Have I found a way to make reading a vice?
January 12, 2011 5:34 PM   Subscribe

I used to think that reading was noble in and of itself. Now I realize that I use it as an escape. I use it to avoid doing other things. Important things. It's like a vice, but it's READING! How can that be bad?

I have a lot of things I could be doing with my time. I could be working, I could be writing, I could be working out, I could be volunteering.

Instead, I read.

The more stressed I feel, the more I abstract myself from my own activities and simply sit down and read. Just this very day, I called in sick to work and just stayed home and read a book. All day long. It was great! But now I feel terribly guilty, partly because I did it yesterday, too.

I'm not robbing banks, I'm not poking blind people with sticks, I'm not throwing kittens into acid baths. I'm not evil. But I feel like reading has become such a vice for me, such an easy escape, that I'm not living up to my potential in any respect.

I can write pretty well, and I generally get great feedback on what I've written. But I rarely write; I read.

I do well at my job, but I've discovered that I can do in 20 hours enough to make it seem like I'm working full time. Those other 20 hours? I read.

I'd love to work out more. In fact, I actually LIKE to work out. But instead of putting on my shorts and running shoes, I sit down with a glass of wine and a book. Every. Single. Night. (except when I go out with friends, which is fun but also an escape)

Any time I think about this objectively, I hate it. I always swear to myself that am very motivated to do better things with my time, and I feel like I'm too smart to be stuck in this cycle of, well, doing nothing. But when it comes down to actually taking action, it's almost as if I'm powerless in the face of the siren call of a book. Whatever is handy and un-read. Mostly novels, some contemporary fiction, some fantasy, some non-fiction. Doesn't really matter.

I would definitely appreciate any and all advice that would help me break out of this pattern. I'm always telling myself that, just this last time, I'm going to read a book. Then, tomorrow, I'll DEFINITELY go out and do something else. I feel like a smoker whose every cigarette is their last -- two packs a day for years. It makes each reading session wonderful, because it will, By God, be my last indulgence. But then it happens again the next day.

posted by peripatetic007 to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Um, it's kind of hard to tell. How old are you, and how long have you been doing this? If you're young, it might just be a outbreak of geekery that will spontaneously resolve. It's possible you just frickin love to read, and it might just be a phase.
posted by facetious at 5:39 PM on January 12, 2011

They make a patch for this. It's called A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

(Apologies to anyone who was actually able to stay awake through that thing.)

See if you can incorporate your love of reading into other things that you'd like to do. For instance, you could volunteer at a library to read to children. Or at a nursing home to read to the elderly. Or to people with vision impairments. Or read while spending some time on the stairmaster. That way you'll be accomplishing something and reading. Hooray!
posted by phunniemee at 5:40 PM on January 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

Other people have been there: reading can be addictive.

You can limit your reading: no books at work, or no books before 7pm. You can purposely leave the house without a book (harder to do if you read on your phone).
posted by jb at 5:42 PM on January 12, 2011

Response by poster: Ha! I've ready that. If I don't enjoy a book, I usually plow through it. Of course, I use AskMeFi to find GREAT book recommendations, so that almost never happens.

I'm 34, been doing it for years, on and off. More recently, for some reason.
posted by peripatetic007 at 5:44 PM on January 12, 2011

By the way, I wasn't trying to blow off your question - I should be more explicit and say that I think it's at least possible that the way to "solve" this might be to just ride through it. I hear what you're saying about the destructive/avoidant aspects of your behavior, but 1) a lot of times just putting the question out there will spontaneously trigger the answer you need, without other peoples' explicit suggestions, and 2) if there really is something bugging you that's driving this behavior, a lot of times embarking on a "cure" turns out to be just another way of avoiding whatever that is. Hope that makes sense.
posted by facetious at 5:47 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've gotten into states were I re-read the same 900 page book three times in a row because I can't deal with any other kind of stimulus and the act of reading is a kind of soothing sensory deprivation tank.

So the real question is, what's stressing you out? Reading is a fine hobby and habit, if you're stressing about it then I think you're stressed about something else. Talk to someone.
posted by The Whelk at 5:51 PM on January 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: @facetious -- why would I think you were blowing off my question with a username like "facetious"? =) And yes, part of my intention in simply writing out the question is admitting to myself that I have a problem. Maybe the simple act of doing so will light a fire under my butt. Here's hoping, anyway.

