The Path to Reading with Purpose

In October, I turned in my tenure dossier, turned my attention to my teaching and a course redesign for the spring semester and to my WPA duties, and did approximately nothing else until mid-November. A colleague warned me that once I turned in my dossier I would have no desire to read anything, and she was on target with that warning, at least until the Thanksgiving break. Over that short break, I devoured five books, and that activity reignited my reading passion. In the short weeks that followed, I devoured more and more books, and I added more and more books to my Goodreads To-Read list until that list reached the point that–even if I were to read one book a day for the rest of my natural life and even if I added no more books to that list–I would die with a reading deficit. At that point, I began reclassifying my read shelves.

I know how odd that sounds, and I know that was not a solution to my conundrum, but there is something quite zen about classifying books that becomes a meditation on reading. Classifying books read can reveal a lot about reading habits and trends, likes and dislikes, and the act of classifying and sorting books (even if they are pixels) makes me think about these habits and trends. I soon realized that for the past few years my reading has taken the shape of working to achieve my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal and that my work toward this challenge takes on the persona of the slacker student–I always start the challenge strong, slump in the middle of the year, and then desperately try to meet the challenge by the end of the year. This reading persona also takes on another characteristic of the slacker student–I’m not reading with a genuine purpose; my purpose in reading these last years is simply to meet the reading challenge. The more I classified and shelved, the more I began to think back on reading and reflect on the books I was shelving. I recognized that the books I recalled the most were those that I read with a purpose, whether for my own research or for a class in college or graduate school (even when that purpose was to pass the class). The non-research books I’ve read since are the books I can recall reading but cannot recall much beyond the overall premise or plot. I also began to recognize that books I read with a purpose are books that I wrote reviews for, whether on Goodreads or here on the blog. So, what was wrong with the other books? Why was I not finding a purpose in those?

Passive Choices: A Reading Problem

I decided I needed a purpose in my reading, and I took a close look at the physical “To Read” shelf in my home library. I was surprised to realize that none of the books on the shelf was a book I selected intentionally. There were several I picked up for free or super cheap at a used book store because their general topic sounded like something I might read at some point. There were several that were hand-me-overs from others, but books that came as a regift from somebody who was either not a keen reader or not keen on the topic. As avid a reader as I am, I was honestly surprised that so much of my to-read material was selected with such passivity.

I thought I might approach my Goodreads To Read shelf in the same way. After all, this is where I first recognized the problem. That shelf contained over 12,000 books. Seriously, this was a problem. How did I reach such a state of to-read books? Could I really want to read all 12,000 books? The short answer is no, but that raised another question: how did I end up marking 12,000 books as “to read” and what goal did I have in mind with such a collection? As I was going through the slow process of culling that collection, I realized that while one of the features I love about Goodreads is that they recommend books based on your shelves, this was clearly a problem for me because when I see recommendations I read through them, and I seem to do so with the mindset that if I don’t mark the book as to read right now, I may never again see that book as a recommendation. Unlike physical books that must be bought (which requires money) and shelved (which requires space), shelving a book on a Goodreads shelf requires no effort, no money, and no thought. I passively added over 1000 books to the shelves that I have little desire to actually read. At first, that didn’t seem terribly bad. It’s just a bunch of pixels, right? Well, not really.

In my culling, I ran across this book, Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, a memoir about Vietnam–likely the reason I added the book to the list. The culling showed me that I added a lot of books about Vietnam to my list. I’m certain a psychologist would tell me that this is a way to better understand my dad’s experiences, except that most of the books and documentaries don’t get too in depth in their coverage of the earliest months, those times when my dad was in Vietnam. As I was culling, I read the blurb for every book I wasn’t positive I wanted to keep or cull, and I found Caputo’s gem shouting at me. Caputo’s memoir covers 16 months in Vietnam, beginning in March of 1965 when he arrived in Da Nang. My dad arrived in Vietnam in September 1965, and he was stationed in Da Nang. This could be a gem I’ve been (actively) looking for and I (passively) found it and stashed it away with the other 12,000 books.

