catalog news 005: relearning to read in the 21st century again, again
by roryfebruary 28, 2024

Dear catalog friends,

A few updates on the catalog app and roadmap, before I go into my main train of thought:

We have a changelog! I try to update it every week and that's where you'll find the most detailed updates on all the little and big things we broke and fixed.

We also made an account on Bluesky. If you're on Bluesky, follow us there. If you're not, I only joined this week and can say it's a nice vibe so far (and I'm not even really the Twitter-ish type). We like it for a lot of reasons, technical as well as social, but you will hear more about this in the months to come, as we plan to build cool stuff on Bluesky's protocol.

The biggest new things released on catalog since my last post include:

  • Many of your typical social media features including comments and comments-on-comments, @-mentions, and notifications
  • You can now edit books (book details, covers, and TV/movie adaptations). Just for fun, there is also a leaderboard for who has edited the most books. (Yes, I'm winning.)

Lots of smaller things are detailed in the aforementioned changelog!

Some of the in-progress and upcoming things we're most excited about include:

  • Bluesky two-way integration: attach an existing Bluesky feed to a book's page so that anyone can read the posts on catalog; post to Bluesky while posting to catalog; and some form of catalog Bluesky feed as well as per-book feeds.
  • Continuation of "editing a book": ability to add a new book; syncing your edits/additions back to OpenLibrary.
  • Privacy/visibility settings on notes and shelves.
  • Reading timeline/history: for those of you who like to put in start/finish dates or track which books you read in a given year.

Something fun that's happening in the meantime is that some people on Bluesky are going to spend March (and part of April) reading the classic novel Middlemarch together, and have created a custom feed around #MiddleMarchMadness as a sort of book club. Glenn and I just happen to have both been poking at Middlemarch on and off for the past year or more, so we will be joining the madness, but we'll also be hosting a copy of the feed over at the Middlemarch page on catalog (hoping to have this up and running by Friday, because it's March 1st!), so that anyone will be able to follow along. (People on Bluesky, join us! Post here if you want to talk in the group; feed is here.)

Fun's over, now on to my actual post..

On relearning to read in the 21st century again, again

Many, many of you have written to us about how you miss reading and long to be readers again, and particularly, as the new year rolled around, wanting 2024 to be the year you come home to reading books. I feel exactly the same, and I wanted to tell you about what's been helping me along that journey in the first two months of this year.

Five years ago in 2019 (the innocent before-times!) I wrote a blog post called (Re)learning to read in the 21st century. It's about the old forgotten joy of reading that I experienced in my childhood, about how school was what first ruined my ability to read, and about my first baby steps back toward finding the joy again. You don't have to read it. But in case you're interested, there won't be much overlap with this post. And it does have a Gilmore Girls mention that I had forgotten about, in case that's a factor for you.

Of course, not long after I wrote that post, I went right back to struggling to read as much as I wanted to and in the way that I wanted to, and have mostly been on the struggle-bus all the way up until now. That's why the "again, again."

The nature of my struggle was mostly about wanting to read every book in the world, all at once, yet not having the wherewithal or willpower to spend enough time reading to finish even one book if I had focused all my time on it. It was a sort of non-settledness, a constant antsiness coupled with the vague feeling of failure. It meant I read a lot of introductions and first chapters, and then would try to sort of rotate through my books depending on which one I was in the mood for, reading bits and pieces of each book in turn. That was hard for me because I might for example read a few pages of one book, move on to graze from other books for a few months, then try to come back to that book, but having lost all the context of what had just happened, which character was which, and sometimes what chapter I'd left off on. And repeat for every book in my rotation. It was also stressful and overwhelming for me just to keep all those books in my mind, like juggling.

I think what made it hard to spend time reading was my habit of putting everything else first, only to realize at the end of each day that I had no more time left in the day, or to try to read anyway but fall asleep after a couple of pages. I'm pretty sure the world in general has also somehow gotten even more frenetic and antsy than it was in 2019, if that were possible.

(If I look back at the logs, I actually read kind of a lot of books, most of those years. But it never felt like enough, or felt like I was reading the books I had really wanted to read, or something. Which maybe says something about how it's ultimately a question of building a life one will be content with.)

Some small, gradual shifts that have happened for me recently have begun to help me settle into a reading life that feels much cozier and more peaceful. Unsurprisingly, a big part of this shift has been psychological. The rest is a bag of little practices and habits. I want to tell you about both.

