Most of What You’re Reading is Probably a Waste of Time

As an admitted book snob, I can tell you that not all reading is equal in merit or usefulness. We writers read to learn and improve our craft, as well as enrich our understanding of the world and how people think, but not every book, magazine, newspaper, or blog is going to provide these important things. And yet more and more, we find ourselves devoting more time to the reading material that is useless to us than to the reading that could really help us.

How we get pulled into wasteful reading.

It happens like this: in the morning after breakfast I sit down at my computer, intending to check the usual sites and feeds before I get to the day’s work. It’s an important orienting ritual for the day, as old a tradition as the morning newspaper. The problem is that the ritual is getting longer, more random, more distracting, and more dis-orienting than orienting. We find ourselves reading a list of the top ten movies featuring sandwiches, or a collection of photos of other people’s cats with funny captions; we read through fifteen promotional emails for sales and deals and coupons; we click through ten or more links for disappointing articles. If we were to see the promises of these articles in a book, we would turn away without reading; but the particularly tempting nature of the internet means that we can’t resist.

Bad writing is everywhere.

And that’s only the beginning of the day; after wasting more time than we expect in this way, we still have a stack of good old-fashioned books to read that could be equally useless. There’s the flavor-of-the-month book, the one your friends tell you is the best thing they’ve ever read, but is actually trite and over-done. There’s the dry intellectual text you told yourself to read in college that has little connection to the kind of writing you’re doing now. There’s the writing that’s simply bad, and that we continue to read anyway: bad newspapers, bad magazines (truly awful magazines), bad blogs. There are the stories or articles we read because they comfortably confirm our own world views; there are the articles with the pictures we want to see; there are the articles that indulge in our desire for wish-fulfillment or even (let’s face it) physical arousal. All of these forms of writing sate us in one way or another; but they don’t make us better writers, and that’s why I call them a waste of time.

After the jump: how to choose your reading more wisely.

How to choose your reading.

I’m not scolding; after all, we technically “waste” huge chunks of our days in other ways, from eating food we don’t need to watching television we shouldn’t, to sleeping later than we should. This is life; this is normal. But because we only have so much time and brainpower for reading, we should be choosing what we read more wisely. First, I’m taking steps to shorten my morning routine. Instead of moving laboriously through all of my feeds and reading any link that remotely interests me, I’m opening more critically, doing a little anticipation of what the link is likely to hold. Then I’m saving the link to read later, using services like Quiet Read or Safari’s new Reading List feature. It lets me be in greater control over what I read and what I decide is not worth my time.

This critical eye has to go toward traditional books as well. When people ask me, “Have you read the latest so-and-so?” I’m afraid I usually have to say no; but that doesn’t mean I’m at all opposed to contemporary writing. Instead, I can usually tell the person about some great new book that is less-known, but far more rewarding. Just like with great music or movies, finding the best new stuff often means going underground or indie, searching for what is bold, different, and unconventional. These fresh forms of creativity will help stimulate your own creativity; and you won’t find yourself disappointed, yet again, with the pick of the month.


19 comments

  1. Bob Mayer says:

    Ah, a student of creative writing. Can it be taught? Or does it need to be lived?
    I believe it is a craft that can be learned, and then once the craft is mastered, it can become art.
    But one man’s art is another man’s junk.

    As someone who has some experience in writing and reading, actually quite a bit more than you, I’d suggest you refrain from making posts about other people’s writing being trite and overdone. It’s not very neighborly in the writing community. You might be talking about my book.

  2. Lily says:

    Probably commenting on your post is a waste of my time, just another example of how the Internet sucks us in and allows us to fritter away our days. Despite that, I enjoy thinking about these topics and you’ve at least given me a push ton consider my own actions this morning. Plus I’m about to get up and walk away from the Evil Beast.

    I don’t think saving articles for later is the best answer. It’s one step from hoarders who save newspapers to read them later. Not piling up future work for ourselves is a better idea. Be a more effective skimmer, not a reader. The headline is the hook, but if you read the first paragraph, you’ve got the measure of the article. Be strong and dump it then.

    A huge number of books have nothing much inside, but providing entertainment for the world is not necessarily a bad thing. It just doesn’t make either the author or the reader an expert in what does or does not waste time.

  3. Stephanie Scott says:

    Like Lily said, saving articles for later seems more of a lost cause than skimming articles and investing only in what you find interesting. I skim all the time. The mark of good writing is to get me to care about a topic I previously had no interest in.

    I’m a little put off by the attitude that whatever everyone else is reading is not as worthwhile as digging deeper into the indie scene. Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” is a great example of a clever and entertaining book with mass appeal.

