In My Book: The burnout blaze spreads to reading

Graphic by Ugen Norbu Yonten

Images of ash-tipped matches are blazing across the internet as the buzz around burnout continues, thanks to articles by Buzzfeed News, The New York Times and TSL.

These pieces highlight the rise of optimization culture, with millenials fizzling out from 18-hour-days and the constant push, push, push for preeminent productivity. Burnout is seen as a direct consequence of this incessant hustling — the constant need to make each moment as efficient as possible.

I had always thought reading was safe from this insidious cultural shift, as if books existed on some higher spiritual plane. They were my defense against the bombardment I felt by pressures in every other area of my life.

This mindset changed the moment I entered the desolate, desert landscape that comes when you burn out, and then keep going. What scared me was not being burnt out — of course I was, after spending multiple nights in a row in the flickering fluorescents of the library’s fourth floor, studying through meals and blinking away my body’s boundaries.

No, what shocked me was that during this period, I didn’t even want to read. And that brings me to a satellite phenomenon of my generation’s optimization cult practice: book burnout. Perhaps I should have seen this coming (see “Fahrenheit 451”: Books are notoriously flammable), but reading now felt like another pressure, another task to be crossed off of some trendy bullet journal.

Instead of offering a means of escape, books began to weigh heavy in my hands.

In other words, reading had morphed from something fun to something forced — just another marker of personal achievement. Last summer, the Telegraph reported on a flurry of activity in the literary social media sphere, as writers and readers alike criticized author Will Self for “book bragging.” Self claimed that he was reading 60 books at once, a number that far exceeds the 12 books Americans read on average in a year.

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While most of the backlash centered on the “disrespect” Self paid to each book by spreading his attention so thinly, this is representative of a larger trend in the book world: annual book targets. The Goodreads website is just one of many that hosts a reading challenge pushing participants to set specific yearly book goals.

Do any of us really have the time for 50 books a year?

Cue the revival of speed reading, a seductive practice that promises to save you time while reading. Coined by American school teacher Evelyn Wood in the ’50s and ’60s, the term sprinted all the way up to President John F. Kennedy, who sent his staff to Wood to be trained in the art. Yet by the ’90s, her ideas had petered out.

Until recently. The iPhone app store is now brimming with programs that promise to “increase your reading efficiency” and “help you read faster than ever before.”

As a student, I understand the necessity of skimming certain texts. How else can we ingest the pertinent points of 300+ pages of weekly class readings without becoming library-chained creatures?

However, I believe book burnout occurs when we let optimization tools such as speed reading bleed into the activity of reading books purely for personal enjoyment. There, it is quality, not quantity that matters.

This is why I refuse to set some annual number of books I need to read (sorry, Goodreads). While I am in full support of the sentiment behind the campaign, this tendency of measuring our reading habits by quantifiable goals evokes the fiscal targets of a company.

It treats reading a certain number of books as a sign of successful optimization. Furthermore, setting a goal that I inevitably fail to meet only serves to remind me that I am not a perfectly refined automaton.

And reading is the one area of my life that I would like to save from my generation’s hustle culture. Preventing burnout requires stepping back and taking a break from the constant push for productivity. For readers, that means reading.

But the moment we try to optimize reading — by speed reading, by measuring ourselves against a set number — we ruin the ability for it to be restful and rejuvenative.

So if someone asks me how many books I’ve read or, God forbid, my words-per-minute stats, then I will happily and honestly tell them:

“I have no idea.”

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Samantha Resnick PO ’19 likes reading words, and sometimes, she likes writing them, too.

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