I want to talk about reader burnout. I think this is something a lot of readers deal with but I find that being a librarian makes it worse.
I’m a voracious reader. I always have been. It’s a core pillar of my self-identity.
But there are times when I just don’t want to read, sometimes for few days and sometimes for couple weeks or more. I feel guilty about this. Readers read, right? Reading is a good thing and we should all do more of it, right?
I didn’t used to feel this way. I used to read as much as I wanted, when I wanted. And that was that. It was all good.
Some of this sense of guilt started when I became a librarian. As a librarian, I feel a professional obligation to read as widely as I can. It’s part of my job to understand the reading landscape so I can help guide patrons through it.
A lot of this pressure to read more started when I began tracking my annual reading a few years ago. Tracking reading is something a lot of librarians do. I hadn’t ever thought to do it until I saw how popular it is on library Twitter and the librarian blogosphere. For many people, it’s a useful thing.
I’ve had a couple conversations recently which have challenged me to examine this choice more deeply and articulate the reasons why I made it.
It has a great deal to do with my commitment to diversity and building empathy. I support #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Sharing stories is how we forge understanding and respect. I want to embody this belief in my personal reading choices.
But I also have a more selfish reason: my own personal entertainment.
My dad likes to tell a story about a man he knew who was the head of a college. Every summer, this man would take a weekend to go out to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, all by himself, unconnected and alone. He brought along a blank notepad and a pen. On the top of the first page, he’d write, “Five Years.” He’d flip a few pages in and write “Ten Years” at the top of the page, and then “Twenty Years” a few pages later. He’d spend the weekend jotting down everything he could think of that he wanted the college to do in the next five-to-twenty years.
One summer, his weekend came to an end and he looked at his notepad. He had four or five things written on the “Five Years” page, just a couple things written on the “Ten Years” page, and nothing under “Twenty Years.” When he got back home, he tendered his resignation. He believed that if he didn’t have a vision for the organization, then he wasn’t the right person to lead it anymore.
I had been talking about the Two Spirit and queer authors and characters, the Indigenous settings and perspectives, the prefatory material which lay out the history and politics and which argue the need for stories like these, and my friend noticed I wasn’t talking much about the stories themselves. Thus, his question.
I fumbled a bit to answer. Yes, some are good, a few excellent, some just OK. I voiced my belief that there’s benefit to reading stories like these even if they’re not good: I appreciate these works because of what they can teach me, how they challenge my assumptions and show me very different experiences and understandings of the world.
But the truth is also this: I don’t always know whether the stories I read are any good. I’m not always qualified to assess the quality of these works.
Or: Why ’80s Pop Bowie Is Better than ’70s Glam Bowie
David Bowie is one of the most important musicians in my personal pantheon. And I’ve always liked the pop music he made in the 1980s better than the glam rock that made him famous in the 1970s.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to define why I like ’80s Bowie better than I ever liked ’70s Bowie. Part of it is because I’m a child of the ’80s and that’s the pop music I grew up on. But there’s more to it than just that. And it leads me to an interesting insight into the nature of ideational work.
Our modern culture prioritizes innovation to the point of fetishizing it. Because of this, we assign the greatest value to people who can come up with new ideas. This is an immensely valuable skill.
But it’s not the only skill necessary for us to do our best ideation work.
I’ve known people who weren’t any good at coming up with new ideas but who were brilliant at exploring the ideas of others. They can take your idea and discover potential in it you never saw. They can develop your idea into something better than you ever envisioned.
I’ve known people who were geniuses at connecting ideas together. They can take your idea and match it to some other idea you never would have thought related, and together these ideas become better than anything you imagined.
To borrow from the language of copyright law: There’s original work and transformative work. Some people are brilliant at doing the transformative work even if they’re not skilled at doing original work.
This sort of exploration and development work is as important as the work of coming up with new ideas. This is the work that transforms ideas into their best possible versions.
I finally got around to reading From a Certain Point of View, a collection of short stories written by a Who’s-Who roster of big name SF authors, all from the perspectives of side- and background characters in the original Star Wars movie. Most of them offer backstory or imagine what happened leading up to various scenes in the movie. Some imagine what was happening elsewhere in the universe.
This collection is a gimmick and it reads like one. The stories are all pretty good (some are excellent, none are bad) but very few of them would stand on their own merits. It’s an entertaining read, certainly, but mostly forgettable.
But it did get me thinking more about the Star Wars Expanded Universe and my ambivalence toward it. I love the movies but I’ve never bothered about the EU. There are a couple reasons why.
But I had no way of casting off the gloom and feeling what I wanted to feel. My only freedom came down to a choice between hunting for reasons to justify my sadness… “Reasons to be Cheerful” by Greg Egan. Interzone #118, April 1997
When I first read this in a story by Greg Egan, it struck me hard. This is a powerful description of what it’s like to have clinical depression. The inability to feel the way you know you should, the desperate need to find a reason for what you’re feeling. It’s an aspect of the experience I struggle to articulate. The way you react to things when you’re depressed is unreasonable. You don’t make sense even to yourself.
I suffered from clinical depression when I was in college and through much of my 20s. And I knew why I was depressed. I knew the reason for it.