As a child, a teenager, and a young college student, my appetite for books of all kinds hardly knew boundaries. I could polish off, easily, a book a day—and make significant headway into another, at least. I spent my time in college reading several books a week, basking in the life of the mind, in the life of words. I remember the single day I read Great Expectations, so gripping I could not put it down, even during dinner in the commons. I read it all through the line and sat away from everyone so I could continue it. Before my kiddos were born, on weekends or on break from teaching, I could read all day and sometimes forget to eat, in the yard, in my cozy chair, on the toilet. Bill is a big reader, too, and so we were perfectly content reading in nearby spaces, chatting only briefly—and then, about ideas. I majored in English, my love for words and ideas so vast. I’ve never been complete without at least one book going, but often I read many in parallel. It is a great passion of mine to read books in parallel, in order to challenge myself to find the connections between two seemingly disparate topics or subjects. I read everything: fiction, of course, but in my later years I have gravitated toward the nonfiction of hard science, math, the history of ideas, literary criticism, philosophy, logic, anything.

Just as everything else changed when I had young kiddos, so, too, did my reading habits. I had packed a book for the hospital—you know, during labor, which would take hours—when I had Katie. That shows you how little I knew. After she was born, I snuck in a few books while she was nursing (Atonement being one), and there were books that followed—sloooooowly—as I got my footing as a mother.

Then I had another child. Books in my “stack” (the pile of books I most wanted to read) grew dusty. I rarely purchased books for myself anymore. Keeping up with the times and age, I read a few books digitally…and again, slowly, it felt.

Around this time, though, I was caught in the nexus of making all kinds of excuses about why I did not have time to take care of myself physically or intellectually. It’s true: full-time at-home motherhood and homeschooling takes a bunch of time. In fact, it takes almost all the time in a day, or could. A workaholic type like me can find tasks to do constantly: cleaning more, combing through lesson plans, organizing, coming up with crafts for the kiddos, ad infinitum. I view motherhood as a pleasure, yes, but also as a job—and when something is a job, that designation changes the way I approach it. In all jobs, we do our absolute best. I watch myself for signs of slacking. I attack with Type A vigor. A job must be done right, no matter what it takes. Why try for 95% in a class when you can earn 105% by working extra and, better still, learning more? You know, that kind of thing…

In pursuing one line of work, though, I found myself letting go of the other parts of my life that contribute to balance. Exercise, healthy eating, and physical fitness, certainly (which I have discussed at length, I’m afraid!)…but also the life of my mind, the essence of what makes me, well, me. How could I be interesting to myself, to my husband, or to my children if I did not take the time to keep growing the life of the mind?

To his credit, Bill never said one word about my relative lack of reading, or at least my far slowed-down pace of reading. We would discuss the books I did manage to read, and he would summarize his reading. My list of wish-to-read books grew longer. I had enough to draw on from my undergrad years, plus some recent reads like Pinker and so on, to continue discussions. I used to say to myself with a sigh, thank goodness I had my university years because now I hardly have time for any of it but at least hundreds of books are already in my brain! 

Eventually when I took up my exercise routine, I felt the addition of new priorities only compounded the problem. Now I have to wake up at 5:00 AM—when can I possibly stay up late reading? Now I have to plan out all the schooling for my kiddos—shouldn’t that take the precious 1.5 hours I have left at night? In the past two years, I have read, but it has been very sparse indeed. I enjoy heavy doses of fiction with my children, and I would read small articles and an occasional book or two, but there were times when it felt almost impossible to start a book: how would I ever finish? How unsatisfying is it to read only a handful of pages before drifting off to sleep?

I felt a large part of who I have always been—a reader, a writer, an evolving thinker, a learner—receding into the corners.

So, just as with my unhealthy body, I decided to take action and do something about this. My children and my husband deserve to have me at my best; more than that, I deserve to have me at my best.

