Thomas Bates

Brief Thoughts

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Thoughts on Reading

When I was very young - in first-grade - I had to meet with a teacher separately from other kids for maybe an hour a day or week. This was, as best I remember because I had some difficulty with reading. I remember one of the exercises we did was to take several words that had been printed on pieces of paper and arrange them into proper sentences. It wasn’t very long after that when my love for reading developed, and I read above my grade level the rest of the time I was in school.

It wasn’t unusual for me to read several books a week back then. For the most part, this was before we had a home computer or a home internet connection (at the time, AOL disks were commonly used as frisbees).1 So, most of my spare time went into reading, as the escapism of it became a friendly companion. (…)

Sometime at the tail end of high school, or maybe just after, I found that my appetite for reading had decreased somewhat. This happened roughly around the same time as I began to read more and more non-fiction for University. It’s difficult to say what the last fiction physical book that I really got lost in was.2 It may have been Stephen King’s 2009 Under the Dome, which I inhaled all 1000 pages of over a week in what I considered to be the dull flatlands of Kansas. I recall spending hours and hours a day doing nothing but reading.

King describes reading as “an act of telepathy.” I valued this feeling - of being transported to a different time, a different world, getting to live in someone else’s shoes - above all else. And yet, somewhere along the way, I lost my attention span. Sitting down with a book and traveling far, far, away became difficult, then impossible. Something had broken without my knowing where it was or how to fix it.3

This strange muscle atrophy happened at the same time that my life became more dependent on what I call “technical reading.” This is reading that occurs when you have to endure endless journal articles, federal regulations, or short-format news stories. These kinds of material have become more and more dominant in my life and require a different type of reading. They don’t permit the mind to be taken along to new pastures, they demand the brain to pull a loaded cart up the mountainside. Yes, one can learn to take enjoyment in it; but it does alter your approach to reading.

Another element of my life that altered near the same time was a growing sense of comfort and competency. I grew up in a house that was rife with conflict and escaping that was often the goal of my reading. Even after that conflict lessened, the toll those years took didn’t heal overnight. Yet as they recovered, developmentally, I was not much aware of my own self or what I really liked or had a good interest in. Since then, the process of getting to know myself as well as developing my interests and skills, has made me more comfortable with myself, and less starved for the escapist mindset that drove my reading appetite. Similarly, a growing competency forces me, upon seeing something in the world that I find intolerable or otherwise in need of repair, to use my skills to do something about it. Acceptance of the fact that change is often incremental over time further dampens what otherwise would be a lust for an escape to some other, better world.

I recognize that both my reasons for reading and the skills required to do so have changed. Yet, something in me still requires this feeling of vicarious life. Maybe it’s because the transmitting of stories is a core human experience - something we need and hunger for as though it were the air in our lungs. Oral storytelling has been a human tradition since time immemorial. To ride along and see distant worlds and listen to the voice of a skilled storyteller as they paint the clearest pictures with no canvas at all. The storyteller of the family is always the most famous person at the reunion; the person who knows how best to carry the room off with their voice has access to unique power and admiration.

This is how I’ve been re-acquainting myself with the act of reading: through audiobooks. There is something doubly special about an excellent narrator - the words carry a heftier weight; their joys are sweeter and their sorrows more profound.

The first audiobook I purchased was Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. I first found this book because I had been long flirting with the idea of suicide, and was solving my problems the way I’ve always done: research.4 At the time, I was a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago and was genuinely lost. I was navigating an identity that I did not know or like, suffering the pangs of unrequited love, and questioning all of the decisions that lead me to take up residence in Chicago. I had been confronted - quite unpleasantly - with a startling lack of competency for graphic design coursework, especially when it came to the apparently critical mixing of paint.5 I was totally unmoored and did not have my usual escapism as comfort.

