Benjamin Percy has the kind of self-discipline I aspire to. When faced with a list of "100 Books You Should Have Read," he buried his nose in pages until he had made it through all one hundred — in a single school year.
If you read the entire essay, however, you see that Percy doesn't think of what he did as much of an accomplishment. Even though he read like a fiend, he barely remembered anything about the books and he definitely didn't learn anything from them. It wasn't until he started reading slowly — painfully slowly — that he started to grasp what was in front of him.
That's a hard pill to swallow in the information age. For me (and probably for anyone reading this blog post), the impulse to read fast, to skim, is always there, tapping away at my elbow. I check Twitter over and over, at least partly because I'm afraid that I might miss something important. That same drive makes a lot of people read quickly to get the "point" of an article or essay or story and move on. It's a sort of gluttony, really. Info-tainment.
I mentioned this a few months ago when I posted about The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, but it's worth bringing up again: re-reading is a criminally undersung habit these days. Re-reading, both for pleasure and to get at the heart of what makes a good book good.
I love all of Percy's essay, and I've read it several times, but the part that really jumps out to me is this:
I realized—as do so many in their twenties—that no matter how swiftly I turned the pages, I wasn’t going to make my way through all the books I ought or wanted to read.
This sentence is almost physically painful to me, even though I know it's true. I have a burning desire to accomplish everything I "ought and want" to do, no matter how grandiose those dreams are or how incompatible they are with one another. Now that I'm chugging through my twenties, what hit Percy is starting to hit me as well, and not just about reading, but about everything in my life. As a seventy-year-old man, I will most likely have opportunities I will regret not having pursued, stories I will regret not have written down. There just won't be enough time to get everything done, no matter how worthy it is. Bitter disappointment.
Of course, it's pretty silly to think that way. What am I, immortal? The line must be drawn somewhere, as Sir Joseph Porter KCB says (in different circumstances, granted). One day, I'll go the way of all the earth. Let it be enough to read one great book, to write one passable essay or memorable poem, and live with that. In this instance, one thing done well is worth a hundred done poorly.