I assessed the time I frittered away on the Internet and social media. A bit too much. Still too much, but it is a work in progress. I don’t watch TV—I mean that quite literally—except if the kiddos happen to have a program on, but I do occasionally watch or re-watch movies. I used to re-watch movies and cross-stitch, but in the past year, I would re-watch movies and get online and just surf around. Relaxing and maybe okay for me once in awhile, but there was time I could reclaim for my reading. In the morning after exercise, I could get on Facebook and news sites, or I could choose to read. It turned out there was all kinds of time available, if I just managed my impulses a bit more. I could read while cooking dinner, if the kiddos were outside. As Katie has become an autonomous reader (although we still do read together for the sheer enjoyment of it), we are making a culture of reading time as a family (cannot WAIT until Eric gets there, too)!

I’ve also remembered that, when I do sit down to read with focus, I read really fast. So there’s hope. I made my iPad into just a reader—no social media distractions when I am on that device.

Summer Bucket List #10: Return to being a consistent reader and reinvigorate the life of the mind

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Just as with taking exercise and diet seriously, I have found that deciding to make reading a priority is almost all of the battle. When I have a choice—15 minutes to read or to use Pinterest—most of the time now I will read. Sometimes not, but I am working on it. I choose books that I think I will love, and if I don’t love it, I put it down. I used to finish books through no matter what, but I don’t have time for that at this point.

I decided to have a “day book” and a “night book” going concurrently. The day book is a physical book that I can carry about without worrying about damaging it. I still like the feel of physical books, anyhow. The night book is always digital. I can read it without disrupting Bill with the light, and I feel it is important to cross over into this technology and be both kinds of reader: old-fashioned and high tech. I find I read differently on my iPad—faster, for one thing, even than holding a book in my hands.

So, since July 2nd, a month’s time, I have finished five books. It’s not many, but it is five times more than my best month (lucky to finish even one) in a very long time!

1. The Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan (2013): A philosophical and science fiction book about the transhumanism of the future. He borrows heavily from Ayn Rand, a fact he acknowledges, and I follow this author on Facebook. Very pertinent to discussions of technology, evolution, religious vs. nonreligious societies, science, and what it might mean to be human in the future.

2. Jane Austen, Game Theorist by Michael Suk-Young Chwe (2013): Professor Chwe, a game theorist from UCLA, uses rational choice theory as a lens through which to examine six works of Jane Austen. He argues that Austen intentionally explores strategic thinking and was herself a game theorist. One of my hobbies is to study game theory, and of course I have a background in Austen, so I appreciated many aspects of this book. I did send a more extensive review to my friend Kathy, but I think I will say this: this particular work is more suited to fans of game theory who happen to know Austen, rather than devotees of Austen who might know a bit of game theory. Bill picked this out for me in Portland, and I have many fond memories of pouring over it during moments on our trip.

3. Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, collected and edited by Leonard S. Marcus (1998): This has to be my favorite book of the summer. Nordstrom was the director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973. She is enchanting in her letters, an amiable taskmaster, an unbridled dynamo. This is her collection of letters to favorites like Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Margaret Wise Brown, Shel Silverstein, Garth Williams, John Steptoe, H.A. Rays, Else Holmelund Minarik, Ruth Krauss, and more. Nordstrom’s voice in her letters completely absorbs me. She reminds me in her writing and voice of a friend of mine, actually—I won’t say who right here. Witty, authentic, maternal, she could be the best friend and mentor but also dish out the tough love. There is no doubt that she was probably one of the most gifted editors ever to have lived, and we have so many of the books on our shelves that passed through her office. I enjoyed feeling my motherhood self and my academic self join together in this book; as I read her letters to authors my kiddos and I have savored together, I felt a beautiful sense of wholeness. Beyond that, Nordstrom several times had me laughing out loud. She was a HOOT! This is an excellent book, great I tell you.