@The Whelk -- I agree that it is definitely a symptom, but I don't know that it is anything in particular that I'm stressed about. I see it as an avoidance mechanism, rather than a response to a particular stimulus. Maybe I'm looking for something as simple as a couple of motivational tactics that folks around here have used successfully themselves to get up off of their butt and do something.
posted by peripatetic007 at 6:00 PM on January 12, 2011

Best answer: Just this very day, I called in sick to work and just stayed home and read a book.

I do this too, sometimes, except usually with new video games or DVDs, although new books sneak in there too. And when I do so, it's usually because of this:

I do well at my job, but I've discovered that I can do in 20 hours enough to make it seem like I'm working full time. Those other 20 hours? I read.

When I don't feel like I'm being sufficiently challenged by my job, I find other things, far more interesting things, to do instead. When I get bored or restless, I know I can engage myself with video games or internet research. When I get depressed (I have clinical depression, you may not), I know that there's a fairly convenient escape from my thoughts, and I use media the way that other people use drugs.

I do these things precisely because they're not work and because they're interesting enough to hold my attention without carrying any of the attendant risk of failure that performing life tasks does. I can't "fail" a video game, but I can fail to write something good. I can't "fail" watching a season of the West Wing in a single sitting, but I can fail to eat better or meet interesting potential partners.

So, if any of that sounds similar to your situation, then maybe you have the same problem that I do, which is that the fear of doing a hard thing badly impedes me from trying that thing at all, but the facility of doing an easy thing well fills me with no sense of accomplishment.

There's nothing bad about reading, or playing video games, or listening to music, or whatever other enrichments we fill our lives with. But what I have to do is confront the fear of failure and its attendant disappointments, and realize that the risk is no less real or exciting just because it's a risk only I can perceive, and that I spend my time thinking things aren't challenging enough because I instinctively avoid the constant challenges around me. I need to start looking at stress as a signal that I'm pushing myself and not as a stop sign to withdraw entirely.

I'm using I-statements here because I don't want to assume things about you. But if any of that is familiar, then maybe it'll be helpful to look at the root causes of your behavior instead of just the behavior itself. That's what works for me, anyway.
posted by Errant at 6:09 PM on January 12, 2011 [7 favorites]

Yeah, the problem obviously isn't reading, it's escapism. Hopefully (unlike me in my youth reading Harlequins *shudder*) you're reading Good books, at least :). But I find that schedules and structure help me a lot. Getting to the gym First - either before work or immediately after work before that wine and book - has helped a lot. Prioritizing my goals helps, too, and allowing myself the fun stuff after I've accomplished those priorities makes a difference. Sit down and list your priorities - a lot of them obviously aren't reading.
posted by ldthomps at 6:11 PM on January 12, 2011

Response by poster: Very interesting -- the symptoms are similar, but I don't know that it is a fear of failure that is the primary reason for not doing things. I don't know that it is NOT, either, of course, but my opinion about myself is that it is more due to laziness than anything else. Maybe laziness is the wrong word; I'm struggling for the right one, but it doesn't _feel_ like fear.
posted by peripatetic007 at 6:13 PM on January 12, 2011

Response by poster: [obviously, my previous comment was directed at @Errant]

@Idthomps -- so, write it down. Yeah, I like that. Maybe just looking at a tangible "list of things I need to do today" will make it more concrete when I make that crucial decision as the alarm goes off. Sometimes it's the simplest damn things.
posted by peripatetic007 at 6:15 PM on January 12, 2011

I know nothing, but instead of sitting and reading why don't you read on a treadmill? Start out slow so you don't trip (don't plan on running, a brisk walk should be your goal.) and with a little practice you can be both reading and working out. That might help with the guilt a little.

(I also second everyone that you should investigate this further and seek help for this. I'm just trying to give you an immediate band-aid and it sounds like you need stitches.)
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:29 PM on January 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've got a quote from Carrie Fisher someplace saying that reading is the first drug-- it blocks out the world. Yeah, it's total escapism. Books are a billion times more interesting than real life is, duh!

How to solve it? Honestly, limit your reading time, I'm sorry to say. (Or find a way to make your life more interesting, but that's freaking hard to do as a working stiff, and real life never lives up to the coolness of fiction.) Unfortunately, that means you're going to have to stop yourself from reading, or at least don't pick up the book right away when you get in the house, don't let yourself read until the chores are done, whatever you "have" to get done.

