. They could also level the same accusation at me--wouldn't I be more "responsible" following world events, fighting for social justice rather than reading a novel? Even a really great, important, meaningful one?

    Christina- I think there's something to your interpretation there. In a way, saying you "don't have time" to read does acknowledge the value of reading. So I guess the question is how to encourage people to read more without coming off like a zealot, which is I get caught doing from time to time.

    Kathy- Hey, there's nothing better than to recommend a book to someone and hear them say they loved it, and having a student realize the joys of reading for the first time is really something to cherish. That sweetness though is tempered (or perhaps intensified) by all of the missed opportunities. Trying not to wallow here, so thanks for your comment.

  5. I mostly share your thoughts on this. In fact, I posted about it not too long ago (Here if you're curious). I would add that it just might not be possible to make another person realise the value of reading by explaining it to them. Possibly it's one of those things you have to feel for yourself - and I worry that any attempts at explaining it might end up putting people off further by making them think of reading as something that's Good For Them.

  6. Ape- You're probably right. I just find those comments so profoundly irritating that I say the first smart-alecy thing that comes to mind. I find those comments only come up in an attempt to make them feel better about themselves for not doing something they think they "should" be doing. Like how sometimes overweight people call naturally thin people "too skinny".

    Honestly, I think understanding the value of reading is partly a product of a good education; meaning, one that encourages the students to think, discover, and value ideas on their own.

  7. I work in a bookstore and hear this statement a lot. I find the it happens more in the summer when the come in looking for that ONE BOOK to take to the beach. It may be the only book they read or attempt all year and they are overwhelmed by the choices. Part of me thinks, if I pick out the right book for them it may make more of a difference then trying to explain why they should "make the time" to read.
    But, I think some of the problem stems from the fact that schools are making reading too much of a chore. Read this horrible book, take the test, get graded. If you do everything right, there is a reward, and if not you are a failure. Once they are done with school, they presume they can be done with reading. And why not, it has left a bad taste in their mouth - so "I don't have time" becomes the filler as was mentioned earlier.

    I was quite surprised at some of the school reading list that came in this year actually have some modern selection on them so, maybe there is hope (as long as they don't beat them into the ground).

  8. I once read that Teddy Roosevelt was escorting two prisoners back from the wilderness—hunting bears along the way—and made time to read Anna Karenina. If Teddy can find time for Tolstoy with prisoners in tow, I think I have plenty of time for reading.

  9. I'm going to play a bit of devil's advocate here: some people really don't have the time to read, or at least as much time to read as much as we do. Really.

    I am book blogger and a writer working on my first novel. I read a lot because reading is part of my work as a writer. I believe reading closely and widely is one of the best apprenticeships for an aspiring novelist. My boyfriend, on the other hand, works all day (in computers), comes home and studies finance at night. He does read, just not as much as I do, because he really doesn't have the time. Sometimes, being intellectually exhausted, he'd rather just watch a movie than pick up a book, and I get that. And if someone asked him if he had read such and such book, he might answer, no because he doesn't have the time.

    That doesn't mean he isn't intellectually curious or interested in engaging in meaningful debate. Nor does he sit on the couch all night with a bag of chips watching 'The Real Housewives of Atlanta'. It just means that he has a plurality of interests, and there are only 24 hours in the day, and sometimes, he really doesn't have the time.

    So I think it is an oversimplification to say either people are intellectually curious and make the time to read or they are mindless sacs of carbon and water. Just as it is an oversimplification to say you either make the time to workout and lose weight or you don't: when you are working three minimum wage jobs to feed your family, and the only food you can afford/have the time to eat is fast food, you really don't have the time to work out.

    And who is to say that the person who reads one book a year doesn't read better than the person who reads 100 books a year. How many so-called voracious readers read well? It one thing to read the words on the page and turn the pages to the end of the book, it is another thing entirely to engage with the text.

    But Ape, I think you hit the nail on the head: part of the annoyance that readers have with non-readers, is that readers have a hard time explaining why reading is important and non-readers (by virtue of their very existence) suggest that reading actually isn't important. That irks readers.

  10. Oh gosh, I think I agree with most people here! All of it makes sense. It does bother me that people that "don't have time" for reading can go into details about some tv programme (hold on, no time?).

    But really, everyone should do what they like, no one is forced to read. It's just annoying that they give the "no time" argument for not reading. Well, *I* have "no time" to watch tv or go to the gym. So there!

  11. Nymeth- It's definitely a high-wire act to preach the gospel of reading without coming across like a zealot. Probably suggesting a really great book and hoping they read it is the best we can do.

