#BingeingNumbers

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When I was in elementary school (and I imagine when you were, too) there were summer reading programs put together by the local libraries. A series of charts with stamps or multi-colored circles that could be strung together with tape or string tracked how many books kids had read, and at the end of the summer break the numbers were tallied and kids won prizes for crossing certain number thresholds, prizes like personal pan pizzas from Pizza Hut, bookmarks, gift certificates for books, actual books, craft supplies, and so on.

I was a slow reader (STILL AM), so I never looked at all the “worms” over the summer. I loved the summer reading program because reading during the summer was SO VERY DIFFICULT TO DO ON A FARM WITH A LITTLE BROTHER WHO DIDN’T LIKE TO READ. Summer reading programs were the equivalent of being sent to your room for my brother, who preferred board games, video games, outdoor sports (swimming, mostly, because we had a pond and Mom wouldn’t let us swim alone so we had to watch each other). Summer reading programs for me was a big fat permission slip, a get out of jail free card, to read. My mother knew better than to punish me by sending me to my room: that was jackpot for me. In addition to having a little brother to socialize, the culture of living on a farm means that your father comes in from working on putting up a grape arbor or planting a zucchini patch and sees you reading and flips his lid (“must be nice to just sit and read”), so out you go to drag a wheelbarrow back and forth between the compost pile and the tilled plot or to muck out the chicken coop or to prune back the cattails without getting pinched by a snapping turtle.

Work came first and work was always there, and if Dad was at his factory job, then my brother would drag me into watching him lap the pond or do stupid water tricks or something. But the summer reading program…that was like summer homework…”Welp, sorry, nope, I need an hour for working on my reading goals…”

Both my brother and my father would set a timer.

(You will notice I don’t bring my mother up as a distraction from my reading goals…BECAUSE SHE WANTED TIME TO READ AS MUCH AS I DID AND DIDN’T HAVE A STINKING READING PROGRAM, so, yeah, she got it. That’s why if I was really being punished my hour got taken away…)

The result of reading like this never made me a faster reader. You would think it would; there are even programs that taught you to speed read. My brother took one of those to get through college, and even though he likes to read a little better now, he prefers TV and video games still. If I’m reading around him, it’s still okay for him to stop me…FOR ANY REASON. My father read aloud to my mother for years, while she was making dinner, and he only read Reader’s Digest and InFisherman; I found out after my mother’s death that her favorite book was Heart of Darkness, so imagine that kind of literary frustration for years.

*****

In December of 2007, I signed up for what is probably still my favorite social media platform, GoodReads. (Do NOT get excited for any reason that I wrote that; when I say phrases like “favorite social media” I mean the least of the evils. The fact that GoodReads is powered by Amazon is only its first problem, and etc.) GoodReads evolved into a website that allowed you to track your books read over the course of a year, kept count, patted you on the back when you set a goal and met it, and so on. I missed college and my college reading lists and what I had the ability to read in college, so I’d set the goal to college, and…FAIL. The problem was, when I was in college I was reading for a grade and a degree and if you guilted me into putting a book down in college you better have a good way to pass the course without me cracking the book.

There’s a reason I picked literature as my major and history for my minor.

See, the practical thing would have been to study the analytics that I now use for my “day” job. See, the practical thing would have been to take half literature and history classes and the other half psychology classes so I could teach literature or history. But the major of literature and minor of history meant that if I was doing homework I was on Cloud 9 and I could stay there until the end of the semester. Bonus: I got to go to what was the equivalent of book clubs and talk about:

  • Camus;
  • Dickens;
  • Austen;
  • Thoreau;
  • Woolf.

In literature. Or, in history:

  • Women’s history;
  • Civil rights;
  • The Greeks;
  • History of the UK;
  • African history.

(By the way, the UK history class stunk–bad professor–and still…it’s my favorite literature.)

After college, though, I was still reading a lot and listening to a lot of NPR, because I was medicating my mother’s illness by reading (this was before social media). Books limped me through isolation on a farm in Ohio as a kid, books limped me through my mother’s cancer, books limped me through culture shock moving from a flyover state to the worldly coast, and this past year, when I was downsized in December, books limped me through feeling useless through months of downtime. When I’m working, I take about six weeks to read a book; but with all of my friends and family occupied with jobs and me relegated to applying and writing and done by 3 pm, I started moving from social media to clearing one or two books a week. Most Saturdays were spent in the spirit of Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn; pour a bargain bag of peppermints in a chipped bowl, crack some ice into a glass of water, grab the library books, push a pillow up against the bars of the fire escape landing, and read under the magic tree that miraculously grows out of the cement.

Sometimes I would have preferred a person.

But if everyone else is busy living a normal life, you take your newly weird life and make the most of it.

*****

This weekend an opinion piece came out in The New York Times about binge-reading, about making the case for replacing hours of Netflix with that fat novel on your nightstand. This morning, not really intended as a counterpoint but maybe inadvertently ending up that way, the website BookRiot published an opinion piece about not binge-reading. If you happened to read both pieces, they are two separate species; the NYT piece is more about if you haven’t read anything longer than a tweet in some time, maybe you should sit down and power through, and the BR piece is more about stop reading to meet a number of books read, like a badge…or a bookworm on a library wall.

When it comes to numbers, I get the BR piece entirely. I would rather see how long my worm gets before the end of summer (and the end of my unemployment is nigh, so end of summer is same), and not set a flipping number goal. (Every time I think of number goals for reading I think of George Clooney’s line from Up In the Air, “Let’s say I have a number in mind…”) I know that once I start working again it will be easier to come home and turn on Netflix, because I have friends who like to recommend TV and movies, not books, and because I do have favorites on Netflix, too, so I’ll be back to averaging one book every six weeks, and it will be a book as thick as a slice of toast instead of a book I could stop a door with. I also understand, from the point of view of teachers and education professionals these days, that setting book count goals for kids is controversial, especially if they are dyslexic or slow readers like me, or if they are just struggling with the task of reading to a number. I think kids should have the hour set aside, anyway, like I did; in that hour they have to put the electronics away, but they don’t have to all read the same way. They could take their hour and read, they could take their hour and draw book covers, they could take their hour and put that phone on airplane mode and listen to a downloaded audio book, they could take that hour and participate in a book club that recommends books…by peer readers. It’s the stopping and spending any kind of time with a book that seems most important. Kids may start out hating books, but what if they were as sold on them as they are sold on gadgets and social media and streaming services?

That’s the argument from the author of the NYT piece: what if we were given the space to spend time with books like we are talked into spending time with streaming? The BR writer insists that she read so many books back to back that she couldn’t remember them, and therefore felt no impact from what she read, but what about those of us medicating with books and finding all kinds of soothing aspects in them, but in order to keep the medication coming we have to read them one right after the other? Sure, I could medicate with Netflix, but, again, that’s for when I go back to work, unless I can create a habit now…of reading. To take a Saturday and just read through a whole book…and a book that J.K.Rowling could use as a spacer in her resume…it’s like a form of meditation.

I didn’t think anyone else felt this way about books, but then there’s NYT opinion writer (who is a novelist, okay, sure), and suddenly I’m vindicated for all the books I’ve gobbled for five months. As for the BR writer…my GoodReads count is set to a low number, that I occasionally change as I pass it. I don’t care how high it goes, because every book soothes something in me, changes something in me, calms something in me, comforts me with company.

If you see me out reading, go ahead and say hi…I will go back to that fat novel or memoir or biography of Muhammad Ali (542 pages if you don’t count the index, thank you, Jonathan Eig) after you rush home to watch Game of Thrones on HBO.

Game of Thrones is on my reading list, too.

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