Deciding to be a reader

There was some point at which, more subconsciously than consciously, I decided to be a reader: to be one who reads. As in, to have it be part of my identity, even if in a totally private sense: to have it be part of how I see myself. I do other things too, but to be a reader feels important to me somehow, important enough that there are things I would give up to be that. There is a nobility to the role too, in the sense of being a willing recipient of what a writer wanted to give. (I am a writer; I understand this.)

And part of what being a reader means to me, is figuring out why I want to read. Is it to be able to say that I read N books a year, or be able to say that I've read this or that book? Or to be educated, informed, knowledgeable (in a more externally-oriented way, i.e., to be seen as a person who knows what I'm talking about)? Or to satisfy my curiosity (to be informed in a more internally-oriented way)? Or to be immersed in a story or world (which is the main reason I read when I was a kid)? Or is it to be in a sort of conversation with the author, to experience mind-meld with another human mind, i.e., for the company?

I thought about all the readers I envy most, real and fictional. What they have in common is that they are all heavy readers who nonetheless show no interest in counting their books or otherwise quantifying their reading, nor in productivity practices like trying to read "efficiently" or to retain information, nor in "having something to say" about what they've read. (Nothing wrong with any of these things, and there are many highly respected readers who do them; they just aren't what I want for myself, deep down in my heart of hearts.) The readers I envy most may read all kinds of books, from the trendy to the obscure, from genre fiction to heady intellectual stuff. But they mostly keep their reading lives to themselves and enjoy their reading quietly, as a sort of personal pleasure and as a respite from everyday life.

So I think I want to be the kind of reader who enjoys books more or less quietly, with self, friends, and the authors, at whatever pace feels natural and unhurried. Which means I'll have to get comfortable with actually reading that way, to be okay with, say, reading a 1000-page book slowly over many months just because it's the book I most want to be reading, even if it means checking fewer "finishes" off the list and even if most people I know have never heard of the book. But it feels like having decided to be a reader, and having some idea of what kind of reader I want to be, brings a great deal of clarity whenever I'm agonizing over my reading (which is often, but, working on that).

Accepting mortality

(Yeah, I went there. Hope you were ready to have a tiny existential moment today.)

There comes a point of no return (one of many, in a life), which different people pass through at different ages, but which for me happened around the time I turned 30, and that was the point when I started thinking about certain experiences in terms of how many chances I might have left to do them in my estimated lifespan. This concept has never been illustrated better than in the classic, classic post The Tail End by Tim Urban (a must-read. Go ahead, I'll wait.).

When it comes to books, I consider the rather optimistic estimate of my perhaps getting to read around 50 books a year on average, and the rather optimistic estimate of having another 50 years to read. That's 2500 books I might get to read (and it could turn out to be way, way fewer), out of the hundreds of thousands that get published every YEAR. And 2500 is even fewer than the number of books probably carried by a smallish indie bookstore at any one time. In short, I will never read all the books. I won't even read all that many of them. Keeping that in mind helps me to be more discerning about whether to spend time on a given book—is there some reason this book belongs among the not-that-many books I will read in my lifetime? It helps calm my anxiousness that I mentioned earlier about wanting to read "all the books." As reading all the books is not going to be a thing, I can focus more on the few books I'm super strongly drawn to. There are already more amazing books out there than I can read in my lifetime. That's cool in a way, because it means that if I chose well (and with a little luck), every book I read could be a total banger, and I would still never run out.

Some specific practices and habits I've gotten into recently

One book at a time. After many years of allowing my "currently reading" shelf to balloon exponentially due to reading the first chapters of any book I was excited about and then counting it as another "currently reading" book, I've finally decided to accept that that practice only made me happy in the moment, but made me a lot more overwhelmed overall, with each book I had started taking up space in that part of my mind where I keep track of "unfinished things." Over the past couple of months, I've slowly (, gently,) pared it down from around 12 books in progress, to 5, to 3, 2, and now just one, through a combination of finishing some, deciding to set some aside till later, and abandoning some (on which more below). I'm not that strict about it, and I would still be happy to read a first chapter of a new book for fun, as long as that no longer adds it to my mental list of things I plan to get back to "any day now." But I'm finding it infinitely more calming so far, and well worth the extra patience it takes.

