I read newspapers in the day, but I only permit myself books in the evening.
I’m not the only person like this. In fact, this phenomenon led my women’s group, for the first time in over 25 years together, to create an experiment.
The idea was born after one woman asked about our reading habits. “Do you read for pleasure during the day?” she inquired.
For the full-time workers among us, the answer was “no.” But several members are retired now, and for them, the answers varied widely, from one friend, 83, who spends most of the day reading novels to another woman and me who confessed that we feel guilty if we open a book in the daytime at all.
My explanation for the guilt, which sounded silly as soon as I said it, was something along the lines of “the day is for accomplishing things,” not for pleasure.
If I read during the day, I feel like a sloth. I should be food shopping, mowing the lawn, setting up propane delivery for our cabin and, of course, writing.
One friend was astonished. “I would have thought that it’s practically part of your job to read.”
“What could possibly be on your to do list that is more valuable than reading?” asked the friend who reads all day.
In the end, we decided that for one week, each of us would change something about our reading habits. For me, that meant I would read books during the day.
I choose a book recommended by a friend, Chiefs by Stuart Wood, part suspense novel, part character study—just my cup of tea. My plan is to read for half an hour every day during daylight hours.
At 3:30 I sit down in my chair. I read for 10 minutes but then start feeling antsy. I get up for a snack and return with my cookie to the couch, which is more comfortable. My book takes a detour into Georgia politics in 1919 that doesn’t interest me. I close my eyes for a moment.
Twenty minutes later, the phone jangles me awake. I have 15 minutes of reading to go, but I decide to stop early. My husband says he’ll be home soon, and he might catch me reading. Even though I have given myself permission to read in the daytime, I don’t know how he feels on the subject.
He rarely does it himself. Do we both follow an unwritten law: day is for work, evening for pleasure?
I realize in a jolt that the experiment has completely slipped my mind. Hoping that I’ve read anyway, I review the last few days. No, only a magazine on Thursday. Friday I went kayaking. Every day I spent a lot of time at the computer. When I read before bed, it was only for a few minutes.
This research on myself is getting more puzzling: I feel as if I started out to investigate a smudge on the floor and discovered a den of termites. My big discovery? I don’t read for pleasure in the evenings as much as I thought.
Has reading slipped down my food chain? Is the computer, and email in particular, at fault?
I open my novel at 2:30. The main character, a police chief I’ve grown very fond of, gets murdered. Part 2 begins with a bad guy taking over his position and gunning for African-Americans. I wince. I look out the window. Don’t the birds need more seed in the feeders? Shouldn’t I clean the gutters before the rain?
Don’t I need to start next week’s column?
I have a pressing desire to stop reading before my 30 minutes are up. I’m filled with tension as the rogue police chief attacks a black man.
This brings new insight. How often do I get stalled, not because of my own idiosyncrasies, but because of what’s in the book? I’m the kind of person who will toss aside a book I don’t like and pick up a new one. But when a novel is well-written but painful, I stay with it—slowed to a crawl. My desire to know what happens fights with my desire to avoid pain.
Sometimes my “to do” list becomes my rescuer, and I put aside the book to “accomplish things,” even at night.
I often forget the plots of novels soon after I finish them, anyway, which is another reason I don’t allow myself to read. I say to myself, “What good is it, if I forget?”
But picking up knowledge about an era is different. The book I’m reading has transported me into the deep South, 1919-1962. I’ll retain the essence of this experience, even if I forget every detail about the plot. Today I read for 40 minutes in daylight, despite a lengthy “to do” list, and I don’t feel guilty for a moment.
I’m nearing the end of my novel, fascinated by the characters in Part 3. I’ll be darned if I’m going to wait till the evening to finish. My newspapers sit on the table, untouched. Half an hour passes. The phone rings.
Be quiet. I’m reading.