When think about what activity outside of work has occupied the most hours of the alone time in my life, there is no question about it: reading. I estimate that I have on average read a book a week for pleasure for at least 50 years. That is about 2,600 books. I am not counting half-read books, books required for my education, reading for work and so forth.
Of course, I am not always alone when I read. In fact, I find I can read with concentration and enjoyment almost anywhere, anytime. When I read, as when I think, it is difficult to distract me. Although this focus might make reading appear to be an obsession, but I believe it would be more accurate to describe it as a compulsion. I always start looking for and gathering the next book before I finish the one I’m reading, and it is rare that if I get past the first 50 pages of any book, I will finish it.
There is a thrill about starting a new book that has never diminished over time. In fiction, I am entering a tiny world created entirely by another mind, populated by characters created to tell a story, to reveal themselves in ways that turn reality inside out. With non-fiction it is an imagined space that can contain the thoughts, ideas, concepts, opinions, arguments – all analogues of the writers version of the world.
I’m not a reading snob; I read broadly and if I try to pin down the genre, it is far easier to identify what I do not read than what I do. I don’t read westerns, romance novels, explicitly religious fiction – those I can say off the top of my head. But I love crime novels, spy novels, historical fiction novels, science fiction, literary novels, speculative fiction, classics, translated fiction, poetry and so on. I am an adventurous reader, but not undemanding – it must be well-written. Like Martin Amis, I deplore cliché.
When I talk to people about reading, I always hear, “I should read more.” My response is always the same. “You don’t understand” I say, “reading is my escape, my enjoyment – not an effort.” I sometimes like to roughly quote Emerson: “It is as easy for a strong man to be strong as a weak to be weak.” It is wrong to take pride in something you do that would require an effort NOT to do!