Reading: A Compulsion, An Addiction, Or Obsession?

Is it possible to read too much?  Can words, like calories, be over consumed?

Like the little robot, Johnny Five, in the film Short Circuit, I constantly crave more input.  I’m not as bad as Teddy Roosevelt, who would grab a few words while waiting for a person to walk across the room to meet him, but I’m close.

The Bully Pulpit 

That anecdote I got from reading The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin, an epic volume where she profiles presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, their parents and wives, and the famous muck raking reporters from McClure’s Magazine they knew during the Progressive Era.  It seems like in every case, for both men and women, they all credit books as the defining influence of their lives.  Roosevelt was a very compulsive reader and claimed he read a book before breakfast each day.

We educate ourselves by reading.  We evolve empathetically by reading.  We nourish our souls by reading.  So, can there be too much reading?  I ask this because here are the books and magazines I’m currently reading, or trying to read.

keep the aspidistra flying

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell.  I got the Kindle and Audible edition on sale recently.  I first read this book back in the 1970s, it’s about a young man, Gordon Comstock, in 1934 England, struggling to be a poet and refusing to worship the God of money.  I’m at the six hour mark, out of nine, but switched over to The Bully Pulpit to get ready for the non-fiction book club discussion in February.  I’m now 12 hours into its 35 hours.  I keep meaning to jump back and finish those last three hours but The Bully Pulpit is absolutely captivating.


I saw Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark at the bookstore Sunday and just had to have it, so I ordered it from Amazon when I got home, and it was here Tuesday.  I’ve only just started it, but wished I could give up everything else to read it. I’m on a physics kick at the moment, so I crave it’s words and charts.

short night of the shadow catcher

I’m reading Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan for my local potluck supper book club.  I’m just up to chapter 3.


Reading The New York Review of Books is like having a heroin pusher for a best friend.  I’m on the third article, “A New Populism?” which reviews Social Democratic America by Lane Kenworthy, which would be a wonderful book to read after The Bully Pulpit, because Bully mentions 19th century populists as well as reformers and progressives.  Instead I went to the library and got two books reviewed in the second article, “Beneath the Stars.”

ava gardnerBarbara-Stanwyck-cover

I haven’t started either, but I’ve been itching to take the time to jump into both because I’ve been watching Gardner and Stanwyck movies on Warner Archive Instant lately.  I have a thing for old movies, and even though it’s not as relevant as physics or history, it does obsess me.


Everything makes me want to read books.  I saw the recent biofilm The Invisible Woman about Charles Dickens’ affair with actress Nelly Ternan, which made me go out and buy, Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin.  Time and again I return to the 19th century.  Growing up I was crazy in love with science fiction and the future, but now that I’m living in the 21st century, I spend a lot of time exploring the 19th century.  But I still read a lot of science fiction.  This week, I’ve been reading short stories, hoping they will inspire me to write short stories.


The Classic Science Fiction Book Club is reading one story a week from The Science Fiction Hall of Fame.  Of course, I also need to get started on the March book for them too, The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov.  Science fiction has always been fun and addictive to me, but as I’ve gotten older, reading non-fiction has become more addictive.

the robots of dawn 

I’m also rereading and studying The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin to write a comprehensive review.  I just finished it a few days ago, but it was so exciting that it’s thrown me into a science reading jag.  I listened to it first, but now I’m reading the Kindle edition trying to outline all it’s points.


I keep How To Read Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster by my TV chair to read during commercials.  Each chapter makes me want to read another classic book.

How to Read Like a Professor

And this might be TMI, but I keep On Writing Well by William Zinsser on my oldest Kindle in the bathroom for study while I’m occupied.

On Writing Well

I also read a lot of magazines, and these have came in the mail in just this past week.  If halfway through the Scientific American, and read the short pieces in The Rolling Stone.  As soon as I finish this essay I’m going to read more from these magazines as I listen to music.  That’s become my late afternoon habit now that I’ve retired.



smithsonianMusic-Drake-Rolling Stones

And this doesn’t count the dozens of magazines I try to keep up with at Next Issue.  I pay $15 a month for 130 titles for tablet reading.  Nor does this count the many books I’ve started last week and haven’t gotten back to yet.  I try hard to get to The New Yorker, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, Popular Science, Consumer’s Reports, Shutterbug, Popular Photography and Vanity Fair – but I’d like to read even more.  I seldom finish any of them.  I find most magazines, even the ones that I’d never buy like Vogue and Field and Stream often have one great article.

Nor does this list of reading material cover the daily consumption of websites I visit.

Do you see why I’m wondering if I have a reading problem?  If brains could get fat on words, I’d have a head the size of Texas.

When I write these blogs, I partly write them for writing practice.  Each day I attempt to find a topic and make it interesting.  But I also write because it’s therapeutic, like talking with an analyst.  I’m thinking out loud, trying to put two and two together.  This essay is my way of asking myself:  Do I read too much.  And if I read too much, what’s a reasonable amount of daily reading?

On one hand I feel I’m retired and should read as much as I want, or as little as I want.  But on the other hand, I feel all this reading should go towards a purpose.  While struggling to review The Trouble With Physics I realize how little I retain.  It’s a damn shame that all this good information should go in one ear and out the other.

Doris Kearns Goodwin spent seven years writing The Bully Pulpit and it reflects a massive amount of reading for research.  I wonder if I should focus my reading addiction on a single subject and try to write a nonfiction book?  Before I retired I dreamed of writing a novel, but I just don’t have the daily urge to write fiction.  I do love to write blogs and nonfiction essays.  That’s why I’m experimenting with my review of The Trouble With Physics – I’m actually doing a lot of research to write a longer essay.

Right now my daily reading feels like I’m just gobbling down M&Ms – it’s a compulsive craving.  And although I feel any reading is good for me, because new ideas provides fertilizer for my neurons, I can’t help but want all my data input to be put to some constructive use.  I’d like to think of good reading as healthy food, and writing as healthy exercise, for my mind.  If I just read books and didn’t blog, I don’t think I’d be anywhere near as happy as I am now.  And I think I’d be happier if my reading was more focused.

JWH – 2/27/14

6 thoughts on “Reading: A Compulsion, An Addiction, Or Obsession?”

  1. Jim, have you thought of writing a great new history of science fiction? I think you are well equipped and write very well. I’d love to read a thorough history of the earliest speculative fiction, then an examination of each era, the themes, and the influential authors as well as interesting facts about their lives. Further, you could look at the “outliers” – those writers who don’t really fit with their contemporaries. It should appeal to most of your obsessions. And just for fun, you might note what contemporary main-stream fiction and non-fiction might have had an effect, as well as how SF authors influenced each other. The possibilities seem endless.

  2. Actually, I second the notion that I think you could do a good history of sf. In the last few years, we’ve seen more personal histories which are kind of personal histories and litcrit. I think you would fit right in that vein.

    You’re blogging about the stuff anyway. Maybe, just maybe, you could put up as a self-published ebook.

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