With some embarrassment, I found Stay in the UIC Library and checked it out. Dr. Hecht is a poet by trade and writes beautifully. I finished the print book swiftly and then purchased the narration. The author narrates her own writing, and it is a joy for the ears. I have no idea how many times I’ve read her work, but I can say with some faith that her words had a profound impact on me, and I listen to her narration about once a year.6

That book gave me want for further research, especially in regards to mental health and youth suicide (LGBT in particular). It gifted me a deep empathy for suffering, and likely an early foundation for the skills I now use daily in advocating for the vulnerable. This impact is a power unique to writing and reading, strengthened by the author’s passionate narration.

Since my purchase of that first audiobook in 2014, I’ve amassed 68 titles in my Audible library (with a further 58 on my wishlist) and several more in iBooks and various library rental apps. The love of hearing others’ stories has caused me to consume numerous hours of podcasts like This American Life7 and The Moth.8 According to Audible’s app, I’m nearing 20 full days of listening time, a number that will undoubtedly continue growing.

For a time, I was unconvinced that listening to an audiobook indeed “counted” as reading. I’m rarely a traditionalist, but I struggled with calling “listening,” “reading.” Was this merely cheating? A way to fool my brain into doing what I had lost the skill for? Was it true that I was reading, or was my brain “checked out” while a babbling flow of words poured in one ear and out the other?

What caused me to finally accept listening as reading was just that - while listening to some book, I had tuned out for a moment and caught myself. My imagination had spun off, and the author’s story had bucked me. This experience, which I initially blamed on poor attention, was, in actuality, those old, atrophied muscles regaining their strength and learning new ways to move. The momentary lapse of concentration was caused by the return of my imagination, spoiling to explore the unknown. Consider - how often have you been reading and either slipped into “autopilot” or lost yourself otherwise, being forced to restart the paragraph? That is what I had done by rewinding the track.

A few days ago, I finished Nick Offerman’s wonderful narration of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I could not put it down and enjoyed the old feeling of being compelled at all times of rest to read for more of that world. Proceeding to Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, I’ve come to realize that I can once again escape to another time and place. Not because I feel the need to run from something, but because I wish to run towards something.

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Thomas Bates

10 January 20209


  1. In fact, the most enjoyable computer programs I recall from around this period were a demo of Microsoft Flight Simulator and a trip planning program that had global maps, which I thoroughly enjoyed. 

  2. From 2013-2014, when I lived in Chicago, I lived across the street from a small bookstore that I frequented. Most of my reading during this time was non-fiction biographies, histories, or essays. These were things that prompted a lot of thought. However, I think I might still group them into “technical reading” rather than relaxation reading. 

  3. The same sort of effect took to my writing. Previously, I had written a fair amount of fiction (nothing good, certainly). Still, with all of my technical writing, I lost the skill for it. Only in the last few weeks have I began trying to exercise that muscle again. 

  4. The majority of books published attempting to dissuade people from suicide tend towards religious rationale, or at least, so I found at the time. Possessing no faith, and being somewhat alienated by it (especially back then), these were not things I found digestible. 

  5. I had chosen to live in Chicago to pursue a degree in Graphic Design because of a book called Design for Democracy by Marcia Lausen, who was the dean of the Graphic Design program at UIC. I loved setting type, laying forms, etc., but had no talent for mixing paint as I discovered in my color theory class. One day when we were to be mixing, I had done what I thought was a fairly decent job when an instructor passed with a somewhat dismissive, “is that the best you can do?” The lens we look through when we’re depressed cheats us of color and makes everything sound piercing, so who is to say if it was my best, or if the remark truly was as dismissive as my raw ears heard it. 

  6. Dr. Hecht’s website: http://www.jennifermichaelhecht.com 

  7. This American Life’s website: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/ 

  8. The Moth’s website: https://themoth.org/ 

  9. The first draft of this article was written with a Platinum 3776 with a nib ground by myself, and inked with Noodler’s Q-Eternity, on Rhodia N°19 Yellow paper. The weather was stormy, and my cat Ripley occasionally sat on my desk while I wrote.