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It’s not about the reading
Last night I was walking by a public library in the West Village in Manhattan. I could see inside the window a bulletin board covered in construction paper. It brought me back to elementary school and the common zeitgeist to read tons and tons of books. “Look at this number go up as you read all the piles and piles of books! Oh, wow, that one was a long one! If we were counting pages and not books this number would be so much bigger!”
This is how I recall these sorts of pushes way back then. Having stayed with a family recently with kids in elementary school I found the same dynamic persists. It is probably why on social media you see similar verbiage among very “productive” people. They set a goal to read x books a week/month/year. They read more books last year than anyone they know! Or than they ever had before.
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I used to be like this. Minus the numbers, I had this push to finish as many books as quickly as I could. I told a friend after college that I read so many more books on a Kindle! I was so proud of myself! I even had a theory that it was because I couldn’t constantly be thinking and checking of how many pages I had read or had to read until I finished the chapter. She compared me to a character in a children’s books she’d recently read saying she was going to rewrite the book as “The boy who ate books.” It was true. For years and years I’ve consumed books. It is almost pathological. However a very societally acceptable pathology.
I know now it's not about reading a ton of books. And as much as I talk about it it's also not about always having a conversation about what you read. It’s not about having as many or the best conversations you can have either. (Though the best conversations are a big part of it for me.)
It's probably happened to me only a handful of times in the past few years. I'm with some friends talking about what we read for our book club. I'm mostly listening to what they’re saying. I’m offering some of my recollections of what I read. We’re going back and forth and meandering around several different topics. I’ve read the book but, really I just don’t get it. It’s a classic but, nope. It’s just a bunch of amorphous stories and characters and loosely-related events.
Ultimately, it comes more from my friends being better readers and thinkers than I am. Having better memories too. But I get there nonetheless. Not being as smart I still get somewhere with their help. I end up putting two and two together. Sometimes it's more like 5 and 10 because it's so many strands I’m pulling together but something about the book just clicks. It suddenly makes sense. You're taking what people are saying but making your own connections, thinking for yourself.
You talk through out loud that "sense" you’re making. As you talk it out it makes more and more sense and reveals even more as you say it. It’s almost exhilarating. "I think I get what Gabriel Garcia Marquez is trying to say with this. Wow. What a project. What an undertaking. What a way to go about it. What a message for all of us. What an important message. Think about how he toiled at this work of art for years. Like Michelangelo and his David. How he completed it and gave it to the world. It's insane he went through all this to communicate this message. In this way. With 500 pages and indelible characters. Incredible. What a masterwork."
There’s no need to share what my aha was in this moment about this particular book. While it is a worthwhile message, it's much richer if you journey to it yourself. It's also never about the outcome. The understanding you get to. It's maybe equally (?) about the joyous experience of learning and thinking and arriving at a personal understanding for yourself. What a ride!