08/05/2014 08:09 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2014

My Capricious Reading Habits, Authors' Sustained Attentions

When I was a child, I belonged to the summer reading book clubs at the local library. At our library, young readers earned stars for each book completed during the summer months. There were no restrictions on what you read, you only had to attest that the book had been read to earn each gold star. By August, my reading card was thick with self-adhesive stars. Since then, I associate the hot, lazy days of summer with reading books.

Now, I am no longer a young reader, but it is summer. I am reading. And, in many ways, still reading at the frantic pace I embraced at eight and nine. I want to gather stars for completed books before fall arrives with its demands to read other things. In summer, my mind and heart graze on desire and pleasure between paperback covers.

This past week I started Judith Frank's new book, All I Love and Know. It is gorgeous, though it set it aside for a day or two to read Tom Perotta's The Leftovers. I started the television series but didn't want to wait the ten weeks while the plot unfolded. I finished The Leftovers in two or three days. Then turned back to Frank's novel. These are the capricious reading behaviors I engage in summer.

As much as I love reading, thought there are moments when it makes me sad. I fly through books, especially in these summer months. I read greedily for fun plots, beautiful turns of phrase, lush descriptions of worlds I want to see. I finish at least a book a week, sometimes more. I spend a scant five or six hours with a novel, sometimes only a little over an hour with a collection of poetry. I read quickly as if I still am gathering gold stars from librarians. Sometimes the speed is pleasurable, especially in summer. Being swept away in another world, in a riveting plot, in a time and place unlike today: these are the joys of summer reading.

As an adult, however, I recognize how much time writers spend creating these novels and poems and memoirs and biographies that I read, consume, inhale in mere minutes. Authors invest hours and hours of our lives creating books for people to read. Poets speak of writing poems over a decade or more. Even the most prolific novelists require a full year of intensive work to produce a book. Some biographies or other nonfiction books are the result of three to six years of research and writing. Daily, painstaking work creates prose that I scan, absorb then set aside. Authors give their time, their passion, their lives to writing books; readers consume their books in a few short hours, sometimes in a single sitting. How to account for these different modes of being between writers and readers? Is the breathless read an author's desire? Or a cruel diminishment of sustained attention?

Sometimes this inequity between the time to produce and the time to consume fills me with sadness. Sometimes it prompts me to savor books more, to lower my speed of reading, to revel in details, to slow down, to eschew the gold stars, the tick marks of completion. As if my devotion to a book as a reader could ever match the author's investment of time, energy, and attention.

Eventually I return to my flagrant, barreling ways. I scan paragraphs, flip pages, search for the juicy bit, the crucial plot point. I embrace the fickle paths of my mind; I read capriciously. I know that I may not give enough attention to the book in my hand, but I am giving attention; I am reading the words a writer committed to paper for me. In the end, that bit of attention must be enough; no matter how brief, my attention must earn its own self-adhesive, gold star.