Flipping through The New York Review of Books the other day, I realized my reading habits had changed drastically. Once upon a time I read every page from cover-to-cover – even the personal ads (in fact, I met my husband by answering one of them). What had changed wasn’t the The New York Review of Books. What had changed was me.
It wasn’t just the way I read this one publication. It was the way I read, and wrote, more generally. I started thinking about this more and realized that many of my reading and writing habits had transformed over the years. Here are just a few:
- I no longer read my favorite publications cover-to-cover.
My younger self would devour every word a publication I respected had to offer. The New York Review of Books of Books was case in point. When I was in my mid-twenties I found reading every article to be a great way to get at least a passing familiarity with most of the major literary, social, and political themes of the day. Now I quickly go from one article to the next, perhaps reading only one or two from start to finish but more often glancing at the headlines or first paragraph and then moving on.
I chalk this up in part to the distractedness that everyone is supposed to have today: the short attention span of the Internet age. And part of it is that annoying reality that the older you get, and the more time you have to yourself, the less time there seems to be to do anything at all.
But I think there’s more to it than that. I think age has brought with it the ability to sniff out bad writing and sloppy thinking from the first few lines of an article. It has also brought the ability to see the telltale signs of an argument I’ve already read in various versions many times over. Of course, it’s also possible that I’m deluding myself and instead have simply closed my mind and become impervious to new ideas or even the possibility that I still have something to learn. But whatever the explanation, I no longer feel guilty for rejecting the vast majority of print media that come my way.
One bad habit I haven’t been able to break yet is not finishing books I start. I have the same problem with movies or plays. Other people have no problem slamming the cover closed or getting up and walking out of an experience they know isn’t worth their precious time. I still can’t break the habit of finishing what I meant to finish when I started. I suspect over time I will decide to get over this because, frankly, time is too short.
- I’m willing to re-read.
Too many books, too little time is now no longer a clever saying. It is my life.
This is actually a corollary of the change above. Time is indeed short. And I have come to realize that I will never actually get to read everything there is out there to read. So, now that I’ve admitted defeat on that front, it makes sense to focus on the books worth reading. And reading something I read decades ago, if it was truly a book worth reading, is often a far better use of that precious time that launching into unknown territory.
I’ve also come to understand that reading a book when you’re 50 is different than reading that same book when you’re 15. Every trip back into the pages is a new experience, colored by the person you have become. Besides, I can’t remember most of what I read anyway, so these days reading and re-reading pretty much amount to the same thing.
- I no longer worry about writer’s block.
For one thing, I know from experience now that if I follow certain procedures, ideas will always come. If I write every day, or leave a passage unfinished, I know I can always come back later and find something to say.
Even better, I now know that not having anything to say or not having anything to write is no tragedy. The world has no great need of my words. If I don’t feel a compelling need to write them, all the better for everyone concerned.
- I no longer worry about being recognized as brilliant or talented or having my words and name last forever.
I’m old enough to see that no one is ever recognized as brilliant or as talented as they would like to be, and even when they are, for 15 minutes or even 15 years, it’s never enough. And no one’s name or words or works last forever.
Rather than depressing me, these kinds of thoughts remove a burden that often kept me as a younger writer from daring to put words to paper. Ironically, the realization that no one cared and nothing mattered, was liberation. As Henry Miller once wrote in the Tropic of Cancer, realizing that nothing was to be hoped for had a “salutary effect” on him that left him feeling relieved, “as though a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders.” This same realization has given me the freedom to write want I want, the way I want. Or not.