Rocks, pebbles, sand. This is a well-known time management concept (about how you have to put the big/important things in the jar first, etc), and I've found that my reading life only functions properly if it is one of the rocks. I still prefer to do most of my reading as the last thing in my day, but instead of getting everything else done and then finding that I've run out of time, I have to consider my non-reading (or pre-reading) day to be over, several hours before my sleep time: "welp, only 4 hours till sleep; time to wrap everything up and get ready to read in bed." Realistically a lot of this gets frittered away, which is why it has to start out as a HUGE chunk of time reserved.

The art of the abandon. Life is short (see: "Accepting mortality"). If a book persists in feeling like a slog, I give myself permission to abandon it ("only for now," if I need that qualifier!). What's newer for me is the "late abandon", where previously if I was past halfway in a book, I might press on to the end out of pure obligation so I could get the "credit" for finishing it. I wouldn't have dreamed of abandoning a book a few pages from the end. But, now accepting a life without any form of "credits", a different way to see the late abandon is not as time wasted, but that I gave the book a good thorough try, until I was absolutely sure it wouldn't be worth it to finish it, and then abandoned it at exactly that point. It takes me an enormous amount of willpower to not finish it, thanks to the weird unhealthy ways in which I'm accustomed to measuring my life. But I'm learning the satisfaction of a good late abandon, a sort of private flex in which I intentionally decide to do something better with my time.

Phone in drawer. (The newest practice I've adopted—it's only been a few days!) The other day, I woke up and asked myself, for seemingly the first time in my life, why I would ever need to use my phone when I'm at home, especially since I have a computer at home. A smartphone is quite useful when I'm out and about. But what do I need it for at home? I couldn't think of a single good purpose (other than occasionally taking a photo.. and for 2FA). Which made me feel really silly, for taking some 20 years to ask myself this absurdly simple question. I can't even remember why I used to feel that I needed it to have my phone on me all the time, why I would need to carry it with me from room to room. (To be in nonstop conversation with people, I guess, which I don't do anymore.) So I put my phone in a drawer, literally put it in a drawer, and that's where it's been living when I'm home. It's been surprisingly easy to forget about it, and (unsurprisingly) much easier to read without distraction.

Paper books. Between my post five years ago and now, I got all the way into reading on Kindle—at one point I was reading exclusively on Kindle and thought I might do that forever—and now I've gone all the way in the reverse, and these days only rarely read an ebook, and only for very specific reasons. Reading on Kindle is more practical than reading paper books in almost every way (instant buy, portability, highlights, dictionary)... but it's just no fun. For me, anyway. And if I'm going to read and especially if I'm going to pay for it, I want the fun.

Also, audiobooks. I used to not listen to audiobooks, because I found it much more taxing on my brain than reading text, and also because I definitely wanted to have the text and didn't want to have to buy a book twice. But now that (only since last month or so) my Spotify plan includes audiobook hours, but in an "all-you-can-eat" model where I can listen to bits and pieces of any book in their surprisingly-good selection, I can finally go back and forth between print and audio in the same book, without paying extra. This helps greatly with "one book at a time" because I can stay immersed in my current book even when I'm out and about. (I still find listening more taxing than reading, but it's gotten easier with practice.) I have friends who've expressed some sheepishness or even shame about audiobooks, as if it's a form of "cheating". I can't say I have ever felt this. Voice is the OG form of storytelling, after all. And do I think George Eliot would be going, "I'm pleased you're still reading my book 150 years later, but I just wish you would read the text with your eyes instead of listening to someone read it aloud?" I do not.

catalog. Honestly, seeing some of you calmly doing your thing around catalog has had, I think, a powerful effect on re-orienting the way I think about reading. It's not the anxious feeling Goodreads used to give me, where "everyone is finishing so many books and I can't keep up!" I've described the vibe I get from the catalog community as more like that of a quiet reading party, as if I were to get in a room with a bunch of my friends and we just each read our own different books, on our own but in each other's company. Instead of feeling like it's a contest, I feel gently encouraged to join in. "Oh hey, you're here—pull up a chair."


So that's me these days. How long will the good times last? Will I be writing another post, five years from now, that ends in the words "again, again, again"? (Probably.) If you've read this far, thanks for indulging me in this bit of navel-gazing, and I hope you've gotten something out of it too. But actually, I'm always curious about the reading life of anyone and everyone, including you. So if you are moved to write a similar post, a sort of "state of my reading life, 2024," and point me to it (or if you want to just reply to this email with a quick thought instead), I would love to read it. And if you give me permission, I'll happily share the posts and/or snippets in future installments of this newsletter.

Happy Leap Day tomorrow—hoping yours involves good people and/or a good book.