The year I spent reading fewer books.
Alan Watts's The Wisdom of Insecurity & François Truffaut's The 400 Blows.
December’s book of the month:
The Wisdom of Insecurity
by Alan Watts
The year I spent reading fewer books
And it taught me a lot about myself.
This year I’ve seen a lot of “trending” content online about being able to read more books in a short length of time. And being able to absorb more information from that reading as well. Modernity equates knowledge with speed and volume. And it’s understandable why that should be because we are specimens of the information age. But what about consistency and patience?
I’ll admit that that person who thought she could “hack” her reading skills was me about a year ago. I’ve seen plenty of videos and read articles about new reading techniques - to be able to read more. But now, a year later, I find those same hacks extremely counter-productive.
2020 was the year of reading fewer books.
I did have to make an effort to read fewer books. While reading fewer books is mentally-stimulating and takes the pressure off, it is a practice. To consciously practice letting go, to deepen the act of reading rather than double up the number of books to read - that was my lesson.
I’ve never had a maximalist philosophy towards anything - including my likes, dislikes, passions, friends, and books. My interests can never be enormously quantified. They are, if anything, in effect, more intense and vivid. So it’s only natural for my reading skills to evolve to what truly serves me; a reading list that isn’t lengthy but rewarding and penetrating in equal measure.
But I often wonder - why the fascination with reading a high number of books?
Each time I come up with an answer, it’s always a new one. To be able to show to the world that one is “well-read.” To gather as much information as possible and then draw parallels to what can be applied to one’s life. To find in an enormous capacity of reading a value of some kind to communicate with others. To equate the sheer volume of how much one reads to one’s self-worth. I could go on and on.
Close-reading of just a few books is more powerful than a shallow knowledge of many. And the one thread that snaps first when you think of reading fewer books is our understanding of ambition.
The minimalist approach to reading is what we can also take with us into other aspects of living. To simplify, unburden, and then transcend. The ambition to want to know everything is a disease that often ends in misery, anxiety, and guilt. The antidote to it is consistency and patience. I might introspect my reading choices rather than find some form of external validation for them. This is one way that my reading fewer books in 2020 has led me to lead a private and authentic existence.
Every sentence, every page echoes in the knowledge that I read to feel the words and to feel comforted. This is, at least for me, a far more complete and mindful kind of ambition.
Even though I can never stop buying new books, I no longer feel the need to chase the knowledge that I know each book possesses. And that, in itself, is its own kind of nourishment and comfort. Knowing that I have finally created this safe space for myself while ridding myself of the guilt and restlessness and impatience of craving to read a lot.
If you need to translate this freedom of reading fewer books, my experience says that it’s easier to categorize your reading than categorize your books. That way your reading will be more in tune with what you sit with at the end of the day.
Personal libraries are never simple. They define a reader beyond words, feelings, and expectations. But what stays, is seen floating over the horizon, is the thing we often forget exists in every reader’s reality:
How to live and breathe the books one reads by way of contemplation, awareness, and non-judgment.
What it’s not is how to get through as many books as one can in the hopes that it might, one day, shape one’s life.
The former relies on the present moment which is far more nurturing and satisfying. While the latter harbors feelings of anticipation and restlessness at what could be and so it forces the reader to lose complete awareness of the here and now.
Ayesha’s film recommendation
The 400 Blows: The agony of growing up
The 400 Blows is about identity and the extraction of one’s self from conditioned consciousness. The agony of growing up is painful but surviving it is even more harrowing. The film is told in detailed melancholy. It’s expressive, intelligent, and amusing.
It’s at a crossroads between being a sad and poetically-modern film. The kind that redeems itself with every scene, that is, if you’re willing to open yourself up to exploring new dimensions in a black and white film. Because it arrives with a strange longing to be seen and understood. And departs as being one of the greatest and purest films about searching for one’s true identity.
The film is deeply rooted in the experiences of childhood. And the little things that seep into a child’s memory and never let go. It’s possible that as an adult one could make himself invisible and aloof. To remain detached and indifferent to family, society, and his own existence.
The 400 Blows narrows down on a boy’s unknowably silent and stoic existence. And this is what makes the film chilling and unnerving to watch. Even more so as a black-and-white film, under the scrutinizing mastery of Francois Truffaut’s direction and cinematic genius.
From the archive:
Ayesha’s review of The Lonely City by Olivia Laing:
The secret of great stories by Amreen:
Suggested video/article from elsewhere:
1. How To Read and Why’s author, Harold Bloom, on reading and reading well:
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