Reading as Performance Art

October 6, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 5 Comments

Last year I read 409 books.  This year I thought I would try to push it to 500.  I’m behind right now, but I’m still on track to read more than I did last year, and I’m thinking I may be able to build up enough steam to make my goal.  Why am I doing it?

Lots of people read massive piles of books every year.  My dad and my grandma share thrillers and science fiction, my mom reads Harlequin romance, and between the three of them they could stock their own book fair every year.  To me this is harmless entertainment, better than rotting in front of the TV – but personally, I want the view from my deathbed to include more than The Da Vinci Cod.  (That’s a new novel about a fish that appreciates Renaissance Art and develops conspiracy theories).

My reading so far this year includes five 900-page books.  I’ve read some of the most enduring classics and some of the most controversial, challenging books I could find, and there are more yet to come. I’ve gone through Ulysses, 2666, and The Kindly Ones. I’ve read half of this year’s Booker Prize long list and part of last year’s, while motoring through the Pulitzers. I’ve read 121 non-fiction books.  I’ve completed a couple of challenges already and I’ve gone out of my way for the critically acclaimed.  I want to be able to say that I’ve read 500 fulfilling books, books I can be proud to have read.  It’s important that it be an accomplishment, not an empty benchmark.

I’ve done what I would refer to as lifestyle performance art in the past.  This year, in addition to the 500 books, I’m walking 1000 miles – I’ve cleared 800 already and I’m well on track.  In the past I went a month without driving – which led to selling my car – and went another month spending only $4.20 a day on food to demonstrate how expensive cigarettes are.  I’ve been a vegan for over 12 years.  These acts are political and artistic statements.  I want to show people how much it is possible to do in 24 hours a day, as well as draw attention to issues I think are important.

Ultimately, I’d like to be able to tell people I read 500 books in one year while moving to a new city, planning two vacations and a wedding, helping train a puppy, and spending hours a week working with my new stepdaughter on her literacy skills, not to mention walking a thousand miles and living without a credit card.  (It looks like I might also be hosting Thanksgiving at my house for the first time, possibly with as many as a dozen guests).  The point isn’t to show off – far from it, or I might as well just wear makeup and try to have perfect hair – but to inspire people.  If she can do all that, what can I do?

If whatever it is includes reaching out and helping more kids learn to love reading, so much the better!


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  1. This is a wonderful post that I will probably come back to the next time I’m knee deep in a difficult book and need some motivation to keep going. I am right there with you—it’s not just about reading as many books as you can (my goal for the year is 100); it’s about reading GOOD books, books that add something to your life or challenge you to think in a new way or expose you to something different. Sure, there’s a time and place for fluff, but it’s really all about the substance.

    Thanks for sharing your perspective and letting us know where you’re coming from. Maybe one day you’ll do a “day in the life of Jessica” post so we can understand exactly how you manage to fit in the reading time?

    • Good idea! I’ll do that today.

  2. When I announced my intention to read 100 books in 2008, people started showing real interest during that last month. Every day I would be greeted with “What number are you on?” By the time I got to the high 90s, I practically had a cheering section.

  3. This was an interesting point of view. I love reading and I read a lot at work while the kids are napping (preschool teacher). I know reading is good for me, individually, but I always felt guilty because it feels like I am doing nothing for other people. But my coworkers see me read and I notice they are starting to read or at least ask me about what I’m reading. And I guess reading helps other people because you are becoming more knowledgeable and open-minded and you use that everyday in different ways. I think actually writing a book someday would be the best way to give back and writing is one step about reading, but I don’t know if I have the imagination or the determination to accomplish that.

    • I think reading does help other people. First, it helps you stay centered and relaxed so you can continue to help others without burnout. Second, it provides the sorts of jobs we all dream about for writers and at publishers and bookstores. Third, it inspires others to read more, and when they are, it means they’ve stopped doing something else that might have been less constructive. Seeing another person sitting quietly helps others keep their cool, too. Most of all, though, I think reading can teach us compassion for people from other walks of life as well as keep us informed about current events.

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