The paces of reading

Earlier this year I was diagnosed with a herniated disc. This meant a total cessation of all high-intensity physical activity, which meant I had to cease doing several of the major things that bring me joy and keep my happy hormones regulated and high.

The rest has been wonderful for my back (and probably my body in general), but it’s also been a bit dispiriting. I can’t wait to get back into my regular routine of Insanity, lifting, and running.

But as I was ruminating (gloomily) on the long runs I miss so dearly, I thought about the ways my enjoyment of physical activity mirrors that of my experience of books.

Reading is many things. It can be hard work. It can be breezy. It can be enjoyable, frustrating, challenging, enraging, uplifting, inspiring, confusing, disappointing, and exhilarating. For the right book, it could be all of the above. (I have yet to meet this right book.)

There are two general things I love about reading: getting acquainted with the content, and finishing. And what the content is determines the experience of getting across the finish line. It determines the pace of the reading.

I love the experience of the steady pace of reading. The reliable beat of words tripping through my imagination, creating worlds in which I discover beauty and characters in which I discover my own humanity. I find this steady pace is best found in rereads, easy reads, or immersive reads, and I liken it to my long Sunday runs. On Sunday mornings, I put on my run gear (FlipBelt and ICRC Conference 2019 hat), walk 50 yards to loosen the legs, step into my running pace, and just go. I used to run the same 9-mile loop every week (prior to THE BACK). I’ve “read” it so much that I’ve memorized its curves, its challenges, and its allowances. I know how to meet every inch of that route without needing to put too much conscious thought into any moment. I start, enjoy the familiar sights, feels, and sounds, and then I finish. The finish certainly feels good (as does the food I enjoy eating after!), but it’s the running itself, the physical exertion at a steady pace, that I enjoy so much. The cognitive ease (though I am misusing that phrase) of a steady pace and a familiar path. I crave that steady, meditative pace.

I return to familiar books for the reasons I go to my Sunday running route, knowing almost exactly what I’ll get. Not exactly-exactly, because I’m a slightly different person reading a book the fifth time versus the first or fourth. So I am bringing difference to the reading. The hill may be harder. Or the hill may be easier. The downhill may require more focused balance. Or the downhill will make me feel like I’m flying. But I know the route, the curves and rough patches, the places where the trees part and the beautiful ocean stretches out before me after the hardest hill climb of the run. I know the payoff of all the work I’ll be doing, the time I’m investing, the thought I’m putting into someone else’s story. I know all that, anticipate all that, and thus my reading pace can be steady. That steady pace is an incredibly satisfying reading experience. It’s easy, feels good to get in the groove, and makes the act of reading just as much pleasure as reward. It’s my long run.

Not all my workouts are steady state. In fact, the bulk of my workouts are high intensity, and thus uneven. Big bursts of energy to a major lift and then a few minutes of rest to gear up for another big burst. 3-minutes maximum intensity cardio intervals followed by 30 seconds of rest. Lots of peaks and valleys in my heart rate and energy exertion. I love this experience. It forces me to be more “present” with the workout itself. While the workouts may be familiar (how many times have I done Shaun T’s Max Interval Training by now?! 100? Also, insert “Hegel is LITERALLY Insanity” joke here), the energy needed to get through it requires full concentration. It’s a jerky, stop and start, catch your breath, focus-all-your-attention-on-what-your-body-is-doing kind of workout. It’s a little unpredictable because I never know how my body will respond in that moment to that exercise — are my arms tired from lifting the day before? Then my pushups could require a whole lot more concentration. Are my quads jello from grabbing the 25 pounders instead of the 20s for my weighted lunges? Then my jump squats will be much slower and I’ll need to focus REALLY hard on my form to keep my body weight centered (so I don’t, you know, herniate a disc or something. BLARGH.).

Aka, it’s reading f*cking Hegel.

Lots of starts and stops, veryvery focused and intellectual exertion, rereading various sentences or passages, stopping entirely to think about what the f*ck he could have meant…. and then sometimes a total reread because WTF JUST HAPPENED. The pace is disjointed, frenetic, repetitive, and even when it’s slow it’s always intense. Finishing one of THESE books feels like an accomplishment more than an enjoyment. The end is enjoyable, and the reward better than anything, but the end somehow feels more inevitable. It feels more necessary. Finishing a hard book (just like an hour-long Insanity workout) is the coming-to-an-end of a struggle and thus involves just as much a collapse of relief as a sigh of contentment. The reward of putting and pushing myself through the experience of such an intense, focused, uneven physical or intellectual workout is so much better than the experience of the workout itself. (And, remarkably, it makes future workouts of the same kind much easier!)

I crave both the simple steady and intense jerky pace of reading. That’s probably why I like to read more than one book at a time. When my brain feels in need of stimulation, I pick up a book that requires intense focus. When my brain needs to wind down or find comfort-in-the-act-of-reading, I pick up a familiar favorite, a pop nonfiction book, or a highly-recommended novel. Either way, I get to run through the written word. It’s all wonderful.

I like my stack. And the guy in the photo.

I wonder if there is any brain science behind this, these different paces of reading. The way our brains take in new and familiar information. There has to be, yes?! Off to scour the interwebs…

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