Monday, January 7, 2019

Am I an Addict? (and 2019 Reading Goals)

2018 was an awesome reading year for me. My initial goal at the beginning of the year was to read 75 books, and I blew past that in October. By counting some read-alouds, I'm claiming the nice round number of 100 books read in a single year (see my last post for the full report).

That number equals just less than two books a week. Two books a week! Considering I'm getting a PhD and raising three kids, that shocks even me. But at the same time, I seriously owe it all to the power of audio books and a nice long commute every day. And listening at double speed.

I was feeling very proud of my progress, very proud of my count number, firm in my identity as a reader, until I took a class last semester all about "Theories of Reading" and came across this passage in one of the books we were assigned. It was written by a German clergyman named Rudolph Gottlieb Beyer in 1795.

He describes seeing "men and women book readers, who get up in the morning and go to bed in the evening with a book in their hand, who sit down at the table with it, who put it next to them at work, carry it with them on walks, and who cannot separate themselves from it, until they have finished reading. But they have hardly devoured the last page of a book, they are already greedily eyeing up, where they might get the next one from, and devour it with a voracious appetite. No smoker, coffee-friend, wine-drinker, gambler could be so addicted to their pipe, bottle, games or coffee table than many a book-hungry reader is to his reading."

Reading this quote stopped me dead in my tracks. It may be over two hundred years old, but I kind of felt like he was describing me perfectly.

Guys, am I a reading addict? And is this a bad thing?

It was the comparison to coffee addicts, smokers, alcoholics, and gamblers that really gave me pause. Because what is the difference? Addiction is addiction, whether it be to books or nicotine, and addiction is always bad, right?

So am I addicted to books?

I've been thinking about this question, because in many ways, I might be. I feel extremely restless if I don't have my next five books queued up ready to go. I've got to keep the supply-line filled, just like an addict. I sometimes (not all the time, but sometimes) use books as an emotional escape when my life is stressful. Don't want to face the piles of laundry and homework and whatever in life? Let's just spend time reading instead and escape into that lovely fantasy world where life is much more exciting! Using something as a numbing device and as escape from hard life problems sounds exactly like an addiction.

But on the plus side, it's not exactly harmful to my health (at least, not when I don't stay up too late finishing a book and miss sleep and death-spiral into the zones of exhaustion). (Oh, and also, listening to all those audio books actually might be destroying my hearing, hours of ear buds blasting in my ears every day, that can't be good...)

And at least I'm not endangering my family! (Except when I ignore my children because I'd rather be reading, but that's more neglect than endangerment...)

In all seriousness, though, reading is profoundly different from other addictive activities in that the cumulative effect of the activity of reading is actually positive. I mean, sure, there may be a hit of endorphins on starting a new novel, and there may be that all-consuming need to finish an addicting story, but at the end of the day, how many people actually regret reading more? How many lives does reading destroy?

Even those light and fluffy addictive books that we are so often prone to dismiss as unworthy of our time have a place. Every time I berate myself for reading something fluffy or cotton-candyish, or feel like it's turning my brain to mush, I remember this story that a previous bishop shared with me once. His wife was really into Twilight. I'll be honest that I judged her up and down for being such a Twilight fanatic, until he told us this story. He described coming home from work one day to find the house a mess, unhappy kids watching TV, and no dinner preparations in sight. It was chaos. He finally found his wife holed up in their bedroom, her nose deep in some book (he didn't say it was Twilight, but I imagine it was something along those lines). Needless to say, he was frustrated. Not just frustrated, he was downright angry. And I've got to admit that if I was in his place, I'd be upset too. How can a wife and mom neglect her responsibilities so thoroughly because of some fluffy, cotton-candy book? I was judging his wife hard at this point.

But my bishop was a good man, and he did not like being upset with his wife. So instead of yelling at her, he went into his office, shut the door, and prayed for how to respond to his wife. How to help her get over this "addiction" (not his word, but his sense) and be more responsible. He did not get the answer he expected. The voice of the spirit came to him and said, "Why are you upset that your wife is reading? Don't you know how important these books are to her spiritual and intellectual growth? Don't you know that it pleases me to have her grow this way?" And so, thoroughly humbled, my bishop left his office, ordered pizza, cleaned the house, put his kids to bed, and let his wife read away.

