Reading: The Perils and Pleasures of Anticipation

In the past, I’ve usually managed to read about fifty to sixty books each year, along with numerous short stories, poems, journal issues, and articles. Not a huge number compared to some folks, but respectable, I think, given that I like to give what I read its due attention. This year, it’s looking like I’ll read about a dozen books and far fewer poems, stories, and articles than I have in the past. Much of this has to do with what’s gone on this year: wonderful things like the birth of my first child, and trying things like the bout of gastroenteritis in October that took me a few weeks to really recover from. Reading well takes time and energy, which I haven’t had much of to spare of late.

It’s not that I don’t have a full e-reader or that my “wish list” for titles in my local library’s online offerings isn’t packed–it is. Stacks of books, journals, and magazines waiting to be read stand patiently on tables and floors near my usual reading spots. It seems that I’ve fallen into the habit of using what time and energy I do have to engage in the anticipation of reading rather than in reading itself. While I think this is may not the best use of my time, there is much to be gained in savoring the act of finding what I want to read next, even if I won’t get to it for a while.

Reading and Traveling: Making Plans

There’s an easy connection to make between reading and traveling: the idea of the story transporting the reader elsewhere is an old and useful one. We can stretch that connection to planning before departure too. The journeys we take in reading can be the carefully planned, thoroughly mapped out treks–as I see my reading for my comprehensive exams in grad school–and the spontaneous day trips we take picking up the story in the collection in front of us.

Once a day, I take my baby on a walk through our neighborhood. Since we live in a major urban area, we have a fair bit of air traffic to talk about: commuter planes taking off from the municipal airport close by, the large jets leaving from and arriving at the major airport, and on clear days the con-trails from flights that are just passing overhead. Our conversations are still mostly one-sided, so my baby gets to hear about trips I’d like us to take as a family later on. Which leads, of course, to planning.

Travel (Over)Planning

I haven’t traveled much, but I’ve done enough to know that I enjoy planning just about as much as I enjoy the trip itself. Not the down-to-the-minute itineraries packed with what we must do–that sort of micromanaged vacation appeals to some, I know, but feels to much like a “to do” list of travel chores to me. The sort of planning I find interesting is learning more about a place, finding choices of things to do in a given time and location. Reading travel websites, watching travel shows, looking at maps and pictures of attractions, hotels, and landscapes: that can, if I let it, consume the months and weeks up to any trip.

While it’s good to know about where we may be going, consuming too much information about a place before we’ve gone can take away from the experience. Part of travel–of reading too–is the discovery that takes place along the way. Forming opinions about what might be worth doing or reading that we’re reluctant to let go of when we’re at last at our destination works against this potential discovery.

Lately, I’ve found myself spending more time reading about what to read than on reading itself because I have so little time to devote to it. I’ve let myself wander through libraries and bookstores, strolling the baby along and talking about what we’re seeing, which is a good thing in itself. Too much of this feels like the equivalent of hanging out in airports, however: we’re in a place that can start us on our journey, but we never seem to leave.

The perils here of overplanning what I’m reading are this: I don’t read as much as I’d like, I may dismiss a book I’d get quite a lot from if I don’t feel I have time for what it seems to offer at the outset, and I miss the chance to model reading a book for my child that isn’t one of the many board books we read during the day and at bedtime.

Careful Planning: Necessity and Pleasures

That said, walking into a library, pulling something off the shelf at random, and reading it to the end isn’t what I’m proposing for myself here. There is pleasure to be gained in looking at beautiful pictures of where we’ll go–that’s a good in itself. Knowing where we want to go and why we want to go there is a positive. So is wandering through bookstores with an eye on what we’d like to read. As with travel, though, we have to leave ourselves open to the unexpected.

In the midst of peak travel season, planning for our trip to see family over the Thanksgiving holidays, my partner thanked me for being conscientious about what we needed to take for the baby: I’d made lists of what we’d need to get through the week, what toys and books would likely be most entertaining while we were away. I had spent a good deal of energy planning, and I was tired by the time we started on our way. This was necessary, and it’s made for a smooth week.

What I have thanked him for in the past and still value is picking up his approach to travel on a road trip we took through Colorado a few years ago: we had a starting date, an end date, a few destinations in mind, our bags packed, and that was it. Turned out to be one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. We were open to what we found along the way, stayed in some beautiful places, drove through gorgeous landscapes, and were able to change plans easily when fires started in our proposed destination.

Now that we have a baby, we can’t be that flexible, but we shouldn’t overcompensate when it comes to leaving ourselves open to what we’ll find on the road. The same holds true for my approach to reading: keeping this flexibility in mind will go a long way, I hope.