Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Why I Don't Read Many Books Anymore (And Why Maybe You Should Read Less Too)

This article almost didn't get written.

Not because I was forgetful (well, I can be quite forgetful about many things, like I would walk upstairs to take something and then totally forgetting what it was once I reached my bedroom, but I never forget about my pledge to publish three articles per month).

Nor was it because I was caught up with work (well, I do keep myself pretty busy with all kinds of stuff daily, but I always reserve time to write no matter how busy I am).

Nor was it because I was short of ideas (well, I do sometimes struggle to string sentences together on certain days, but not a week passes where my mind is not assailed by flashes of inspiration).

Truth be told, I was feeling rather lazy and distracted. It was this new book a friend insisted on passing to me over the weekend.

Once A Reader

'Neverwhere' is not one of Neil Gaiman's finest works (perhaps it has something to do with it being his first solo book). The story is rather simple, the characters rather bland. Yet, it was still gripping enough to keep my eyes from shutting at hours past midnight. Neil has a way of spinning words and creating worlds to trap the most disciplined of minds.

Within 36 hours, I finished reading the book.

Yes, I can be quite a voracious reader. Which may somewhat surprise people whenever I tell them that nowadays I only read about 3 books a year (and can go for months without reading any, given my tendency to plow through books non-stop from page one).

Yes, I used to read a lot, growing up as a kid. And I continued reading a lot when I was in studying in university and started working.

But then one day, I stopped reading books.

I chose to start writing instead.

Beware of reading - you can lose yourself in neverwhere for nevermore

Cover art of 'Neverwhere' by Anne Meier

Now A Writer

Why stop reading? Couldn't I do both reading and writing?

Yes, I could, of course. But I somehow felt that reading - paradoxically enough - was harming my own writing, in several ways:

1. Reading can waste your time and energy

This one's obvious, of course. The more time and energy I spend on reading, the less time and energy I have for writing. The more I consume, the less I create. And that's not good. I have spent the last 25 years reading and living in other people's dreams. Now's time to write my own stories and create my own worlds.

2. Reading can make you addicted and unproductive

Just like everyone else, I'm a sucker for stories. Even if the writing is mediocre, I'm easily hooked (I speed-read Dan Brown's 'Angels & Demons' in a single night at a sleepover). If we're not careful, reading can be as empty as watching soap-operas. Sure, they're entertaining, but do they really enrich our lives? Maybe it's just me reading too much too fast. Too much of anything can make you sick and bored. Reading more wasn't enriching my life any more than downing the tenth pint of beer for the night. I had to curb my excessive reading addiction.

3. Reading can stifle your writing and thinking

This happens to a lot of writers. We tend to mimic the writing style and thought process of our favourite authors. Nothing wrong with that, but if we religiously follow their words too closely, the words will imprint themselves onto our minds. We become copycats. We lose our own identities. No, I can't let that happen to me. Reading became a stifling blanket. My mind wanted to get out and break free.

Drawing A Line In The Sand

I know, most accomplished writers will always advise aspiring writers to read, read and never stop reading books. Somehow, that didn't quite work for me.

Or rather: reading did help me initially to expand my horizons, but after swimming long enough, it began to dawn upon me that the world is a giant globe and I'm swimming in circles and passing the same old horizons a dozen times over.

Or simply put: reading does help expand your imagination and develop your skills, but after a tipping point, it can become more of a hindrance.

There's only so many art museums an artist can visit.

There's a point of time when you have to stop sightseeing, pitch a tent at a deserted island somewhere, pluck out your magical paintbrushes and palette sprayed with more colours than the human eye can see, and draw your own damn horizons.

True enough, I became a better writer only after I controlled my reading.

If only art museums were this fun in real life

Read Well, Read Wisely

Actually, I still do read a lot of on a daily basis. Non-fiction stuff like news and articles. They're my main source of information and inspiration. It's amazing how fact can often be stranger and more interesting than fiction (yes, this is a rant at the state of modern fiction, but I'll save the rant for another day).

I'm not trying to discourage people from reading. I'm just saying that it's not enough to read, read and read. We need to read selectively and wisely.

This advice doesn't just apply to writers, but everyone who hopes to learn something from reading. Say you want to be a techpreneur. There's only so many books on Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg you can read. Sooner or later, you have to chuck away the books and start building something for real.

Yes, reading is good. But aimless reading can be bad. Read to learn. And if you're not learning anything new from reading, you're not reading right and should probably stopped reading altogether. (Yes, reading can also be fun, but given that there are so many other fun things out there which offer 10x more fun, you're better off catching full sensory experiences if all you're after is fun. Take Dan Brown's stories: given a choice, I would just watch the movies instead of reading the novels - more fun, less time.)

Choose what to read carefully. Choose how much time you spend reading efficiently.

Read stuff that will enrich your life.

And above all, read stuff that will inspire you to create new stuff that will enrich the lives of others.

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