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

Welcome back to the reader mailbag, writers! I’m finally beginning to catch up with your thoughtful comments, and today I’m responding to the post that stirred up quite a lot of buzz here at Writerly Life — my declaration that Most of what you’re reading is probably a waste of time. In the post, I explained that not all reading is equal; we often get pulled into meaningless reading at the expense of helpful or enriching reading. Readers had plenty to say on the issue, so I’ll just highlight a handful of the comments.

Ann Marie said:

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.

Thanks, Ann Marie. When I read your comment, though, I can’t help think that you actually are agreeing with me. As I mention in the post, you describe the filtering process we’ve all got to get better at using, discarding books or articles that don’t initially seem like quality reading. As you say, we all are experiencing the “why did I just read that?” syndrome more and more — it can eat into our reading and thinking time enormously. Sorry the title was too negative, though — I do feel strongly that our time is being wasted!

Heather Gilbert said:

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!

Thanks, Heather! You make a good point — in spite of all the litter surrounding us, we do have to wade through the junk in order to stay abreast of contemporary fiction. That does mean being careful and critical, picking recommendations from people you trust, reading the reviews, and more. It’s true that times change, and as writers we must stay with the times.

John said:

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!

Thanks for this story, John, and thanks for the reminder of how life events can truly convince to re-evaluative what we want to spend our time on. I understand — for far less compelling reasons than your own, I occasionally am struck by how much empty talk and media I consume, and I’m galvanized to strike it from my life. Who knows why NPR pushed your buttons, but here’s hoping you’re doing something you enjoy with all that newfound time.

Stephanie Scott said:

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.

Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Stephanie. I’m kind of regretting the implication I made in this post that I had all the cool books while others were insufferably lame! Rather, I rely on friends and colleagues to give me those cool indie recommendations. But yes, there’s plenty to love in best-selling writing — I adored “Bossypants” too. The point is to cut out the even more mindless reading — the blog skimming, for example. And yes, saving articles for later can rapidly become problematic.

Bob Mayer said:

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.

Thanks, Bob. I should actually update my profile, which is several years out of date; I have earned my degree and have been a college teacher of creative writing, rather than a student, for a couple of years now. But you make a good point; creative writing is both a craft and an art to me. It’s about experiencing life and reproducing it faithfully; but this faithful reproduction takes study and hard work, understanding the mechanisms behind masterful writing. Teaching the wood cutter how to handle a saw doesn’t kill his innovative ability, in my point of view, but it’s a pretty necessary step.

And as for your other comment about being cautious when criticizing, I will respectfully stand by my comment! Too often, I think the internet has a smoothing effect, pressuring bloggers and reviewers to say bland, uncontroversial things in order to become non-offensive to more people. I find it too political, and antithetical to the hard, bold choices writers should make. Bad books exist, not everyone can be a writer, and I’ll stand by my opinions, while making clear that they are only opinions.

Thanks for all of your comments, and thanks to those I didn’t respond to as well. I never intended to come across as snobby, and I think many readers here have found a similar experience on the internet. Without being careful, our reading attention will be pulled away from us — and we’ll be left wondering where the time went.


  1. mary brady says:

    BLH, you did NOT come across as snobby & I think 99% of your readers understood your point exactly & most likely agreed with you. The mushrooming of blogs along with self-publishing & eBooks has meant that there are pretty much NO filters any longer between the reader & LOADS of potentially crap writing.

    Add to this the ease with which one may jump from story to story via links on the net &–boom–there goes an hour or more of your day down the toilet of trivia. You may see a subject or headline of interest to you, but you have NO idea whether the actual article is of any real value until you read/ skim it & by then it is too late.

    In the realm of published books, anyone of middling intelligence can decide whether they’ll enjoy &/or profit from reading a book by skimming the first few pages &, perhaps, a few in the middle. It is NOT that difficult! (And you are not required to finish a book simply because you started it, despite what Sister Mary Indignation told you in 4th grade.)

    As for Mr. Mayer’s remarks, he entirely missed your point, in my opinion. Further, flaunting the length of time one has slogged away at a particular art form is absolutely irrelevant. And trying to pull rank simply because one is older indicates a real sense of desperation for respect. What a dweeb.

    Thank goodness we are NOT required to be nice to everyone in The Community…

    MaryB, age 60

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