    Jane- I know, wise-assness is generally my knee-jerk reaction as well. And I think people do get a sense of the importance of reading in the course of their education, but maybe that's only half-baked bread. As a teacher of college students, I'm always trying to figure out how to show students what reading can be and what it can do. It's damn tough sledding. But I'm still working on it.

    amcatoir- There is a movement in some schools to do more "pleasurable" reading in the classroom as a sort of "gateway drug" to studying literature. I think there might be something to that. I am wary, as are many other grumpsters, about throwing the baby out with the bathwater; I don't want people to settle for "pleasure" but perhaps in the formative years removing the "chore" stigma of reading is worthwhile. I guess I'm also of the opinion that what is taught might not be as important as how it is taught.

    Devon- Absolutely right on. When the SOOTA (significant other of the Ape) read my post, her first reaction was to say that not everyone can read dozens and dozens of novels a year. And of course she, and you, are right about this. I'm quite willing to concede that there are folks out there who, for one reason or another, don't have time/energy to read as much as they might like. But I think we all know that many use time as an excuse/cover, so I guess I'm trying to think about what's going on with them. Reading well is also so crucial. I don't remember who said it, but some writer said he/she read about 30 books a year--and that book was Vanity Fair.

    Lees- Right. I think what many of us are trying to suss out is how to feel about/react to our annoyance. Should we let it go and not say anything? Gently nudge people to reading? Or give them a full shoulder thrust of moral indignation? I'm not quite willing to make the TV is just as good as reading concession, but I could be in the wrong there.

  12. Some great points all around.

    Sometimes that phrase is a simple defense mechanism. People would rather give the "no time" reason than say they don't like reading or that they're intimidated by books. A friend's 13 year old had difficulty reading so was frustrated and got bored. Then his class read A Wrinkle in Time and he liked it so much he read another. Now he's read all of the Harry Potter books. Sometimes it just takes the right book with the right subject matter to get them interested.

  13. This is a great discussion and will cause me to give some thought to where I fall in this argument. I think I'm with Lee - it all makes sense, but I also think we all must prioritize our lives. I believe that it's important to have fulfilling employment, to give back to society in a meaningful way, to make quality time for friends and family, to stay politically active and informed, to enjoy a rich spiritual life, to spend time in nature, to exercise, to floss . . . but I don't have time to do all of these things in any dedicated way (but I do floss religiously). I choose to make reading a major part of my life, but I have to give up some things along the way. Life is full of compromises!

  14. Mish- Couldn't agree more. Part of the problem I think is that it's so difficult to figure out what books might speak to someone.

    I feel the same way, and yet there is part of me that thinks reading consistently, which I don't intend to mean ravenously or obsessively, is something worth advocating somehow. So while I think brow-beating people who don't read consistently feels wrong, so does not speaking up for the compensations of literature and reading.

  15. Another terrific and thought-provoking post.

    Like many of you, I hear that "don't have time to read" phrase. I'm sure there are exceptions, but 95% of the time, I believe the person doesn't MAKE time to read.

    In addition to the no-time-to-read, I also hear "I don't have time to exercise".

    Both of these statements seem to imply that reading and exercising (which I consider 2 of the joys of a healthy and fulfilling life) are chores. It doesn't frustrate me as much as make me sad - they have no idea what they are missing while they're busy watching "The Biggest Loser".

  16. What a great discussion! I hear the "I don't have time to read" statement quite a lot too. I have come to believe it is a matter of priority in how we designate whatever amount of free time we may have. Those of us who choose to read choose to make it a priority and either find or make the time to read. For those who don't have time to read, they choose different priorities. Perhaps the person who says this genuinely wants to read but can't see how she can find or make the time in addition to her other priorities. It's easy to make a snap judgment and say she'd have time to read if she made the time, but until we know how she (or he) spends her time on a regular basis we have no right to make any kind of judgment no matter how much the "I don't have time to read" statement irritates those of us who do read (and oh, does it ever irritate me, but then I come to my senses).

  17. This is great. I run into this all the time. I write book reviews and work with authors - people have said to me "you have a great job." But the books I enjoy reading the most are the ones I pick up on my own. The others are WORK.
    Not many people that know me now would believe it, but there was a time when I did not read for pleasure. When I was in college with two kids and no money, I simply didn't. For years I didn't. And once out of school, again, for years I didn't. Not until my youngest was in junior high did we start going to the library. There wasn't time. For about ten years. I was working 2-3 jobs.
    But now. This is how I choose to spend my time. No reality TV for me. And my fave thing to do is to find a good book for someone I love. I often find that those who say they don't have time to read are the ones who don't have any books in the house. It's a choice.