#124: Three Kinds of Reading

Every once in a while I’ll go through the list of articles I’ve saved on my phone to read later and, starting from the bottom (and least recent) I’ll one by one archive those I’d initially saved because of some ambition, some fleeting idea that once I learned more about X then I could do Y. Incorporate it into a story. Be caught up with what everyone else is talking about. Have it in my pocket for a rainy day.

I was telling my friend about this a few weeks ago, about how it applies to books, too, and he said that he went to a talk once where the speaker split his consumption into two categories: just-in-case reading – the kind that I identified as borne out of ambition – and just-in-time reading – the kind you do to solve a problem like, How do I chase away the woodpecker pecking the wood siding outside my bedroom window every morning?

As we were talking, though, we identified a third kind of reading – just-because reading – reading that we do for fuzzier reasons. We don’t ask anything of just-because reading. We’re not bogged down by the expectations of just-in-case reading, or the tunnel vision of just-in-time reading. We allow ourselves to be taken where we are taken, and in that openness we often find unexpected relevance.

As with many things, the boundaries aren’t strict. I can scroll through my list of just-in-case reading and suddenly see something I have a strong urge to read right then and there. I can start a piece of just-in-time reading and have it consume me, lead me to just-because reading under the same topic, by the same author. Conversely I can start something just because and have it turn into a slog, turn into something that I force myself to finish for the sake of finishing. I can have The Martian pinging my radar and the movie coming out can tip me over the edge, but once I start reading I can completely let go of that intention. Great writing, especially, can make us forget why we read.

I’ve said this in one of my previous letters to you, I think, and I’ll keep saying it: I believe in signs. I believe signs are envoys from our subconscious; our bodies telling us where to direct our attention. And as I move forward I try to listen for when an author or book seems to keep coming up in my life, and let that guide what I read. Many of my favorite books I’ve discovered this way. Many of my favorite anythings. They were self-fulfilling prophecies, they came to me at the right time because I had no sense of a wrong time. When I ask myself why I read them the answer is often, I’m not entirely sure. It is often, Just because.