On my physical shelf, I found a copy of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, a book I picked up several months ago, knowing it was the final in a trilogy. I picked it up to remind me to read more Atwood and to track down the previous two books in the trilogy. Clearly, this plan failed.

When I returned to work last week, I happened on six books I ordered this year, books I actively selected and purchased, six books still in my office because I vowed not to take home until I cleaned off the to-read shelf at home (and by cleaned off, I meant read). Even the promise of books I actively purchased to read has not been enough to motivate me to read those on the shelf (probably because there are 23 on that shelf, which means I have to push through 23 books before I can even consider reading the books I want to read. It feels like being in an undergraduate class required to get into the classes you want to take in your major.)

Reading Apathy: A Related Problem

The more I culled my shelves and pondered the actual to-read shelf and the stack of books I want to read in my office, the more I realized the actual to-read shelf at home was causing another problem in my life–reading apathy. After graduate school, my typical evening routine (excepting final grading periods) involved coming home, having dinner, and then reading until bedtime. For awhile, I had to set a bedtime reminder alarm so that I wouldn’t accidentally read until 3AM and then be woefully unprepared for the tasks at hand the following day. In the last two years, that evening routine morphed into my working a digital jigsaw puzzle while the television droned in the background (and worse, I wasn’t really watching most of the shows on my Netflix and Hulu watch list; I was really just passively listening to them as I futzed with the digital jigsaw puzzle).

I developed reading apathy awhile back (and it took this culling for me to recognize that problem). Because I did not want to read the books on my to-read shelf, I was giving myself a means of not reading them–television and digital puzzles–until the end of the year when I realized I was not going to meet my Goodreads challenge. Once the purpose came into my reading history, so did the desire to read, but still I was reading passively. I did not necessarily want to finish the books I was reading (and in some cases I did not want to start the books I was reading), except that I cannot bring myself to lie about not finishing a book that I did not actually finish.

Reading with Purpose: A New Direction

Identifying the problem with my reading history made me immediately want to fix this and get my reading groove back. (I’m certain that culling the Goodreads to-read list to just over 200 books helped with that.) But I did not want to just read more books I actually want to read, I wanted to get back into engaging with the purpose of reading–to learn and to entertain. Starting with the six books on my desk seemed like a promising start to the new year, but I know me, and I know that if I’m reading with a purpose, I need a more specific purpose. I decided to set some specific reading goals for the upcoming year, goals that would motivate me to not only read  more books, but goals that would give me specific purposes for engaging with books not just this year but for the years to come. I established a framework for reading:

  • Choose one office-reading book per moth (books specifically selected to further my pedagogy or my WPA abilities)
  • Choose one fiction author and read one of that author’s works each month for the year
  • Read a book of poetry each month
  • Read one work on military history or culture each month
  • Read one book on nutrition and health each month (we’re trying to have a healthier home, and I’m okay with this book being a broad definition of health)
  • Read one book in a different area each month (this sounds vague, but my Goodreads shelves give me several options).

I also made the decision to ensure that I both made time for the reading (only 1 episode of a show each night and only if I’m actively watching the show–no more passively watching television) and that I made a plan for engaging with the work (making active notes each night about the reading and add a new blog post about the works once a week, whether a review of the book or some rhetorical/pedagogical connections or ideas to the reading).

My goal is to ensure I am reading each book with a purpose. I won’t lie; I would still like to meet a Goodreads challenge (I’m setting it for 52 books this year), but if I only make it to 20 books by the end of the year, then I expect those 20 books will be more engaging than the last 50 I read. In the end, I think all reading comes down to reapplying the motivation I had in college. I need a purpose (or a theme, or both) to my reading, and I need to have something to say (whether in conversation, a blog post, or an article I’m planning) about everything I read. So, here’s to a 2019 filled with words.

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