There Is No Right Way to Be a Reader

Thanks to branching out to Medium, I've been reading the odd post over there when something in the daily digest they email me catches my eye. That's how this article by Shane Parrish, "WTF? I just spent $1,207.40 on Books?" attracted my notice. I haven't been so appalled in a long time, thought about the piece for days, and am now here writing a bit of a rant in response. I encourage you to read it before the rest of this post.

The only thing I agreed with in Parrish's post is that reading is a thing that you will make time for if you want to and if you think it's important. I'm a voracious reader but if I quit watching tv and somehow rolled tech back to a point before smartphones, I'd probably read more. The truth is, though, that sometimes I want to read a book, and sometimes I want to be more passive, so I'll watch something instead. I hate it when the discourse about reading devolves into implications that you need to read insane amounts and spend insane amounts to be a proper reader.

A friend of mine told me once that he thought he didn't read "the right way." He would only read a few pages at a time, and took forever finishing a book. In my opinion, if you are reading at all, you're reading the right way. Reading is a difficult hobby, because so few people will be able to talk to you about it (this is why I love my book club so much), and you don't have anything to "show" for it when you finish a book. I think this is why so many readers like Parrish feel the need to quantify their reading in other visible ways, with lots of books on a shelf.

I'd like to address several of the points he makes individually:

Buying $1207.40 worth of books is well beyond the average person's buying power

I mean, duh, right? That is literally more money than I spend on my mortgage in a given month. I'm going to get into the quantity question in the next point, but spending $1200 on books in a month is not within the realm of reality for most people on the planet (Parrish doesn't provide his annual book budget in the article, but as this is "only a small percentage of the money [he] routinely spend[s]" I think my assumption is safe). The implication here is that, as with time, one will spend money on the things one cares about. Yeah sure, but guess what, I read 75 books last year and didn't have to spend a single dollar, and I'm not ashamed of that.

Usually I do buy a couple hundred dollars' worth each year, but it just wasn't in the budget last year. Instead, I read what was already on my shelf, lots of library books, borrowed books from other people, and got free ebooks from places like Project Gutenberg.

You don't need to be rich to be a reader.

Making room for paper books is not always possible

Based on a quick estimate, I think I've got about five hundred books in my house (half of those are books I'm hanging on to while my sister looks for a permanent residence). This is a small number compared to many other readers' and book collectors' collections, but the physical presence of them often results in astonished commentary from first-time visitors. No doubt I could fit another five hundred into the house without too much trouble. I'm fortunate to have a lot of extra space and no kids.

There seem to be two types of readers: those who enjoy having large numbers of unread books and those who don't. I'm in the second camp, and I've read the vast majority of books I own. From my perspective, having a bunch of books lying around in my house that I haven't read would exhaust me. My reading list on Goodreads is over 500 books long and growing all the time. If I had to have those books in my house somewhere I would be miserable.

I can see how others might feel a different way about their unread books, but I've heard at least one story about a collection that got too big.

You don't have to keep every book you've read or want to read in your home.

Don't knock the library

Every public library system is different, so your mileage may vary on this next bit. Parrish dismisses libraries because he can't write in the books (see below) and because he claims the library won't have what he needs. I vehemently dispute that second point. Parrish lives in or near Ottawa, aka Canada's capital city.

I live in Saskatchewan, in a city about one quarter the size of Ottawa. Where I live I'm within twenty minutes' drive of both the public library and a university library, which so-called "external" borrowers can access for a $150 annual fee (not insignificant, but less than $1200). I have access to every public library book in Saskatchewan, and via interlibrary loans could gain access to a wide variety of other books. I don't buy that Parrish's local library doesn't have what he needs.

Use your library resources, people. They're probably better than you realize.

Writing in books

This is more of a brief aside because I'm neutral on the topic of writing in books. I personally have never really done it. I've done some highlighting in books I read for English courses, but I don't write in books because there simply isn't enough room most of the time. I do take notes on what I'm reading when I can, and I always make notes of particularly good passages and copy them out later.

One thing I really dislike is ending up with someone else's annotated copy of a book, though. This is probably contrary to a lot of other people's experiences, but my view is that having someone else's notes right next to the text when I'm reading it for the first time makes me biased toward the other person's experience with the text, and changes my own. I think if I was rereading an annotated book it would bother me less.

Since this is a rare valid excuse to forego the library, I will simply encourage everyone to spend their money at local bookstores rather than Amazon.

Read whatever you want

I'm blessed/cursed with being interested in everything. Usually I exclude professional sports from everything, but I do have at least one athlete's memoir on my reading list. If I want to learn more about something, the first thing I do is try to find a book about it. I read non-fiction more and more now that I'm out of formal schooling so that I can keep learning new things. I read the classics. I also read all kinds of trash, sometimes out of curiosity, and sometimes just for the sheer joy of it. If I've learned one thing over the last few years, it's that you should just read whatever you want. No matter what the book is, reading will let you see things from another person's perspective, even if that person is a fictional character.

I do think it's a good idea to read books that will expand or improve you in some way. But telling people that they need to read obscure books that challenge them to get value out of their reading is misguided at the very least.

Develop the reading habit first, and then branch out. If you want.


So that takes care of my long list of issues with Parrish's article.

Let me know if you think there is a right or a wrong way to read books. I can't help feeling like I've missed something.

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