Eight years ago on Christmas morning, my older brother John casually ruined my life.
"Let me ask you something," he said, gesturing with his coffee mug at the piles of books we'd gotten as presents. "How many books would you say you read a week?"
"One?" I shrugged. I was too old, at 28, for original-recipe Facebook. Tweeting was still something I thought only birds did. And iPhones hadn't yet been invented. So, despite having a more-than-full-time job, I had a lot of time to kill.
"Let's be generous and say you have 40 years left at that pace," offered John. "One book a week for 40 years, rounded down a little for weeks where work is crazy or you spontaneously go blind, that equals ... 2000."
My brother leaned back in his chair, savoring the moment.
"That's it," he said. He shook his head, as though contemplating some distant tragedy. "Two thousand books in your lifetime. That's what you get. So every time you pick up a new book, you gotta ask yourself: is this worth it? Is this really one of the 2000 best books ever written?"
He paused for a moment, letting this sink in.
"At the bottom of your list, coming in at number 2000, we have…" He nudged the first book in my pile with his toe: Barbara Kingsolver's Small Wonder. I breathed a sigh of relief. "And at one-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine…"
John nudged again, and Kingsolver toppled to the ground, revealing a copy of Jean Craighead George's young-adult classic,My Side of the Mountain.
"I'm re-reading that," I hastened to clarify.
"Re-reading?" John said, eyes-wide like I'd suggested some arcane and dangerous pastime. "Suit yourself…" he added, and left the room.
I just sat there. It's one thing to know theoretically that you can only do so much in your life: see so many places, meet so many people, read so many books. It's another to put an exact number on it. Where once I had been vaguely counting up – every book another brick in the foundation of my… something-or-other – now I was going the other way, and every book was just the physical manifestation of a hundred missed opportunities.
Suddenly the entire pile of books in front of me lost its luster. I eyed them like they were the last guys in a bar at closing time – were any of them worth it, or would I just feel a thick sense of shame in the morning when I rolled over?
What I didn't know then was that 50 books a year would turn out to be a high watermark for me. Aside from a beautifully aberrant period in grad school when I read books like a motherfucker, the graph of my year-to-year reading resembles the path of a boulder flying downhill, gaining speed as it goes.
Despite my best intentions, every year I read fewer and fewer books. More magazines, blogs, podcasts, TV recaps, comics, tumblrs, epic Facebook posts and endless Twitter battles? Yes. Books? No.
For a while, this meant that I was picky about the books I actually did read. They had to be of high quality, possessing some nebulous-but-easily-conveyed cachet. They had to mean something, damn it. Give me Austen, Baldwin, hell even Malcolm Gladwell would do. Only books that you might hear somnambulantly summarized on NPR, that was my rule.
The more I stressed about reading, the harder it became to do. Books went from being an infrequent pleasure to an angst-ridden duty. Somehow, strangely, this didn't make me read more. Compounding the stress, I felt that if I didn't read enough, it meant that civilization was decaying and the internet had won.
(Won what? I wonder now. Fear so often looks irrational in hindsight.)
Worrying all the time was exhausting, and no fun whatsoever. I missed reading – not thinking about reading, or worrying about reading, or planning to read, but just opening a book because I wanted to.
So I decided to embrace my fate. If every book I read from now on would be entered on my Best Books of All Time list, then I would treat them that way. If I was motivated to pick up a book – those solid, stolid objects that never ring or send us push notifications – then something about it was awesome, and I needed to recognize that. I needed to stop caring about what other people thought of my book choices, even if the book in question was intended for 14-year-old girls obsessed with money, fashion and private schools. (That's right, Private, I love you.)
I realized that the "quality" that mattered wasn't that of the book itself so much as the quality of the experience I had reading it. Reading, for me, was primarily an act of love – and love and shame have no place together. (Thank you, 1970's gay liberationists, for that wisdom.)
I no longer try to predict the number of books left in my life. I've lost enough friends unexpectedly to realize that kind of thinking is pointless. (Plus, like everyone else I know, I'm now too busy stressing out about keeping up with my DVR.) My reading or not reading is not a sign of the End of Books, and will not lead directly to some future wherein everyone is illiterate and we only communicate in emoticons. Nor is it an indicator of my worthiness as a person. Reading is simply an intensely pleasurable and very personal thing that I frequently happen to do on the subway – though never frequently enough.