How to Read Recklessly, Part One
Last year, I knew my reading habits had to change. So I undertook a grand experiment.
Hello, and welcome to the very first installment of Bang Flag.
Let’s start with this: Already, I’ve failed. Twice.
When I conceived of this newsletter (is that what this is? A letter delivering news? Or maybe just occasional Long Tweets? Or possibly it’s more like a mailing list with benefits) I was sure of only one thing: I wanted each installment to be short.
I love newsletters, I love the idea of random missives from interesting people appearing periodically in my in-box, but I also know that the number-one impediment for me to reading newsletters is length. Since they necessarily arrive via my email in-box — already a cluttered and cobwebbed dustbin of unread or under-engaged-with correspondence — the act of opening a newsletter and finding a sea of grey text (even great text! Even perfectly manicured prose!) often paralyzes me.
Reader, I don’t want to paralyze you. So I aim to keep things brief.
I initially set an arbitrary length-constraint for my own update-chunks: 600 words. That feels manageable! More than a paragraph, less than a ramble. (We are, for example, on word 185 right… now… and if you’re still reading, I haven’t yet lost you.)
But when I sat down to write the first installment, I quickly blew past 600 words. Way past. Failure Number One!
Failure Number Two: I wanted to write about my Year of Reading Recklessly. Like many people, I was spurred to look back at my reading list of ’22 — but not just at what I read, but how I read, and why I read, because it was something I had been thinking about a lot. I had started last year with a new manifesto: to read more recklessly.
I work in a profession (journalism) that requires reading, and because I also write (fiction), and also enjoy reading (mostly fiction) more than just about anything else in the world, reading is a big part of my life. And yet: My reading life had become ossified, stiff, unenjoyable, labored. I was reading too often out of grim obligation or rote necessity and not often enough out of happenstance, curiosity, surprise and joy.
Sometimes my obligations were literal and professional: a book I had to read for context on some project I was working on. Sometimes they were vaguely social: A buzzy new novel I felt I had to read in order to keep up. Sometimes they were born of a sense of personal inadequacy: I haven’t yet read this classic or that fabled author and it was time to tick that box.
None of these are bad reasons to read, but taken together, my reading life had become a grim slog. My TBR pile — ever higher, ever teetering, ever chastising — had become my enemy and jailer, not my conspirator and friend.
I knew that had to change.
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Two touchstones of reading I always return to are my experiences as a) a kid and b) a young adult just out of college. As a kid, I read a lot of comics. I knew the exact day of the week in the month when the new issues were likely to land at my local store. I’d race to acquire them, coins in hand, and, once acquired, I read each one immediately and joyfully — not because I had to, or was expected to (in fact, my parents were passively discouraging of comic books), or because I felt that I should, but for the simple reason that I loved it. So I wanted to try and reclaim that sense of excitement.
My other touchstone is the year right after I finished college. After four years of required reading — much of which were, yes, some of the greatest books I’d ever encountered — I was suddenly free of reading lists. I was also very broke.
So I often spent hours doing something both inexpensive and edifying: browsing used bookstore shelves. Just running my eyes over all the titles — the spines! So many spines! — and, occasionally, buying one. At the time, even a three-dollar expenditure on a leisure-time activity had to be weighed seriously.
Back then, I read widely, I read hungrily, I read gratefully and I read what I found alluring, engaging, or intriguing. Because of my limited budget, the books I read often fell into my life through strange circumstances: found in a freebie box; snatched from a $1 rack outside a store; lent by a friend; borrowed from the library; rescued after being discarded on the bus. (I once read an entire Mack Bolan novel because I found it in a seatback on a plane.) Each book felt precious and my much-more-modest TBR pile felt not like a looming chastisement but like an expanding monument to the promise of future delights.
Okay, that word — that — is word 794. I can, in good conscience, go no further.
But in the next installment of this sporadic experiment, I’ll talk about my experience of reading recklessly, my favorite books of the year — and I’d love to hear about your own reading practices and how you keep your reading life alive and fresh.
Until then, I’m going to sign off. Do people sign off on these things? I’m going to sign off on this thing.
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