The Bookworm Paradox

Person hidden behind a book with a large pile more to read.
“Bookworm” by Pimthida, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 https://flic.kr/p/8RNev9

When the average person hears that I’m a librarian, they inevitably say something like, “I guess you like to read a lot, right?” And I paste on a smile and force a friendly chuckle and avoid actually responding. It’s not just that the question indicates some misunderstanding of what a librarian actually does (it’s more about helping other people find stuff to read, less about actually reading), it’s that the asker thinks the question’s rhetorical. They expect a “Yes.” Answering “no,” while more truthful, would just start an awkward, unasked-for conversation about my reading habits or lack thereof.

But to be honest, “no” isn’t entirely truthful either, as anyone who had known me at the age of ten could tell you. It’s just I’ve been reading far less than I used to in the past few years, and it’s a bit of a touchy subject. What’s wrong with me? I’ve wondered. How do other adults with jobs and even kids read, and I, a consummate bookworm, can’t make the time?

Only recently have I figured it out: it might be because I love reading too much.

A recovering alcoholic is a teetotaller: they can’t just have a beer at a cookout and be cool with it. There’s no such thing as “just” a beer. To them it’s the start of a downward spiral they just can’t risk slipping into. Now, I’m not suggesting any equivalence in severity between alcoholism and read-a-holism. It’s not going to kill anyone if I slip into a downward spiral of can’t-stop-reading. It’s probably not going to ruin my relationships or, thanks to libraries, drive me to bankruptcy.

But once I start a book, I find it, let’s say, exceedingly difficult to stop until I finish. So, surrounded by all the “shoulds” of motherhood and home ownership, I find excuses never to start.

I brought home piles of library books each week until my youngest was about a year old. My own reading time slipped away when I had two toddlers to manage. But as my end-of the-year book roundup lists shrunk–I used to rank my “Top Ten NEW Books I Read This Year” AND my “Top Ten Books Published in Previous Years I First Read This Year,” and let’s not even go into rereading. But now I struggled to come up with a “Top FIVE Books I Read This Year, Period!”–I looked enviously at the long book roundups of other parents and wondered what I was doing wrong.

At first I thought it might have to do with my taking over children’s/YA collection development at the library. This means I read book reviews—a lot of book reviews.  Do you have any idea how many books come out in a year, just for youth and from traditional publishers? My TBR list exploded into chaos. What should I read next? How can I focus on this book when there are twenty other books I want to read? It was like I burnt out on reading. Suddenly I got picky. Formulaic books were out, epic-tomed series were out: give me something short, sweet, and most importantly unusual. I’m not going to pick up a book unless you can assure me it stands out from the pack!

Then I realized that couldn’t be the whole story. It was too much trouble to make time for even those stand-out books, and other people with kids and jobs could manage it. Where was my time going? My next suspect was Twitter. I’d joined Twitter at about the same time I took over collection development and in turn stopped reading so much. My husband would probably have blamed Twitter, because he was jealous of it. He was quick to point out any moment I was on social media instead of talking to him. But he’s an ambivert if not quite an extrovert, and I’m very much introverted. “Look,” I say, “I just don’t feel like talking. If I unplugged from social media, I’d just be reading a book instead.” Or would I?

This was a little closer to the truth. I did plenty of reading each day, and it did suck up my time. It’s just that the reading was all short, online things: social media, blogs, articles. GeekMom. Nothing wrong with reading GeekMom! But in the time I spent online, I could easily tackle a book or two. So why didn’t I?

One evening, with an hour of free time ahead of me, a bit of my brain took an objective look at what the rest of the brain was doing. The rest of my brain had just turned down a suggestion from itself to work on a sewing project, because “you’ll just get sucked into it, and you won’t be able to stop and go do something else after this hour.” So that part of my brain that wasn’t watching itself decided to check social media, because that didn’t take long. Social media posts are short. It couldn’t suck up the entire hour… but of course it did. “Wait a minute,” the objective bit of my brain piped up. “That’s the same excuse you use about reading books! It’s because you know you’ll get sucked into it and you won’t be able to get out—but you let yourself get sucked into social media because the small bits of reading trick you into thinking you’re not taking up the time you are!”

