Stop Binge-Watching And Start Binge-Reading. I Read 300 Books Last Year And Am Smarter Because Of It
If you’re anything like me, most of your conversations over the past week have involved somebody binging on media (right now, House of Cards dominates, usually with a bad Southern accent thrown in for free). But what if those conversations were just a little bit different? Imagine a coworker bragging about all the Woodrow Wilson biographies they inhaled over the weekend. Or try to fathom this Facebook post: “OMG, who needs Valentine’s Day. Just read three books about the history of ballooning.” We have no problem gorging on TV, but books aren’t the same. They should be. I know because I’m a binge-reader.
Over the past eight months, I’ve read more than 300 books on a wide range of subjects. It’s not because I’m intellectually pure—I was conducting research for a trivia site, Trivia Happy, and original research was the best way to avoid regurgitating the internet’s favorite facts. But a funny thing happened over the course of my bizarre experiment as I plunged into books about Liszt, Ben & Jerry’s, and everything in between. I realized that bingeing on books is a better way to read.
It wasn’t easy coming to that conclusion. I’ve always been an avid reader, but my book list was carefully curated because I valued my time. I read top-shelf fiction (usually only the stuff on the cover of a book review) as well as the occasional “hot” book that was excerpted in some magazine (and that was generally in my interest area). I would have loved to read more, but my time limited how voracious I could be. I read the things that made me feel smart or like I was a part of a bigger conversation. I knew the rest was out there, but I was too busy for it. Then I started bingeing.
What does it mean to binge on a book? It means you feed yourself without regard for the crumbs you might leave on the table. If you ask a House of Cards fan what happened in Season 2, Episode 4, they’ll have no idea because they gorged too quickly. Binge-reading is the same thing, but with books. Practically, it can mean everything from skimming opening and closing paragraphs to completely skipping the stuff you don’t like. Personally, I’ve always hated the genealogical sections of biographies, where you’re forced to read about some historical figure’s great-grandmother in the Scottish highlands. I don’t think they’re bad, it’s just a matter of taste, the same way some people don’t like pistachio ice cream. So when I binge-read, I skip that part of the book. Occasionally, bingeing means putting down the book completely and moving right onto the next.
It sounds vaguely immoral, doesn’t it? For a lot of reasons, we have an immensely more prudish approach to books than we do to other media. Maybe it’s a holdover from schooling, when skipping anything in a book made us feel like we’d get a bad grade. Or perhaps we’ve internalized the criticism that anything we skip makes us dumber for it. Those are valid reasons to be scared of bingeing, but they aren’t reasons not to do it. In fact, bingeing is a better way of reading. Instead of trying to please our books, we should let our books please us.
During my year of reading quickly, I discovered new books because I was no longer burdened by the need to find the “perfect” book that I could read meticulously. My intellect broadened and deepened as a result. The old me might have read the headline-grabbing Wilson, but I never would have run into Richard Korman’s fantastic and bizarre biography of Charles Goodyear. My life is better because I know that Goodyear liked to walk the city in rubber pants. In the same vein, I would have assumed that Tamara Mellon’s memoir, In My Shoes, was about, well, shoes, which I don’t know anything about. Instead, I discovered a celebrity-packed book with surprisingly intricate retellings of corporate battles. Reading quickly let me be willing to try the books I never would have. It freed me to be surprised.
If you’re still offended, I understand. But even the purists out there should know that reading fast can lead to reading better. There’s probably a voice inside you that worries about disrespecting an author by skimming their work, but isn’t it more disrespectful to never try it at all? As an author myself, I know that I’d kill for my books to have the opportunity to prove themselves. At the same time, if somebody doesn’t like my book, I want them to put it down and have more fun. Who among us hasn’t had a month-long block on a bad book? Allow yourself to skip it and learn something instead of spending weeks where all you do with your book is crease its binding. If a book is worth reading slowly, it will let you know. I went into James Gleick’s The Information looking for facts, and I got them. But I also slowed down and let his arguments and data wash over me. It wasn’t a luxury—the writing made it a necessity, and it will for you too when a book is special enough.
Binge-reading is easier than ever. My local library has a limit of 30 (30!) books you can check out at one time, and the Chicago Public librarians have been unfailingly courteous. Go to your local bookstore and browse indiscriminately, try sections you haven’t before, and pick up that one weird book that’s on sale. If that’s too much work, you can get chapter-long samples of books on most e-readers. Stock up! There’s no reason not to, and you have so much to gain if you do. Stop feeling guilty and start learning. We all know that Netflix starts playing the next episode before you have a chance to say no. Have some books ready so that you have a chance to say yes.