“Reading woman on a couch” by Isaac Israels, c. 1920
Reading, we’ve been told many times, is good for us. It teaches us things. It’s good for your health. It’s good for your brain. It increases empathy. It can have mental health benefits. Reading will show you the world, and all.
All of that is well and good, but leaves out one of the greatest things reading has to offer: It’s an incredibly effective and enjoyable method of procrastination.
Currently, I’m reading Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor. This book has been recommended to me more times than I can count, and for more reasons than I can count, some of them baffling. Whoever suggested this one when I wanted books where nothing happens: What is your idea of a book in which things happen!?!? EVERYTHING IS HAPPENING IN THIS BOOK.
I’m not reading it for a reason, other than the aforementioned plentiful recommendations and because it sounded good (and I am quite pleased to report that it’s extremely good).
Well, that’s not entirely true. I have a reason. It’s just not a very valid one: I’m reading it because I wanted to do something I wasn’t supposed to.
Here is a small sampling of things I should have been doing when I picked up The Goblin Emperor:
- Writing this column
- Writing a book review
- Reading another book to review
- Writing another piece
- The dishes
- Watering my plants that hate me
- Physical therapy exercises
- Any form of exercise
- Facing my inbox
- A spreadsheet project
- A scanning project
- Brushing the cats
I think you get my drift.
Whenever I’ve put something off in my life, I’ve read. And not only books. I have avoided uncomfortable or annoying work (and life) tasks by finding very important articles that I simply have to read at that moment. I have used tangents in email conversations to dig up articles to recommend to other people. I have put off uncomfortable feelings by reading Ask Polly columns, dragged my heels on leaving the house in favor of nearly 20-year-old Battlestar Galactica reviews, avoided decisions by endlessly and unnecessarily reading up on whatever it is I’m trying to make a decision about.
I’m sure there are things that can’t be delayed because you’re extremely busy reading. But there are so many things that can. And you can do themes! Prefer to put off the end of your favorite TV show? Read the book it was based on, or a book inspired by the book it was based on, or a book recommended by the lead actress! Procrastinating something work-related? Have you read Ask a Manager lately? Surely you’ll find some incredible advice, or at least some astonishing stories.
When I don’t know what to write, I read. When I do know what to write and am just mired in self-doubt or tiredness or am in need of inspiration, I read. Is it helpful? Absolutely. But it’s also procrastination.
You can, of course, argue that this is the good kind of procrastination. It does all those things I talked about up above: I might learn stuff, or feel things, or gets ideas for my own writing, or discover new authors, new series, new reasons to moan that there’s never enough time for reading. I’m not mindlessly crushing candy (though I’ve spent plenty of time doing that, too) or marathoning reality TV (ditto, but I mean, have you seen How to Build a Sex Room? Worth it!). I’m reading. I get to feel good about it. Right?
The thing about procrastination, though, is that eventually it feels kind of bad even when you’re doing something that generally feels good. Ignoring everything else in favor of an immersive book is so very, very satisfying… until it isn’t. When it’s good, it’s comfort, a mental warm fuzzy blanket, a sense of being wrapped up in a story or, in the case of nonfiction, someone else’s bright and brilliant mind. But sometimes reading is also a cave, dark and shadowy—a place I don’t want to come out of, where the only light is what’s necessary to see the next page. It’s a hideout. It’s the only thing I can do when I don’t want to do anything.
And that’s okay too.
When I don’t want to do anything, it’s often because some back corner of my brain is very busy chewing on something I’m not entirely aware of, and it wishes to be left alone. It can be hard not to get self-judgey and frustrated with these phases—unless there’s a new Zelda game (the world’s true best method of procrastination)—but I think they’re necessary. Writers will tell you that it’s all writing. Ruminating, thinking, daydreaming, wandering, talking, cooking, yes, even procrastinating: It’s all part of the process. And that’s not just true for writing. Whatever it is that you do in your work or free time, you probably need some back-brain chew-toy time for that, too.
Sometimes that time just doesn’t look like doing anything. Other times, it looks like long walks, or exercise, or videogames… or reading. Immerse yourself. Think about someone else’s life for a while. Get an idea about how to solve a problem from Naomi Nagata or Kaz Brekker. Get infuriated and inspired by a bad book; get inspired and overjoyed by a great one. Shake yourself up a little and read something unexpected, or reread an old favorite for comfort and familiarity. Books are good for so many things. Of course procrastination is one of them.
Now I obviously need to go finish The Goblin Emperor before I do anything else. (Please, please don’t spoil it in the comments!)
Originally published September 2022
Molly Templeton lives and writes in Oregon, and spends as much time as possible in the woods. Sometimes she talks about books on Twitter.