I Went on a Reading Diet. Here’s What I Learned.
I (mostly) avoided books, texts, mags, and social media for a week. It was hard but worth it.
I went on a seven-day reading diet and while it didn’t change my life, it certainly inspired some… adjustments.
For an entire week, I didn’t read a single novel. I stayed off Facebook and Twitter, I avoided my three-newspapers-a-day with coffee in the morning, I skimmed texts and only responded if an emergency, and I avoided my newly acquired poem-a-day habit thanks to a new-to-me daily read of Rumi. No going down a Google rabbit hole about the latest racist incident at The Bachelor, no bedtime stories for my children, no tarot or astrology Instagram posts, and no newsletters about the latest problems or solutions for pandemic parenting, selecting a summer school program, women’s politics, everybody-is-reading-this-magazine-article articles, or baking a better apple pie.
It was almost cold turkey for me on the reading, except I did permit myself the grace to read for work — after all, I am an editor and I read for a living. But a mentor suggested I pick up The Artist’s Way, after hearing my troubles finding a deeper well of creativity, and the book suggested that I shut off all the external noise and get to listening to myself. It initially sounded absurd. Me? Not read anything? But that small voice inside slapped me upside my head and said try it.
I — and we — all consume a lot. It’s overwhelming. Many of my friends and people in my social circle have published books recently, and I want to support them all. Newsletter subscriptions notify me of very important stories™ every hour on the hour and sometimes twice daily. TV shows alert me to extra behind-the-scenes content. Weekly podcasters drop mini-pods midweek. Someone Black, or Latinx or Asian or Native has a story to share, and I want to listen to it and love on it and amplify it. Basically, I love to read, and as a kid would spend hours under the dining room table powering through novel after novel after novel. My mother would yell at me to come wash the dishes because I’d read through the morning, the afternoon, and dusk. But life isn’t so simple now. I have a job, a young family, an older extended family, and lots of responsibilities. Consuming scads of content all day long is often a luxury but sometimes, I learned, it’s really not.
Between the latest 25 shows on Netflix and the newest season starting on Hulu and the must-watch releases in the Marvel /Disney/Peacock/Amazon universes, I stay perpetually behind on my viewing. Then there’s the new albums, and the latest podcasts, and also the must-listen conversations on Clubhouse.
I enjoy it all, but turns out I did need a break from everybody else’s words. Though I cheated a bit with news headlines and wound up doing a content diet lite, the absence of other folks’ words — strangely — caused anxiety. Sunday’s thought bubble: What if I miss extremely big news? Will the kids be okay without another Elephant and Piggie bedtime story? Okay OKAY, I’ll read Nate Marshall’s Finna: Poems or maybe Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism next week when my reading fast is over.
By Wednesday: If any of these front-page stories were really important my best friends — all breaking news journalists — would have called me to talk about it by now. My oldest son read his little brother Elephant and Piggy at night; maybe I should let him do this more often. And also: While I enjoy reading the morning paper as the sun rises, these early mornings are glorious without wordy distraction. Just look at the pink and purple dawn rising in my east window.
By Thursday: Hmm. I washed the dishes without music, podcast, or the TV going in the background. I opted out of Netflix and just sat still. Silence feels good.
By Friday: My work is still getting done and I’m skimming the headlines so I know what’s going on. I have more story ideas now than I did before I started this content fast. I was able to knock around 20 items off my to-do list.
I realized I had stopped doing things I loved in order to try out “new” must-consume content. Then, I found that I filled my content time with other things. Cleaned out a closet and went straight to Goodwill with the goods. Returned some items to the department store. Cooked some bomb dinners. And I thought. A lot. I also didn’t think. A lot.
Saturday night I made a cup of tea, pulled out a watercolor set, and painted the delicate, early spring flowers growing in my grass. Blue and yellow. Pink and brown. I can’t really paint, but that’s not the point. The point was to do something else besides consume. It was time to create.
Nothing to binge, nothing to view (unless I really wanted to), and no self-imposed breakneck reading deadlines.
Now, a true fast would have meant not reading or viewing anything at all — not even text messages from my husband or sister or aunt. [It’s Covid and racial terror is always present, so I can’t completely ghost my favorite people. I allowed myself that.] I also picked up the phone and (gasp) called a few folks. As a family, we watched the original Jumanji for our Friday night at the movies in our basement. I didn’t once pick up my phone, instead concentrating on snuggle time with my littles as they stared wide-eyed at the jungle that grew in the giant house.
Ultimately I was reminded to be more mindful of what and how and when I consume. It’s really okay to read the Sunday Times on Thursday. It’s also okay to read one single chapter of a critically acclaimed book and decide that, for now, I’d rather devour Children of Blood and Bone. Life has been hard. It’s okay to spring for fun over obligation sometimes.
None of these takeaways are new or novel. Nothing earth-shattering to see here. But they are quiet revelations about content creep and the value of being still in a world that does everything it can to steal my attention.
I can’t pay mind to everything. Why try? Far better to spend what extra time I’m granted by minding me.