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Celeste Ng Headshot

The Year of Not Reading

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In 2011, I didn't read a single book.

Okay, that's not strictly true. By my best estimates, I have read Goodnight, Moon six hundred and seventy-five times—at least once a night, sometimes twice. I have read Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? too many times to count. And I can now recite Sandra Boynton's Moo, Baa, La La La in its entirety. You guessed it: I have a baby. And this morning, I checked my Goodreads page and confirmed that I did not read a single new book last year.

To make matters worse, reading is part of my job: I'm the blog editor at Fiction Writers Review—a website dedicated to emerging writers and their books. This year, I kept up with current publishing news through blogs, but I didn't get to sample even one of the many fabulous books we reviewed. Adding to the guilt, 2011 was a great year for books. Swamplandia! Binocular Vision! State of Wonder! The Cat's Table! All added wistfully to my burgeoning to-read list.

Reading is part of my other jobs too: as a teacher and a writer, books are the most basic way I keep in touch with other authors, both friends and those I admire from afar. We talk about books the way most people talk about sports. Three separate times last year, someone—ready to rave about a new favorite—has asked, "Have you read Volt?" and shamefacedly, I replied each time, "Not yet." I'm doubly ashamed because Alan Heathcock is also a friend, one whose writing I truly admire, and not reading his book (yet!) is a little like not congratulating him on the birth of a new baby—a baby I'm actually beyond thrilled to meet.

And not reading has had effects on my own writing. New books bring new ideas, and new ideas keep your work fresh. Spend too much time alone with your own words, and your writing grows anemic, in dire need of a transfusion.

So what did I learn from The Year of Not Reading?

First off, some humility. As a historically voracious reader—pre-baby, I averaged a book every week or two, and when I was a kid, I'd routinely read a book a day—I never understood how some people could not read. When I heard people say they didn't have time to read, in my head I simultaneously pitied and ridiculed them: there was always time to read. Well, now I understand. Sometimes life gets in the way.

But I found an unexpected benefit, too. Spend enough time wrangling a toddler, and you get good at being kind but firm. Like your child, you must be doggedly single-minded when it matters. No, we are not going to open the garbage can. It is time to put on your shoes. And: No, we are not going to take out the blocks. I know that would be fun. But it is time to put on your shoes. And: It is time to put on your shoes. It is time to put on your shoes.

As 2012 begins, and I slowly, painstakingly, carve out moments to write, this skill has become very useful—because there are a million things that are easier, and ostensibly more fun, than writing. To get anything written at all, you must be kind but firm to yourself. You must be doggedly single-minded at your desk, where it really matters. Replace "open the garbage can" with "check your email" and "take out the blocks" with "poke around on Facebook." And repeat to yourself, gently, but firmly: It is time to write. It is time to write. It is time to write.