Outside Reading

It’s no secret that all dedicated writers must first be dedicated readers. And while I’m a believer in Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that one must put 10,000 hours into something before any level of expertise can be achieved, I think that writers actually have to put as many hours into reading as they do into writing (if not more). If I’m on track with my own worldviews, that means I’ve logged in at least 20,000 hours as a reader and a writer. And if you’re reading this, I’m guessing that you’ve put in more than your fair share of hours on a well-worn literary path.

But while we might all be developing a ton of familiarity with a medium we adore, that level of exposure is going to result in the occasional result of fried brains and exhausted eyeballs. You know what I’m talking about. Those periods of time when you feel like all you’re doing is starting books and then setting them aside, or you feel like you’ll never find anything good to read again, or when you go to your favorite library or bookstore and instead of diving wholeheartedly into whatever volumes you can get your hands on, you find yourself staring out the window at the world going by.

Rest assured that this is perfectly normal behavior – in fact, we’d all be worried about you if it didn’t happen occasionally. The thing about good readers is that they don’t just become good readers because all they care about is books. They become good readers because they care about the human condition, and the world of ideas, and the myriad number of ways we all manage to stumble through this life despite its extraordinary challenges. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of single devoted reader I know who isn’t also a person who cares deeply about the world around him. Such a person isn’t being true to himself if he doesn’t put his books down and/or look up from his computer screens regularly to read the world. It’s a version of outside reading that is as essential as any forays we might take into trying to understand new perspectives and terrains between the pages of a book.

Maybe, like me, you used to feel shame-faced calling yourself a reader during those times when your bedside table was littered with neglected volumes, all of them sitting there like so many pathetically abandoned puppies. Maybe you still do. But I think these periods of literary ennui are just one way the world has of calling you to go out into it and read something other than books for a while. And when it does, I hope you throw your shoes on (or not) and seize the opportunity to run out into it without looking back. It’s the world that goes by too quickly, after all. The books will always be there.

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