I’m an English major. It’s a big part of my identity, like being a mother, a writer, or an academic. I decided on English because I liked reading. Simple as that. Back then, when I was in high school, we didn’t have fancy skills exams to help us figure out what career we wanted. We had an average guidance counselor who, honestly, had no clue what to do with me, the girl who walked into the office asking about the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus, and who wanted to study literature. It was a small town with a small high school far away from the metropolis of San Juan. Creative writing programs were non-existent to me, and what I knew about my #1 pick I found out on my own. Heck, I only had two choices. Nowadays, having only two options for college is career suicide.
But back to my original point: I liked reading books, and that’s one of the major reasons I became an English major. I wanted to share that with people. I also wanted to study how authors wrote good books. Where best to do that than in English? Although some may question the validity of using these parameters for picking a career, it worked for me. It has led me toward where I am today: a PhD candidate with over six years of experience in academia (teaching and otherwise) at two different institutions. I have read plenty of books in my 12 years in college, and even though some of them may have been dull (and some of them I simply skimmed because I couldn’t be bothered with them) I am proud to say I have the chance to read and write for a living.
Here’s the problem: on a regular basis I don’t read as much as you think I do. In fact, I really don’t read many books nowadays.
First things first: my dissertation takes up a big chunk of my time. I am working with books I have already read. I also read a lot of journal articles (can I have a Goodreads account for that? Because I’m sure I’d be top-ranking in that department) for my dissertation. The literary criticism that comes in book form is too heavy–for me, at least–to consume all at once, so I usually read a chapter or two or three and move on to my next piece. For a long period of time, I didn’t read outside of my assigned readings. My research is time-consuming, and when I’m done I sometimes don’t have the energy to read more. That’s the “beauty” of academic research: it seems like you carry it with you EVERYWHERE.
Example: Someone once had the audacity to tell me they were disappointed I didn’t read more. My response? “Did my advisor hire you?”
Earlier this year I decided to fix that. I was so frustrated at not being able to read for fun (the reason I became an English major in the first place) and being consumed by my dissertation day after day after day, that I decided to make time for reading. I schedule time for reading (although sometimes I am guilty of not honoring my schedule). I keep a book by my side of the bed. I bought a Kindle. Even though my list of books to read is growing by the week–my goodreads list doesn’t even make a dent in the ever-growing mental list–I am slowly making progress.
Sidenote: I know some people who think e-readers are evil, lazy, expensive, and the dagger in the heart of the print publishing industry. I felt very guilty for even thinking about buying one. (Ah, grad student guilt, you never go away, do you?) But the truth is, it has helped me minimize the clutter of articles that surrounds me every time I work on an article/chapter/paper. I’ve also started taking my Kindle when I go to the park with my daughter. While I push her stroller around the park, I’ve been able to get some reading done, which makes me happy. I don’t believe I will single-handedly kill paper books. After all, I still buy them and love to collect them. But like … said, books can still exist as collectors items. And hey! Some of them are cheap too. So if you want to tell me how awful I am for buying a Kindle, move on.
Here’s what’s bugging me though: I don’t have the attention span to sit down and read long pieces for an extended period of time. If I am making progress, it’s at the pace of a snail. What is wrong with me? If it’s not my smartphone, it’s the tv, or it’s something that I forgot in the kitchen. I am so used to multitasking that I cannot sit down to read for ten whole minutes. When I’m reading in the park, I’m reading AND pushing a stroller. That time when I could lose myself in a magazine or in a novel for an hour or two has long gone. Zip. Bye bye, ship. And I miss that time.
Case in point: last week, José Antonio Vargas’s article about being a successful journalist while still being an undocumented immigrant made the rounds on my timeline. But even though it’s sitting in my browser with several other articles, I can’t bring myself to sit down and read it. I can’t because it’s six pages long, and I will give up after maybe the first page. (Reading lengthy pieces on my laptop is also irritating to me). Even though the first few paragraphs caught my attention, I quickly move on to another page.
Another example: for the past few months Manuel Muñoz’s What You See in the Dark has been sitting on my night stand. I have started it twice. I have gotten no farther than page 50. In the meantime I have read two books on my Kindle. Muñoz is a favorite author of mine, and I was looking forward to reading his novel. But I can’t do more than a few pages at a time.
I wonder what is wrong with me. Am I so addicted to my smartphone that I can’t stand reading something bigger for more than five minutes? Has Twitter messed up my ability to focus on one thing for more than 140 characters? Do I need a time out from being a mommy so I can reboot my brain? (Being at home with my daughter this past month and a half has really developed my multitasking skills). Should I cut out one of my academic projects so that I can have a moment to read? I don’t know. But I sure would like to be able to lose myself in a story, article, or book for more than five minutes.
How do you folks do it?