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…or how to read the way you love.

“We read the way we love – with our whole selves, with the flickering constellation of values, longings, traumas, joys, hopes, despairs, formative experiences, and half-remembered impressions composing the self” – says Maria Popova, creator of BrainPickings and writer of Figuring – a book on the lives, loves and works of female artists, comparing to loving what “hustle culture” has transformed into an aggressive race for embracing productivity.

Reading, which has meant and should still mean all that Popova is talking about, is now nothing more than a tool to get through all the self-help and productivity-growing tips that have flooded our schools, newspapers, everyday conversations and social media platforms. 

Although undeniably affected by hustle culture myself, I still believe that certain things don’t need to have a concrete, direct use in order to be valuable and I am trying to answer “if not for direct and immediate self-improvement, why must we allow ourselves, as often as possible, to get lost in a novel, poetry book or any other genre of literature?”

Hustle, hustle!

Hustle culture – for those of you not familiar with the term – means “the collective urge we currently seem to feel as a society to work harder, stronger, faster” in our jobs and particularly on ourselves. Because – as each and every single one of the self-help articles, books and videos highlight – efficiency, focus and productivity are all essential in the pursuit of one’s happiness. Luckily anyone can get better, stronger, faster and happier if only they follow the rules and tips, argue the self-help gurus – and they never fail to make you understand that if you can’t, that’s all on you!

Carl Cederström and André Spicer in their book, Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement: A Year Inside the Optimization Movement, estimate that the self-improvement industry takes in ten billion dollars a year as they sell us tips on how to improve every part of our lives, even those that we didn’t even know needed improvement. I mean, seriously, would anyone have thought about placing crystal yoni eggs in their vaginas, if Gwyneth Paltrow and her wellness company, Goop, hadn’t come up with the idea? 

What does a “hobby” even mean today?

In my opinion, the worst part of hustle culture, apart from the fact that many self-help gurus rip people off, taking advantage of their misery, is that we are no longer able to engage in activities, hobbies and entertainment without constantly thinking about how they will benefit us in the long run. 

We no longer allow ourselves to just enjoy a concert, a movie, a book or a trip to the mountains without trying to figure out how we can make use of the experience, how we can feel we are doing something productive and how we can direct ourselves back to work through the activity.

If we read, we read what successful CEOs recommend, if we do sports we follow a rigorous routine, if we wake up early we do it not to see the sunrise but to get work done before our competitors even open their eyes. What following a routine does not allow us to do is go deep in things we truly enjoy, continue sport when it truly feels good, and fell deep into a story and read it for hours and hours without looking up.

You might end up feeling worse than before

Reading for productivity rarely teaches us about our souls, our desires, about our thoughts and dreams. It may teach us about different parts of our own lives but it rarely allows us to get to know and understand lives different from ours. 

Self-help books – perhaps with the best intentions, but still – encourage egotism and narcissism and never turn our heads toward the bigger picture that we all are part of. 

What Cederström and Spicer concluded, is that they often lead us not to our improved selves but to a self that we don’t even recognize anymore.

Instead of using reading to make us “better, stronger, faster”, more productive and more successful, I would like to suggest – drawing on Maria Popova – to go back to a more traditional approach and sink deep into a story, just like we sink deep into love. 

The words – especially if they are those of a great writer – will do magic on our present selves without trying to transform and force us into “the improved” self of the future. 

Firmly believing in the idea that things don’t need to have a concrete use in order to be valuable, I asked the question “if not for direct and immediate self-improvement, why should we read?” and drew on the greatest minds in answering it.

We should read to educate ourselves on the things we don’t know, but also to find understanding in the world for our own issues. Jeanette Winterson says “literature is a mix of unfamiliarity and recognition”. Through books we go on adventures we could never go on in real life and we live through strange, unfamiliar events, yet we find answers to our own, everyday questions and we discover sides of ourselves, long-buried or never even seen. That is how “books read us back to ourselves”.

We should read to win more time. Mary Ruefle says that reading “is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single lifespan…”. So falling deep in a book – while sadly has the reputation of being a waste of time – actually allows you to experience many more adventures and feelings than you could in real life, in the same amount of time you finish the book. 

We should read to be shocked and woken up. Franz Kafka wrote to his childhood friend, Oskar Pollak: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”

We should read to make peace with inevitable solitude. Thanks to technology we are more connected, yet more isolated from one another than ever before. The pandemic has worsened the problem and while I understand that it is incredibly hard not to see one’s family and friends (I spent Christmas alone, away from my family for the first time and haven’t been able to visit them since then, so believe me, I know what I’m talking about) making peace with solitude and realizing that one can find soothing and entertainment even in solitary activities, like reading, can truly help.

Finally, we should read literature to be reminded that –contrary to what self-help books teach –we are not the centre of the universe. Yes, reading educates us, but it also humbles us by showing how much we still don’t know. It encourages us to talk and think about what would improve society at large rather than the single self. Or it encourages even not to talk that much but finally to listen. Even Leo Tolstoy stated, in the19th century, that they, as young writers, “we are all convinced that it was necessary for us to speak, write, and print as quickly as possible and as much as possible… And without noticing that we knew nothing, and that to the simplest of life’s questions: What is good and what is evil? We did not know how to reply, we all talked at the same time, not listening to one another… – just as in a lunatic asylum.”

Of course, this above – despite all good intentions – ended up a little bit like a self-improvement article. As I am completely aware of it, no hard feelings, I promise, if you just quickly toss it aside and pick up a novel instead. 

Further readings:

Written by Gréti Csernik. Read her latest pieces here!