4. Unbearable Lightness by Portia de Rossi (2011): I never watched Ally McBeal, but I adore Ellen Degeneres and happened to catch an interview a couple of years ago with her wife Portia about Portia’s struggles with body image and disordered eating. This book has been on my list for a few years, and it was an extremely quick read now that I finally got to it. For me, right now, I think it was an important read in terms of keeping my head in a sensible place and not taking calorie restriction too far (I’ve been maintaining and am always constantly assessing my approach to make sure I am thinking about body and athleticism in a healthy, productive way). I found the latter part of the book, her recovery, to be the most well written.

5. The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman (1998): This book is a close second for my favorite book this summer. Hoffman writes about Paul Erdos, arguably the most prolific mathematician of our time and certainly eccentric, and therefore endearing to me. Erdos lived out of two tattered suitcases and travelled from mathematician to mathematician. He spoke only of math, for the most part, and never had any interest in marriage or his own family. He was unfailingly kind, and in my opinion, probably self-actualized and transcendent. A genuis. In one anecdote, he gives college tuition to a struggling student; years later when the student is able to pay him back, Erdos refuses the money and simply tells him to give the money to another student who needs it for tuition. In the course of telling us about Erdos’ life, Hoffman discusses the history of modern mathematics as well as some of math’s greatest theorems and proofs. Discussions of prime numbers, Bayesian probability, infinity and sets of infinity deeply excited my mind as I read. There are passages about Euler, Gauss, Godel, Hypatia, Ramanujan, Hardy, Russell, and Cantor. Occasionally, Hoffman invited the reader to study and ponder equations. We are asked to consider whether math is discovered or invented, and a bunch of other philosophical mind-bending questions too. I could hardly put this one down. Erdos charmed me. Math charms me. I would definitely recommend this book. It is helpful, but perhaps not essential, to have had math at least through Calculus to enjoy the basic gist of this one: awesome mathematicians are awesome, and math is utterly breathtakingly beautiful. I teared up several times, and once even cried, while reading this book—at how lovely a mind was Erdos’ and how stunning math truly is.

My Tuesday morning routine has been one of my favorites since returning from Oregon. I do not run on Tuesdays (or Saturdays). I used to lay in bed a bit, do weights, and putter around a bit, but now that I have discovered swimming I have something completely exciting to wake up early to do! I get up at 5:00 still and am to the pool by 5:30 AM. I swim 100 laps as the sun rises—pure, life-altering magic—and then I pull on dry clothes, head to the coffee shop with one of my books, and have a coffee and read for at least half an hour to forty minutes. Then I order another coffee and breakfast for the kiddos, and I come back home already having lived passionately before the kiddos are up. I feed them, and then we go to riding lessons at 8:30 (and then swim lessons, which are now done). That coveted reading time after my laps has been a revelation to me this summer. I feel so in touch with myself in those moments. It’s like discovering bits of myself that used to be there but that now in my 30s are so much more real to me… The freedom, too, is intoxicating and wonderful and fulfilling.

I never used to be a morning person, but I am now, I guess! And a night one, too… There’s just so much to take in during this life—too bad we have to sleep!

So I have reconnected with being a prolific reader (or semi-prolific reader, as the case may be)! I am balancing mind and body and once more find pleasure in treasured conversation with minds that have passed through this universe. I am now reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, on my list for years and a recent recommendation from our friend Dave. That’s my night book; and I am re-reading a graphic novel about Bertrand Russell and logic. I try not to re-read, but in this case, I think my mind is primed to get more out of it (even though I remember loving it the first time). The Russell book will be my day book.

It’s funny how reading never took discipline before; I could fit it into my life whenever I wanted to. Carving out intentional space for reading is new to me, but I have to make it a priority in order to have balance. This has been a big self-improvement goal this summer, and I hope I am able to maintain balance as the school year gets going. I worry about that, but I think if I approach it as a job or as a matter of discipline, I will be more successful at keeping this pace of reading going than I have been in many a year. I hope so!

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