    So maybe you’re above “The Help.” That’s fine. I’m sure you’re probably above Young Adult fiction too, but you’re missing one of the best books of the year, “The Fault in our Stars” by John Green. But if that’s too commercial for you I can suggest something more indie. 😉

  4. Sadly, this is so true. There are nights I pledge to write or read something on my reading list that get lost to mindless surfing. I actively work to challenge my beliefs by reading outside of my comfort zone, but that takes work. I don’t know how TV survives in the era of the internet. It’s a much greater timesuck than even daytime television.

  5. John says:

    For some weird reason, after I survived stage IV cancer, I didn’t want to listen to NPR anymore, which I had done previously for years. I think I just didn’t want to get an earful of news but instead focus only on what mattered, even though NPR is a great show. That was in 2009. Still haven’t listened to it once. Weird, I guess!

  6. If I had my way, all I would read would be classics, older sci-fi and Agatha Christie. However, as a writer, I have to keep abreast of the latest writing trends/styles (ie: dialogue tagging has CHANGED in the last 100 years!). I’d be a fool not to read modern fiction in my genre. Thankfully, it doesn’t mean I have to imitate it completely.

    And we have to keep in mind that some of those contemporary books will BE classics someday. At least, I hope so…

    Great post!

  7. mary brady says:

    BLH–I’m with you on this post. There is only so much time in our lives. Much of it will be wasted on spacing out because it is needed. However, I’ve opened the old laptop too many times intending to spend 20 minutes TOPS–and found myself coming out of a stupor 2 hours later with zip to show for it.

    I only read your blog. That’s it. And, as you know, I go my own route re: books. Luckily, I do not teach writing, so I am not expected to keep up with ‘current lit,’ as you must be. Still, why must one ‘stay current’ with new writers? Aren’t we supposed to have our own styles?

    In the 2012 Pushcart Prizes, there is an EXCELLENT essay about the MFA ‘guild’ & its ‘masters.’ I hope you comment on it. It basically compares how authors used to have a variety of jobs (wrangler, gas pump jockey, saw mill operator, etc.) before getting down to only writing.

    Now, authors’ bios on the dust jackets list their literary awards, where they got their MFAs, whether they’re members of the Creative Writing ‘Guild.’ I really want to read your take on it.

    I’ve missed reading you!

    L&K, MaryB

  8. Ann Marie says:

    I don’t agree (that most reading is a waste of time). If you know what you like, and you choose to read a book, you’re going to know to some degree if you like it enough to continue reading it or not. When I begin a book, I can usually tell in the first couple of pages, if I feel it’s a waste of time or not. Of course, like everyone, I’ve had moments of “Why did I just read that?”. Usually it’s a article or something on the internet. But to see “Most of What You’re Reading is Probably a Waste of Time” is so negetive sounding. Sorry, maybe I’m being a bit of a book snob, but we all can choose what we read.

  9. Siobhan Mealey says:

    I have to say, despite being a bit picky in my reading material, I can’t honestly say that I agree with you. Reading under any circumstances that brings to life any topic, no matter how poorly written or mundane the form, stimulates the imagination and, indeed, the soul. I’m not talking here about silly internet articles but the puff-popular-fiction that most snobs walk past in the local bookshop mainly because it’s on the bestseller list; just because it doesn’t challenge you as an individual does not mean it’s a waste of time. Books bring people joy, and if I see my mum ripping through a Martina Cole book, I smile. Literature is working exactly as it should, because she’s engaged with the plot, the characters and at once with the greater world of literature. There’s being choosy, then there’s being an unwarranted prig, and I feel that most of this post falls into the latter camp. Read Joseph Gold’s ‘Read for Your Life’ for a genuinely valuable perspective on this issue, it’s worth every penny!

  10. SortingHat says:

    You do know that the entire infrastructure of the web was a government funded project back in the 60s as a backup form of communication in case the Soviet Union took out the US Power Grid right?

    The reason why it’s a waste of time now is because in the end of the Clinton Era world governments started being busy making profiles of people *even you and me* to make assumptions on who is a *terrorist* and who isn’t and when they feel comfortable they will release the technology that allows us to live in virtual worlds like Second Life to the point we forget what the *Real* world is.

    The only people that is allowed on most forums are usually talking points to sell a product to you which if you disagree and point out the truth you will get banned or blocked. Facebook and Yahoo are heavy on censorship and have been caught red handed many times over censoring mostly Christians and Conservatives.

    The government wants to go the route of putting the computer inside YOU and making it so they can have a *kill switch* like with cell phones while you live in their virtual world if you say anything that upsets their balance they can have you go *bye bye* and nobody would even notice it being too engaged in virtual crap.

    There was a time were cell phones were actually banned due to causing cancer but then big industry decided to rush it forward and there is more cancer cases then ever thru the 90s that makes AIDS seem like nothing. *which is why you hardly ever hear about AIDS anymore* to distract us from a real threat to making us wonder how to stop cancer.

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