Do you *actually* want to do something else, or do you just feel like you should WANT to do something else? Because if you don't have a burning desire to volunteer, then shoot, don't worry about it. If reading is your #1 thing in life and you just feel like you SHOULD be doing something else... eh, you're an adult, you don't have to.

I'm guessing that when you say you work out you go running, but what about going to the gym and reading while you're on the machines or something? That at least is double duty!
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:38 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

It doesn't feel like fear to me either, at least not in the dry mouth, heart palpitation kind of way. I just think, well, I'll do it later, tomorrow maybe. Until the moments when I run out of distractions and I'm still not doing the things I claim to want to do, and then I really have to ask myself why. Maybe fear is the wrong word, but for me anyway it goes beyond simple laziness.
posted by Errant at 6:54 PM on January 12, 2011

Best answer: I agree that it is definitely a symptom, but I don't know that it is anything in particular that I'm stressed about. I see it as an avoidance mechanism, rather than a response to a particular stimulus. Maybe I'm looking for something as simple as a couple of motivational tactics that folks around here have used successfully themselves to get up off of their butt and do something.

If you're not avoiding one thing in particular, perhaps read about anxiety (eg) and see if it rings a bell. That would mean that everything stresses you out, either due to your physiology/temperament, or due to some background stressor that you're not aware of. Treating the symptom doesn't work nearly, nearly, nearly as well as addressing the cause, for me.

Maybe for you it is laziness as you say, but as you explore the question, remember that dyslexics feel like reading is "hard" and "tiring," and people with social anxiety find social settings "draining" and "exhausting," and people with ADHD that makes it hard to concentrate feel "lazy." Solving laziness, I believe, partially involves asking, "why is this so hard for me?" without the judgmental cast to the question. Also, being depressed feels like being tired all. the. time. and so very heavy, so carrying that weight might cause someone to judge themselves as lazy.

I think you're onto something with looking for "motivational tactics to get up off your butt and do something," if you mean finding out what are the most effective ways to talk to yourself about doing things. For me what works is envisioning how good I'll feel if I get done with whatever and behave consistent with my ideals about how to live life (e.g., for you that would be, work out every day, work while at work). What also works is making a very short list of what I want to get done so that I remember. What does not work for me is any kind of lecturing about getting up off my butt: that kind of self-castigation just pains me and sends me further into whatever way I'm self-soothing and avoiding pain at the moment.

Meditation is a great way to train yourself out of avoidance, as is yoga. Both are about remaining steady in the face of (different kinds of) discomfort.
posted by salvia at 7:01 PM on January 12, 2011 [5 favorites]

Sorry this is awfully rambly:

I read in a similar fashion to what you describe (except it's even worse—or better?—'cause my second, freelance job is proofreading, so I get to count some of the reading as productive time).

I have found that I have a sort of reading mode and a non-reading mode. Things that help me switch into non-reading mode include: walking/running places (I live in a city; your mileage may vary), going to my job as a tutoring volunteer (though sometimes I wind up reading there too!), getting myself really involved in my work (even though I too can get through 40 hours of my job in 20, I can sometimes motivate myself to find satisfaction in finishing up more than what's expected of me).

Really the main thing for me is leaving the house and getting absorbed in some sort of task so that whatever I'm reading sort of recedes into the background. I almost always try to go out and accomplish things—exercise, volunteering, meeting people—right after work, or go out and stay out on weekends, because I know that if I sit at home I will more likely than not lose my motivation to go back out when I could stay in and read.

Hope this helps a little!
posted by mlle valentine at 7:03 PM on January 12, 2011

Solving laziness, I believe, partially involves asking, "why is this so hard for me?" without the judgmental cast to the question.

By the way, I don't mean to pathologize you like "you have a mental illness you're not aware of yet." I meant that advice to also include things like "does this job not fit my strengths and motivations?" and "do I really just not like going to the gym?"

I mentioned making a short list of things I want to do, as one tool. For me, that also helps with -- if I find something staying on that list, I have to confront this question with myself. "Okay, I'm not doing this task. Can I take it off the list? Why am I not doing it? What do I need to actually do it?"
posted by salvia at 7:04 PM on January 12, 2011

Two useful things that I've learned, that make me read less, but get more out of it:

1. Don't waste time on bad books. If you're 50 pages in, and not entertained? Drop it. There's other books there's better things to do.