Now, the lesson I took away from this story is not that it is okay to neglect responsibilities in the name of a good story (I used to read that way when I was younger, but I have become far too practical in my old age to lose myself to reading like that). No, the lesson that I have never forgotten, aside from the power of the spirit to change our perspective and help build our relationships, is that fluffy reading has it's purposes. Addictive reading, pleasure reading, reading for fun, books that we call "light" and may not feel like they are helping us grow... even that kind of reading is better for us than no reading at all.

We actually spent a lot of time talking about this in that course I took. We talked about the (scientific!) benefits of reading for pleasure. Reading for fun. Reading everything you want. Because unlike coffee or nicotine or alcohol or gambling, reading actually makes you a better person (yes, even the fluffy stuff). Like all things, moderation is always best (you can't expect your husband to order pizza every night so you can read), but I must admit that I really do think the more books the better.

That brings us to the topic of reading goals.

I've been going back and forth (and back and forth) on what kind of reading goals I should set for this year. Should I make it official and spring for the 100 number in 2019? If more is better, should more be the goal? Is this the year I finally challenge myself to read certain types or titles of books that would be "good" for me?

And the more I've thought about it, the more I've decided that I don't think I need to change a thing. 2018 was an awesome reading year for me, and all I want is another year exactly like that. So, because my goal was reading 75 books last year, that's the goal I'm keeping this year. It's a number that's high enough I'll feel pressure to reach it, but not enough pressure to be discouraging or out of reach. And if I happen to actually hit 100 again, well, that will just be the cherry on top. (After all, we're one week into the new year and I'm already half-way through my 4th book, so I'm already above pace).

And for one more year, I've decided not to "assign" myself titles that I "should" read. First off, I'm still in the part of my coursework where I get plenty of assigned reading anyway. And second off, I'm the chick who voluntarily, of my own free choice and will, decided to read Don Quixote last year, so I just don't feel like I need any extra outside expectations to up my reading quality. When I'm in the mood for chunky 500 year old books, I'll read them and pat myself on the back. And when I'm in the mood for escapist fast-paced fantasy fiction, I'll read that too and not feel a twinge of guilt.

What about you? Are you a reading addict? Do you think there can be too many books? What's your reading goal for 2019?


  1. Um yes I think I can say I'm a reading addict and so are my girls. Is this a bad thing? I think sometimes yes it's not good that I'm modeling laziness as I feel I am at times, nor is it good that I sometimes neglect relationships for reading so it can be an issue.
    On the other hand I do think it has something to do with the quality of my reading, Iv'e read alot of fluff the last few years, so my goal for 2019 is to up my game

    1. When I read in front of my kids, I like to tell myself I'm not modeling laziness, I'm modeling how to live a great life! But yes, neglecting relationships for reading can be an issue (which is why I wish it were still a socially acceptable activity to sit around reading aloud to each other in the evenings like they used to do, before we had TV and such).

  2. I wouldn't advise shirking all responsibility all the time to read, but I don't see anything wrong with the occasional letting things go in order to just get lost in a book. In my mind winter is the season for long bathtub soaks while reading and summer is for reading outside on the grass - so I guess that leaves fall and spring to be productive!

    After committing myself to a reading challenge last year (one that was rewarded with a $50 gift certificate to the local bookstore), I am SO HAPPY to be free this year! I don't have any reading goals - just read whatever I feel like reading at a whim. I've actually been craving lots of re-reads lately. I'm usually not a big re-reader, but I'm just wrapping up Everyone Brave is Forgiven (my third reading) and I want to dive into Wolf Hall again. I may pick up Anna Karenina or the Brothers Karamozov too.

    1. Interesting that you're dropping reading goals. I'm curious to see how it goes for you! But if you can read Russian Lit without goals or challenges, then yeah, you read you!