Soccer practice, guitar lessons, dinner, homework. Then there’s work, exercise, time to talk to my husband. Every woman I know can relate to the never-ending list of responsibilities and duties that plague us on a daily basis. There are not enough hours in any day to do it all. And yet, regardless of how crazy my life is, there is always time to read.I cannot imagine a 24-hour period when I do not have a book in my hand at least once. For me, reading is not a nice bonus if and when I have time. It is a defining and grounding part of every day of my life. And it has been for as long as I can remember.
I distinctly recall at eight years old standing at the Children’s library desk. A well-meaning but unknowledgeable librarian asked if I really needed to check out all those books. After all, I wouldn’t be able to finish them before they were due. My mom jumped to my defense and responded that I would have finished at least one of them before we got home and we would be back for more in less than two weeks.
Fast forward a few years to my brother’s sporting events. I had a keen second sense of when he was on the court or field. I watched every play he was in. But the moment he returned to the bench, my nose returned to my book. My freshman year of college I felt homesick and overwhelmed at being so far away. I bought Foucault’s Pendulum in the college bookstore, sat down in the lounge next door, and lost myself in the first 100 pages of a fascinating completely foreign world. By the time I returned to my dorm, I felt capable of dealing with the pressures of college life again. As a Masters student in History I had to read. My first semester of grad school I read approximately 50 academic books (and I didn’t yet know skimming was not only allowed but assumed. So I read. Every. Single. Page.). Yet even when I spent ten hours with academia in my hands, I still fell into bed with a novel.
I find reading to be a cathartic experience. As a historian, reading remains a foundational part of my work. Finding new topics and new books which bring together academic themes in an engaging and readable way makes me happy. But, for as much non-fiction as I read, far and away the vast majority of the reading I do is fiction. I prefer novels across a wide swath of genres: murder mysteries, chick lit, vampiric romances, witty science fiction: I read them all.
I believe anyone can become a book lover, whether or not reading is already a regular habit. The most important thing is to find a book to catch your attention. I have a penchant for young adult science fiction: the greater the dystopia, the easier I am engaged. I have a good friend who has boxes of mindless romances which give her an escape from reality. Don’t apologize for what you want to read. Pick something you love and lose yourself, no matter how cheesy the cover or non-academic the topic.
In the past five years finding time to read has become progressively more difficult. Yes, I factor in two kids and a job, but in this instance, I am not talking about real life; I am referring to the time sink of social networking and the internet. It is so easy, with smart phones, iPods, and computers, to spend way too much time surfing the internet and checking everyone’s Facebook status. I fall into the same bad habits of most people I know. But recently I have made a concerted effort to turn off and unplug my life. Taking the train to work, I spend five minutes quickly checking email and making sure the world is not ending. Then I consciously put my phone away and grab a book for the remaining 25 minutes. I refuse to let myself see if there are any new Facebook updates during the ride. In the evenings I try to leave my laptop off. If I have five spare minutes, I look for a book rather than a computer.
Technology is not all bad however. Carrying a smart phone, rather than an extra book, to the playground, the Children’s Museum, or soccer practice is easy. I always have at least one background book (background book: a non-essential read I can pick up once every month and not worry if I don’t have time to finish it) loaded on my phone. When my kids are well ensconced in building earthquake-proof Lego houses at the Science Museum, I can stand nearby and read ten pages of Little Men rather than staring in the distance. With the ease of ebooks I have read classics like Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows – they’re free – that I wouldn’t have thought to read otherwise. Regardless of where I read, I find myself feeling untethered if I go for more than a day or two without reading.
I have friends who claim they don’t read. To me that is as antithetical as not eating. Reading is not a hobby I try to fit in from time to time. Unless I am past exhausted, I read for at least 15 minutes every night. Occasionally I will only read two pages. More often than not, I’ll lose myself in a story and have to remind myself that sleep is a necessary use of my time. After 13 years my husband has learned to fall asleep with my light on. Most days I fit in at least one other reading session during daylight hours. The days I finish a book on the way to work, I stop at the library and pick up something new so I have a book for the ride home. When water is boiling for dinner, I will read a few pages standing in front of the stove. On the rare days I get to school pick up ten minutes early, I will read for seven minutes in the car before meeting my boys. When the weather is nice and the boys are playing happily outside (yes, it’s rare, but it does happen) I will take a book outside and read while they play. If a book is engaging enough, I will leave the TV off and finish a story in the evening. It would not occur to me to not have at least one book in process at any given time.
If you don’t have the time to read a long novel or a work of non-fiction, pick up a magazine, a book of poems, or a graphic novel. While the latest edifying bestseller might teach you about current events, reading it can become a chore. Rather than feeling intellectual for the book on your nightstand which you mean to finish, use reading as a momentary escape; it doesn’t always (or ever) have to be educational. I learn a lot from the cozy mysteries I read.
My deep appreciation for the written word is a gift I came by naturally. As much as I read, my mom reads twice as much. My childhood was full of open books lying throughout the house. Until I became a French Lit major in college it was nearly impossible to find a piece of classic literature that one of my parents had not read. During our phone conversations my mom and I still introduce one another to our recent favorite books (Maud Hart Lovelace, the Betsy-Tacy series: the most recent amazing new/old find). At least three times a year my mom and I send a full box of books to one another to read and reread.
My husband is also a reader. We have competing bookcases full of wildly different books. He goes in for heavier science fiction. By now he’ll read a book and recommend it to me or not based on the number of battle scenes and the sheer geek science factor. His recommendations are usually spot-on. We both wait anxiously for the other to finish a shared read so we can dissect characters and plot lines. I can’t imagine having married a non-reader. Only someone who can appreciate books could have the patience for my obsession.
I hope that we will pass our love of literature on to our sons. They are both reading above grade level already (yes, shameless mom plug), but I believe that is because they assume you always have a book handy. And a bedtime routine is not complete in our house without a reading session before sleep.
If you allow yourself short breaks to read for enjoyment you might find you want to read more. You will realize you have learned about topics you didn’t set out to research. You might then take the time to look for the edifying intellectual books and already have time worked into your schedule to read them. I believe I am more knowledgeable about our world and our place in it because of the books I have read. I find reading and writing to be a natural extension of what I do. I can hold a conversation about the New York Times Book Review or about the BBC’s list of 100 Best Books or about the role of women in Egypt today. Because I read. Every single day.