2. Am I ready for this book? I used to read a lot of books imagining I'd learn something from it. Now that I'm older, I see that I didn't learn from most of them, sometimes because I wasn't in the proper space to get anything from them, sometimes because I couldn't give it the proper attention. Now I can put books down when I recognize I'm not up to the task of getting something useful from them.

May or may not help you in navigating what role and how you have reading exist in your life.
posted by yeloson at 7:09 PM on January 12, 2011

Embrace this opportunity. Read something SO DIFFICULT AND BORING that either (1) you'll feel really productive just for having finished it, so your time is not wasted, or (2) you'll be so sick of reading that you'll want to do something else.

You need something that's both classic and mind-numbingly dull. I'd go for the hard but edifying nonfiction: Kant, Hegel, Marx, Herodotus or Thucydides, maybe Hobbes' Leviathan. Or, if you're not a nonfiction person, some giant novels, like Ulysses, War and Peace, Don Quixote--maybe those are too much fun. The most boring fiction classic I ever read was Dante's Divine Comedy: I would never have read it on my own, but in retrospect I'm glad they forced it down my throat in school.

I'm so envious. I love books, but many of the good ones are hard work. This is your opportunity to do all the reading that most people can't manage to do!
posted by Chicken Boolean at 7:18 PM on January 12, 2011

You used to be me. Yes, it is an escape.

Can you stay out of the bookstore/library for awhile?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 8:09 PM on January 12, 2011

It's out of print as far as I can tell, and the reasoning within is (as I quote from an Amazon five-star review) irritating and insane, but the thesis of Why Literature Is Bad for You may be food for thought. Generally, the idea is that fiction is for some people a crutch and lets us indulge in antisocial vices. If you can find a copy, you may get something out of it.
posted by kittyprecious at 8:11 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I get trapped in books, and avoidance is the only cure. This means I don't bring books I'm reading with me in the car (certainly not where I can reach them from the driver's seat), I don't open books in the morning before work, I don't let myself pick up a book before bed unless I have however many hours that I'll need to finish it. I read a lot less, but I stay up until 4 AM finishing 'just this chapter' a lot less too. In your case, that would mean not having new books at home, or at least not in quantity. If you really WANT to do other things more than you want to read, figure out some of those things to do before you get another book. And when you've done that and have 'reading time' again, go to the library or the bookstore. Get one book, read it, and then do other things.

The interesting thing to me here is that you called in sick to read a book. You had your stuff together enough to know to call in sick, there was a 'choice' moment there and you decided that work just didn't need you that much that day. You probably don't have enough to do at work, but not having goals set for yourself in the rest of your life can have the same effect there as well. I would suggest you make a list, mentally or on paper, of what you want to do instead of reading all the time - including stuff that you can do immediately, in the short term, in specifics. And when you're at home thinking 'aw man I wish I had a book to read' take that opportunity to think about this list you've made and say, oh, I should go for a run - or call that friend - etc.
posted by Lady Li at 8:24 PM on January 12, 2011

Agreed with you (and others) that it is escapism.

My parents sometimes grounded me from reading, as a kid (pleasure books, not academic stuff)--that's how obsessive I was. They weren't crazy, it was just the one thing they could withhold from me that would really get my attention.

As an adult, I combine reading with other addictive behaviors, namely, drinking and smoking (you're right, the impulses are similar). All of it is escapism.

But unlike drinking and smoking, reading really is good for you! However, I can attest that obsessing with any behavior is not healthy. It may be (I hate to bring up the standard askme trope) that therapy would help you figure out what you are trying to escape, and figure out methods for striking a better balance.

I have bookworm friends who are actually able to turn off the light when it's time to go to sleep. I don't understand it myself, but I know it is possible. Memail me if you'd like to talk.
posted by torticat at 9:24 PM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

If I were you I'd be more concerning about the glass of wine you're drinking every evening than the books you're reading.
posted by macinchik at 2:50 AM on January 13, 2011

Maybe laziness is the wrong word; I'm struggling for the right one, but it doesn't _feel_ like fear.

Well, isn't the absence of conscious fear something you'd expect from an avoidant habit? After all, it's not that writing or working out or volunteering that are themselves bad experiences. You might enjoy those activities if you could just get started, but the threat of conscious fear or anxiety stands between you and that enjoyment. Reading saves you from confronting those feelings, at the price of diverting you from your ambitions.

