Earlier this year, I quietly set out to prove Steve Jobs wrong. You may remember what I’m talking about: in that inimitably dismissive way that he has, the Apple CEO rejected the idea that the Amazon Kindle held much promise, contending that “Americans don’t read anymore.” It wasn’t that I wanted to prove him wrong on the Kindle (a product for which I find it hard to muster much enthusiasm). Rather, I wanted to disprove at least for myself his statement that “the fact is that people don’t read anymore.”
Jobs argued, “Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year.” But somewhere along the way I got it in my head that to really prove anything to, well, myself, then I’d have to read a book a month, at least. So it’s two-thirds of the way through the year now. Here’s my progress.
Things got off to a shaky start early in the year; I didn’t really feel committed to this personal test until February, at least, and even then I started off by reading “Conversations with Woody Allen.” It was a fascinating document of several decades of the director’s thinking, but it didn’t actually make for challenging reading material. Worse, it sent me on several detours in front of my television, as I spent much of the following months watching as many films from Allen’s back catalog as I could. As it turns out, watching movies is not a great way to get books read.
However, when I finished that, I picked up a copy of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” which I’d never read before. It was satisfyingly rich and harrowingly beautiful, but between traveling and work, it took me much longer than it should have to get fully immersed into its story. My dallying through the early chapters aside though, Capote’s prose eventually proved as irresistibly gripping as I’d always been told. By the final chapters, I was fully into the rhythm of devouring as many pages as I could on a regular schedule.
Since then, I’ve powered through a handful of books, most of them admittedly of lighter fare: “A General Theory of Love,” a fascinating, scientific analysis of emotional health with a terrible title; “But Didn’t We Have Fun?,” an historical account of baseball’s first several decades (I could read books about baseball history all day); and “The Ten-Cent Plague,” a truly excellent, unprecedentedly thoughtful look at how and why American society came to demonize comic books in the mid-twentieth century.
Right now I’m in the home stretch with “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,” a procedural re-creation of an infamous domestic murder that took place in nineteenth century Britain. More than just a non-fiction crime novel, it takes a close look at how that particular tragedy and its public reception reflected modern society’s evolving understanding of crime, family life and privacy. Another ninety pages, and it’ll be my sixth book for the year.
The Moral of the Story
The list, as you can see, is starving for a bit of fiction. It’s true that my natural reading habit these days is overwhelming biased towards non-fiction. In fact, I have nothing against novels or short stories; it’s just not often that I come across fiction that draws me in, and I admit I have less patience for it than I’d like. However, queued up after “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,” is a fresh copy of Nam Le’s “The Boat,” the hotly-tipped debut collection of short stories from a young Vietnamese-Australian author (it was a gift from a friend, but I had actually put it into my Amazon queue not long beforehand). It’s sitting on my night table next to Richard Price’s “Lush Life,” a novel of the Bloomberg-era Lower East Side of Manhattan (yes, it’s an era now) that I’ve also been fitfully, erratically reading for some months.
Granted, I’m clearly not leading the world of ideas with this reading list, but it sets the stage for more challenging fare. Now that reading is a daily habit for me for the first time in at least a decade, I can feel myself getting incrementally more ambitious in what I choose. Even with this catalog though, I’m proud of at least the fact that my days are filled with more reading than ever, Somewhat perversely even, I now rather relish long subway commutes, halting bus rides, even inept layovers when flying — and it’s not unusual for me to turn off the computer, even, and spend time on the couch with whatever book I’m currently reading. Which is to say, I’m reading again and I like it. Take that, Steve Jobs.