Reading by Whim: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader

In an essay at the TLS, Ian Sansom gently mocks bookish New Year’s resolutions. Some readers bustle pompously, declaring it the Year of Proust – and perhaps getting a book out of it.  But Sansom’s plans to devote the year to Dickens, Henry James, or Simenon always fail.  By February, he is back to reading what he likes when he likes, “in as disorganized and haphazard fashion as always.”

I belong to the club of reading by whim – but I embrace it.  On New Year’s Eve, I, too, make grandiose plans, then abandon them in favor of independent reading.  I might declare it a year of reading Jane Austen – which is every year – or The Year of Finishing Proust – because I got stuck halfway through the fourth volume.  But then I pounce on Nobel Prize winner Anatole France’s Penguin Island, so smart and witty that all else must be put on hold.

Our hectic over-planning in modern life may be due to the ravages of the internet.   In the days of dial-up, online book groups throve but had a greater air of spontaneity.  We voted every month on the book we wanted to read, rather than waiting for someone to choose it for us. Nowadays, at blogs, vlogs, and other social media, there are countless organized reading events, which seem popular, if lonely.  There’s nothing that dashes hopes of intelligent conversation like a Twitter discussion of War and Peace. 

What is wrong with reading on one’s own, according to whim or mood? Why must everything be planned or directed?  Does it matter if I read Annie Ernaux this month or next year?  Does Gogol have to be on my reading calendar – say, for July 9 – or can I read him whenever?  And will I get my knuckles rapped if I take a day off to read a Mrs. Pollifax mystery?  (Yes, probably.)

In a house full of books, it is unnecessary to make reading plans.