This may not be your situation, of course, but not _feeling_ fear doesn't seem inconsistent with the idea that avoidance of fear motivates a behavior.
posted by jon1270 at 4:56 AM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I nth the 'book on treadmill' recommendation. It got easier when I got a Kindle - just click the 'next' button, no page turning required! A brisk walk was great. You can also do this outside if your obstacle-avoidance via peripheral vision is good enough.

Then again, I was trapped in books every night when I was living somewhere that made me sick and was generally stressed out and miserable. Now that I've moved, I find myself being a lot more able to do other things.

To motivate yourself, try spending money? I joined a gym with a set class schedule such that if I don't go, I'm wasting money. It gets spent whether I go or not, so I'd better go to get my money's worth! Plus, I haven't had to try motivating myself with positive rewards.
posted by bookdragoness at 7:13 AM on January 13, 2011

I am a recovering addict and it sounds funny but when I tell my personal story at AA and NA meetings I always say my first addiction when I was a child was reading. I can remember way back sitting in my room for hours and reading and reading. I definitely used it as an escape. When you ask is it bad? No one can answer that but you. If it is interfering and causing 'unmanageability' in your life or personal relationships then maybe it is something that you need to look at. I am not in any way suggesting that you are an addict, but this sounds like a coping skill to me more than just a person who likes to read. For me, I needed help to learn new coping skills. I beat myself up for a long time calling myself lazy and weak. The truth is that I am not any of those things. I needed help. Best of luck.
posted by heatherly at 10:53 AM on January 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

...I use media the way that other people use drugs.
Holy hell - this. This so much, I get in trouble for other things I should have done during that time. This so much, it turns into work, eat-during-media-consumption, sleep.

I'm going to tack that quote on my wall. I needed this whole thread like an emo-kid needs a professional dye job. _Thank you_.
posted by DisreputableDog at 2:43 PM on January 13, 2011

German Kral on Jorge Luis Borges on art (video):
I was so impressed to enter the room and see Borges, blind and waiting for us with his hands on a cane. I remember that we arrived late and that he kindly told us not to worry. For a man his age, time didn't matter anymore… Borges, who had so intensely loved book, and for whom literature was alive, advised us not to read any book we didn't enjoy. He told us that morning if we didn't like a book, it was better to leave it for some other time. Reading it by force did no good to the book, the other, or ourselves…

“The task of art is to transform what is continuously happening to us, to transform all these things into symbols, into music, into something which can last in man’s memory…

Besides, the life of a writer, is a lonely one. You think you are alone, and as the years go by, if the stars are on your side, you may discover that you are at the center of a vast circle of invisible friends whom you will never get to know but who love you. And that is an immense reward.”
It's really, truly okay to put down the book, especially if it doesn't bring you comfort.
posted by yaymukund at 8:42 PM on January 13, 2011

Response by poster: OK, sorry I checked out there for a while.

I'm going to go back now and mark several answers as "best," but honestly everyone has been very helpful. As is usually the case, just having humans respond to my questions is helpful!

I've embarked on a combination of things that people suggested, as well as one that I came up with myself -- I asked for more interesting things to do at work. Well, I told the powers that be that I had some free cycles, and they said "really? OK, here's some stuff we've been needing." And that "extra" stuff just happened to be more interesting than my normal stuff.

I really like it when I like work. It makes the whole thing easier.

Also, I have limited my access to reading material. I no longer have a book in the car, meaning that when I'm bored at work I can't just go out to the parking lot and read for an hour (or four). That helped.

So, anyway, thanks again. AskMeFi = win.
posted by peripatetic007 at 8:37 PM on February 4, 2011

Response by poster: Oh, and two more comments:

"I use media the way others use drugs" -- I totally agree with DisreputableDog on the awesomeness, accuracy, and applicability of this statement. Well, done, Errant!

Second, and not to sound defensive, but really macinchik? A glass of wine at night is worse than skipping work? I didn't say I get drunk every night, but I believe in the calming powers of a glass of wine (or even GASP two!). Even nightly, that doesn't make one an alcoholic. I know alcoholics, and their problem is not a glass of wine a night -- it is that they are physically or psychologically unable to stop at one. So, get off of your high horse. If you have personal history dealing with alcohol (you or others around you), I'm truly sorry for that, but don't project that experience on everyone who mentions a glass of wine.
posted by peripatetic007 at 8:45 PM on February 4, 2011

« Older We fought the law and the law... won't do anything...   |   Is my package lost at sea? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.