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.