Happiness is a good book.

My chief resolution for September is “Focus on books” because I love books so much, yet, too often, they get crowded out of my day.

As a consequence, one of my goals for the month is to attack a particular pile by my bed, one that’s been getting taller and taller—books I think of as “challenging.” Glancing at the stack, I see Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, Henri Bergson’s Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Elaine Scarry’s Dreaming by the Book, Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, and so on.

Now, I very much want to read each of these books. So why have I been procrastinating? I’ve realized that, just as happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy, fascinating books can often be quite boring.

For instance, right now I’m reading an extraordinary book called A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, which sets forth principles of house, building, neighborhood, and city design. I know nothing about this subject, but a description of the book intrigued me, and when I picked it up, I was blown away. It’s like no other book I’ve ever seen—but not gimmicky or obscure. It has an intricate, brilliant structure, with each section interwoven with the other sections in a way that lends great clarity to the arguments.

Just reading the chapter headings worked on me strongly: “Cascade of roofs,” “Half-hidden garden,” “Something roughly in the middle,” “Staircase as stage,” “Tree places,” “Garden growing wild,” “Child caves.”

But even though I love reading A Pattern Language, and can’t wait to pick it up, I can easily put it down. It’s fascinating yet boring, too.

Another reason that I’ve been procrastinating with this pile is that sometimes a book can be so absorbing that it’s painful to read. It arouses so many thoughts, and demands so much concentration and appreciation, that it’s hard for me to take in more than a few pages at a time. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Georges Bataille’s The Accursed Share: Consumption, are in this category. I’ve read them several times, but each time, it takes great effort even though those books are among my favorites. I’m so interested to read Crowds and Power that I’ve read much of Canetti’s other work, just trying to work myself up to that one book.

I also put off reading the challenging books because they slow down the volume of books I read. Last week, it took me less than two days to read Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, because I was reading it in every possible free moment. (If you haven’t read Fight Club or seen the movie, do it this weekend.) I’ve been reading A Pattern Language for four days now, and still have quite a bit to go. I have to remind myself that good reading is about different kinds of qualities, not just quantity.
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On the very day I’m thinking about happiness and reading, I happened to discover an intriguing blog called The Happy Booker. I’m eager to dive in and see what’s there.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • http://www.monicaricci.typepad.com Monica Ricci

    Gretchen, like you, I am an avid reader. I was reading at aboout the age of 3.5 and I will read just about anything I pick up and can be at least somewhat interested in it. But lately, (like the past five years I’d say) I have not been reading books nearly as much as I had been, and when I was reading, they were always business or self-improvement/success type books.
    I was thinking how much I used to love to read and how odd it is that I just left it behind. Then it hit me. I am still reading A LOT… it’s just that I’m not reading nearly as many BOOKS. I’m reading online.
    Articles, blogs, web sites, and stuff like that. So I am actually still feeding my love of reading and information, it’s just not in book form. Whew, when I realized that, it made a lot more sense and I didn’t feel so bad!
    ~Monica

  • http://www.kentblumberg.com Kent Blumberg

    I am an avid reader, too. And I, too, have a large pile waiting to be read.
    A few years ago I decided there was just no way I would ever read everything I wanted to – too many new books come along to tempt me every week. So I made a little rule that has increased my enjoyment of reading and reduced my guilt at not getting through the pile. That rule was to give each book 100 pages to draw me in. If I was still having trouble getting excited about the next time I would pick up the book, out it went.
    A year ago, after another birthday reminded me that I probably don’t have forever to read, I cut my “fish or cut bait” limit to 50 pages. Either an author sucks me in within the first hour or so, or on to the next one.
    The truth is that there are more than enough books out there that pass the 50 page test, so why waste my time on the others? Sounds harsh, but reading is again giving me happiness without guilt.

  • http://www.musetomuse.com frida

    Pattern Language is one of my favorite books, but I skip around in it picking up bits and pieces. I need to go straight through from start to finish. It’s a most humane book.

  • Anthony

    A Pattern Language is a fascinating book, a book which changed the way I look at buildings and cities. I think, however, you are being a bit hard on yourself when you say you have been reading for four days and still have quite a way to go before you finish it.
    It is a long book and one that I think is best taken in small doses. The book is so full of ideas and those ideas need a little pondering to appreciate fully. As Bacon said, “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested”. A Pattern Language belongs to that last category.

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