I read an awful lot. You’d expect that to be the case. I am a professor, and reading is part of the job description. I read a lot, and I read quickly. 500 words per minute is comfortable. I can manage 700 on a good day.
But here’s the thing – I’m not the sort of person who reads a lot of novels. I read some – and more than I have for the past decade (especially since I bought the Kindle) – but not as many as most of my friends.
I like novels, and I sort of half-wish that I would read more of them – but most of the time, there are other things I’d rather be reading. A novel has to really grab me for me to spend time with it – and that happens so rarely. Like – once or twice a year.
I’m a bit of a non-fiction junkie. But more than that, I’m an essay junkie. I like reading essays. For pleasure. To me, the art of writing and storytelling – that art of portraying something about the world and conveying it with skill, emotion and in a way that points to something larger about the universe – that’s at its concentrated best in the essay form.
And it just so happens that I’ve recently stumbled upon the best way to read essays. It involves, as you might expect, technology.
There are some great websites online that point you to some of the best long form writing (‘long form’ referring to stuff that’s more in-depth and thoughtful than your typical newspaper article). I’ve subscribed to those websites in Feedly, my preferred RSS reader.
Every morning, I skim through my RSS feeds to find the best stuff. There aren’t many these days – I’ve sworn off all of the news services, music blogs and sources of funny videos and cat pictures that used to clutter my RSS feeds. I’m just hunting for rewarding, interesting and nutritious stuff. Organic, free range nonfiction writing.
Once I find something I’d like to read, there’s a little tech trick I’ve set up using Pocket, Instapaper, IFTTT and my Kindle. You don’t need to go to those lengths. But in short, if I see an essay that looks interesting, I now simply click a button on my browser, and then each evening, a collection of essays will arrive automatically on my Kindle.
I know that I should probably read more books – but I don’t feel remotely compelled to do so just at this moment. I’ve never been so busy in my life, and I’m having to make time for 5,000 words at a time as it is.
Also, I don’t happen to think that every idea needs to be expanded to fill a book anyway. Malcolm Gladwell would probably disagree with me, but then he seems to manage to make a simple, one-paragraph idea fill 300 pages.
I’m not going to link you to my favourite essays. Part of the joy is in the discovery and surprise. Just in this past week, the topics have ranged from the language of film to the cutting edge of science; from a tale of golf and mental illness to a story about how cheese manufacturing has changed in America since the 1950s; from an article in the Atlantic about the history of beards to a Playboy interview with Martin Luther King Jr.
But if you want to go on this sort of exploratory journey, there are a couple of services that I’ve found particularly useful:
Longreads is a great place to start for a free collection of some of the best writing on the web.
Byliner is really amazing and takes things up a level. It is a paid monthly subscription service, though one that roughly equates to a magazine subscription and (I would argue) provides better value.
Narrative.ly is a great source of human interest stories. I think of it as a kind of text equivalent of This American Life. Each week, they take a theme, and present a number of essays connected to that topic. Examples include ‘Man vs Beast’, ‘Muslim in America’ and ‘The Nonagenarians’.
The Electric Typewriter is an archive of excellent essays and articles arranged by theme. So much to explore in here.
The Browser is also very good – and while another paid service, it is substantially cheaper: an annual $12 membership fee.
If you’re married to the medium of the book as the only right and proper way to be a reader, then I am a terrible reader. And I actually thought that about myself for the longest time. The truth is that I love reading and I do more of it than most people.
I just don’t often pick up a book for pleasure. Essays on the Kindle. That’s me happy. And as long as I’m doing a bit of that each day, then 2014 is progressing according to plan.