Letting Books Take a Bigger Bite

For many people, summer is the harbinger of long lazy days devoted to reading. Vacationers pour through page-turners and libraries start up their summer reading programs. Contrary to this common trend, I read fewer books this time of year. The reason for this isn’t intuitive: put simply, I read less in the summer because I eat more salad. Gone are the childhood days when I let myself lounge around and read for hours. Adulthood brings with it a mountain of daily tasks and responsibilities that leave little to no room for reading for pleasure. Because of this, I carve out time for books by reading when I eat. Through trial and error, I’ve found that salad and reading don’t mix. Between the constant stabbing of the fork and the errant carrot that stubbornly refuses to surrender to the tines, my eyes are continually distracted from the page. I can usually only get about a paragraph in before I’ve cleaned my plate. Soup, on the other hand, is of a more uniform consistency, allowing me to finish whole chapters uninterrupted. Thus, I tend to read more in the winter. To balance out this seasonal disparity, I wake up a half hour before I start work every day, slowly eat my oatmeal (a relative of soup), sip my tea, and catch up on my reading.

While a half hour a day may keep the reading hunger pangs at bay, it doesn’t make a dent in my bedside book stack. I’ve long ruled out nighttime reading—I’m unable to read more than a sentence or two before conking out. I continue to be frustrated by how few books I’ve read by the end of a year. Of all the priorities in life, why does reading factor in last? I’ve spoken with a handful of my friends who say that they feel guilty whenever they sit down to read, sensing that ever-present to-do list looming over them. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found that 64 percent of Americans read for pleasure only a few times a week or less. For writers especially, reading should be at the top of the to-do list, since a writer’s career success often hinges on two essential habits: writing and reading. And yet, reading is usually an activity we do only after everything else has been crossed off the list.

This past spring, when I was at the tail end of training for my first marathon, I drove out to a remote campsite in the backcountry. Since it was a week before the race, I needed to take a couple rest days. Whenever I go camping, traveling, or vacationing, I always bring a book—and I usually read about two pages of it. Although I set out with the best of intentions, what tends to happen is the carpe diem frenzy takes hold and I think: “I must do ALL of the things!” I hike all the trails, eat all the food, see all the sights, meet all the people. And my lonely book stays tucked away. On this particular camping trip before my marathon, however—because I could do nothing but rest, because I was miles away from civilization, because there was no cell phone reception or internet—I read for two days straight. It was a magical time. But why is it that I have to steal myself away from all distractions before allowing myself time to read?

At the outset of my marathon training, I told my boyfriend I would need him to pick up the slack in household chores so I could make time for a demanding training schedule. He helpfully complied with my terms and I was able to sufficiently prepare for race day. After the marathon was over, however, our routines slid back to normal. I found myself wondering: Why is it that training for a marathon warrants shifting my schedule to prioritize training, but I don’t do the same for reading?

How can we make more time for this critical activity? It has to start with a shift in priorities. I sit down to my soup and salad because I need to eat. But reading feeds a different kind of hunger, especially for writers. Perhaps we should stop treating books like dessert—only indulging after we’ve cleared our full plates. In France, it’s customary to drink an apéritif prior to eating a meal—the idea being that the alcohol stimulates the appetite. The word "apéritif" comes from the Latin verb aperire, which means "to open." Maybe we could apply this idea to reading. By treating a book like an apéritif—reading before tackling the rest of our responsibilities—we’ll open ourselves up to new ways of savoring this simple pleasure.