It was only earlier this year I was diagnosed with ADHD-Inattentive Type. Since then, watching myself with this new knowledge in mind, it seems a wonder I wasn’t diagnosed sooner. It seems to manifest most clearly in my horrendous time management skills. “Too busy,” I thought about not just reading, but writing, cleaning, crafting, decorating, socializing… “I don’t have time for that.” But how could I not have time for anything? Was it all that demon Social Media’s fault? No, when I looked at it, because in truth I wasted most of my time… staring into space. My brain was too busy. My brain ran so quickly from one possible plan of action to another that my actual body couldn’t keep up, so it just didn’t bother actually starting on any one task. Except checking social media because that’s short, right?

But once I do start a task? Good luck directing me toward anything else.

It’s inertia. Inertia makes it hard to get me moving when I’m at rest, but once I’m in motion I stay in motion. The effect of inertia on my ability to manage my time is shockingly thorough. I waste time getting started, and I lose all sense of time once I’m going.

When I was a kid I could easily lose all my time in books. I didn’t have any close friends, I was smart enough to finish my homework fast–assuming we had time to start it in class, because, you know, I was in motion there. If I had to get back to it after school? Forget it!–I had a couple favorite TV shows but didn’t like TV enough to stay with it beyond that: I had lots of free time, and my favorite thing to do with that time was read. My mom tried to get me to go outside and get some exercise. I’d just take my book outside. I read while walking, while eating, while climbing the jungle gym. I read every book in the children’s section of our tiny neighborhood library and quite a few of the adult books, and would burst in each week asking the librarian if she had anything new. (AND, naturally, Belle has been my favorite Disney princess since the moment I first saw her burst into that bookshop and ask the exact same thing.)

In high school, though, I started to go through reading dry spells, and it was all a matter of my time being pulled elsewhere. I’d feel too guilty to read if I had a project due… even if I, you know, didn’t exactly get around to working on that project either. Summer came and I’d get back to my huge piles of books; school started and they’d dwindle away again. The pattern continued into college, until my junior year roommate’s own reading habits rubbed off on me.

She reserved herself reading time. She went to bed half an hour early each night, and she used that time to read. Brilliant. It felt so liberating! I knew I would always have that reading time, so I didn’t have to get lost in a book when I should have been working on homework during the day, but the book was still waiting for me, and then I could read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open each night.

It’s really this habit that’s fallen away in recent years. Before bed has become I-Have-Time-to-Myself-at-Last time, and I end up squeezing in everything else I didn’t get to during the day instead. If I picked up a book, I’m afraid I might forget to go to bed, period… but still, I get to bed too late, because I use up all the time squeezing in little things instead.

But sometimes, your car’s being inspected, and you’re stuck waiting a long time, and you happen to have a book… and two hours later you find yourself telling the mechanic to, oh, go ahead and check that, too—take all the time you want!—because the magic of well-crafted prose has ensnared you again, and you’ll take any excuse to stay there.

Amy M. Weir is a public youth services librarian in SW Pennsylvania, and there’s nothing she geeks out about more. Outside of work she obsesses over music (especially rock especially psychedelic pop especially The Beatles), sews clothes, gardens when the weather’s nice, avoids housework, and generally is the poster-child for Enneatype 9, which she attempts to counteract with yoga when she remembers. She has an RPG-and-firearms-geek husband who asked her out by playing a Paladin-in-Shining-Armor devoted to serving her character in D&D; a LEGO-and-Minecraft-geek 10yo named after a hobbit; a My Little Pony-and-art-geek 8yo named after a SFF writer; and an Imaginary Husband named Martin Freeman, who isn’t actually aware of this relationship.