I keep a tally of how many books I read every year, and I was shocked to find that at the end of June, i.e. halfway through the year, that my numbers were running at about one-third of the usual total. What the heck happened?
Now I know that not everybody keeps these kinds of stats, but it may not be much of a surprise that someone like myself who has always been a bit obsessive-compulsive, and later became a librarian, would keep tallies like this. I would say how many years I’ve been collecting these stats, except that that would reveal me as either very old or an unusually stats-obsessed grade schooler.
Back to my first question: what the heck happened in 2009? A grab-bag of reasons follows.
1. The Internet is Destroying My Brain
Previously, I had never cared that much for the thesis that the internet is destroying our ability, as a society in general, to follow arguments (or storylines) that are longer than a blog post or a tweet. But this year I’ve been feeling like all the lovely, lovely information that’s online simply isn’t helping me anymore – it’s one giant undifferentiated mush of cool stuff. For example, I have knowledge of way more interesting books than I ever had before, but I have way less time (and perhaps concentration) to actually read them.
I can’t even identify where I hear about things any longer. I’ll be talking about an obscure book or movie, and when asked about the source (since I probably haven’t read or watched it myself), I simply can’t say.
That said, I do have a counter-example. One of my favourite TV shows recently has been Burn Notice (which I wrote about here on the Gutter: Rule One: Entertain Me!). I thought that my original reference was lost in the mists of time and the fogginess of my brain as addled by the internet.
But no: here are some props to Orson Scott Card – the man is obsessed with TV, mystery novels, and local food in his Uncle Orson Reviews Everything column, but I owe him hugely for the tip about Burn Notice.
Score one for personal brainpower. This might not invalidate the premise, but it did make me feel a little bit better about myself – for what that’s worth!
2. A Simple Time Squeeze
This is a familiar lament, but there’s always more good stuff available than there is time to grab a hold of it and enjoy it.
I think the difference is that books used to be the main way I’d experience culture, and my entertainment habits have changed drastically – if not in the internet age then at least since I was a kid.
For example, I listen to audiobooks every day as I’m walking to work and back home in the evening. It’s much slower than reading the books myself, but it’s still great – listening to Obama narrate his own story in Dreams From My Father has been a particular highlight this year.
When I get home, I’m sometimes “storied” out – I’ve had about as much of narrative for the day as I can take. I never thought I’d say that, but perhaps the audiobook format makes the experience more intense, I’m not sure. One thing I can say for certain – if you’re listening to The Diary of Anne Frank, you’ll need some time to compose yourself before doing anything else.
So yes, there’s a time squeeze, but things come and go. I’ve always been a fan of brainless summer movies in the past, but this year I simply haven’t been as interested. I love me some Terminator, but I still haven’t gotten around to the latest iteration. I’ve seen Up, from Pixar who are ordinarily my candidates for creators of the best movies of the summer – their latest outing was solid but seemed to peter out it progressed. That leads me directly to the next point.
3. I’m Too Jaded
Or the Culture-Drunk Wastrel Surveys the Landscape and Sighs in Ennui.
Maybe I just can’t enjoy stuff anymore? Even if it’s the aforementioned category of good stuff and I’ve managed to locate it. In the “holy crap, I’m tired of vampires” category, let me mention True Blood. True Blood is an excellent series from HBO adapting the Sookie Stackhouse series of novels by Charlaine Harris. It’s undeniably well-filmed, the casting is fantastic, the content is “edgy” enough to make some waves, and so forth. But there’s about one episode per season where my feverish little brain says, “Well, at least that wasn’t as cliched as the rest of the vampire material here.”
I always thought that greater knowledge equaled greater appreciation. Lately, it’s been the opposite. Perhaps not so much “That’s been done before” and more “I’ve slowly lost interest in this thing – looking back I’ll assign the blame on ground that’s been trodden too many times.”
So I guess my fallback position is to say this: I’m still an excitable guy. I fell in love with Lavinia (and heard Le Guin read from it at the Ottawa Writers Festival), I can hardly wait for the next Burn Notice episode, and so on. Excitable-ness, by its nature, also implies periods of non-excitedness.
If it’s a pendulum, that means knowing the numbers shouldn’t make me worried about them – I’ll scale back a bit on videogames (damn you, addictive nature of Plants vs. Zombies!) or other things, and see if the book-readin’ comes back on its own.