These days, I primarily read on my Kindle, a trusty Paperwhite that I bought in 2015 when my old Kindle Keyboard shuffled off this mortal coil. The case is cracked and falling apart, but I’m wary of replacing it, in case the Kindle itself follows suit shortly afterwards; the device itself is hanging in there at the moment, but occasionally has its glitches.
Since I first got a Kindle in 2011, I’ve continued to read a mixture of paper books and ebooks. In recent years, I’ve shifted towards the ebooks for fiction. When I was struggling with my visual stress, before I got my tinted glasses, it was easier to tape an orange plastic overlay to my Kindle screen than continually move one from page to page of a paper book. Now, although I can read paper books more easily again, I’m separated by a few hundred miles from the majority of my collection, with only ten fiction books here with me in my flat.
So it’s practical, it’s convenient, and the number of books I’m able to pick up at discounted prices mean that I can feed my reading habit without having to sacrifice the ability to feed myself — all good reasons to rely on ebooks.
Part of me, however, resents that my naive 2011 self locked myself into an Amazon-dependent Kindle, my extensive library of ebooks difficult to transfer to another system if I decided to steer away from Amazon when this device eventually breaks. I don’t like giving money to Amazon, if I can help it: I disapprove of their treatment of workers, their failure to pay taxes, and the impact they’ve had on independent bookshops. But when it comes to ebooks, it feels like a necessary evil, and if that’s a rather more significant portion of my monthly budget than it should be, at least I try not to buy from Amazon in other areas of my life.
(I recognise that obviously, buying from Amazon is crucial for some people in terms of accessibility. This isn’t intended to pass judgement on those people, just to remark on my own choices as a consumer.)
Because I have an actual Kindle, and I prefer reading on the “e-ink” screen rather than on my phone or another backlit device, I rarely use the Kindle app, but I have it on my phone in case I need to quickly reference a book while I’m out and about. The other day, however, I went into the app to check something for a friend, and discovered a whole new function I’d never seen before: “Reading Insights”.
In these Reading Insights, my Kindle told me how many books I’d read this year, my “reading streak” (22 weeks, but only 6 days in a row at present), how many days per month I was reading (23 in September, down from 26 in August but significantly up from 14 in May) and my “records” — “wins and bests from your reading activity”. Reading, like Duolingo, was something to be done and recorded every day, to maintain a “streak”.
Obviously, my Kindle only knows about the books I’ve read as purchased ebooks — not paper books, library ebooks, fanfic, or anything else that I don’t read through its app or devices. However, since this year, 128 of my ~170 reads so far have been Kindle books, this still represents a pretty large proportion of my reading.
I knew, of course, that it tracked me. That’s how it’s able to recommend me books similar to my recent reads; that’s why I occasionally get Amazon recommendations that are made entirely of KJ Charles novels; that’s inevitable when the purchase and the mechanism for interacting with that purchase are so closely integrated. But I still found it somewhat unsettling to see a calendar of my reading activity, to see days marked in blue where I read something. For a moment, I imagined someone looking at that data and thinking, “Wow, this person has seriously messed up sleep patterns. Look how often they stayed up until 2am.” For a moment, I wondered what other uses it could be put to.
It used to be that I’d track this stuff myself, on Goodreads (also owned by Amazon, whose fingers are in nearly every bookish pie these days). My reasons for quitting Goodreads were many, and few of them were to do with data privacy, although there’s been a level of relief about not having to share my opinions all the time. I track my reading in a text file and leave myself a short note about my feelings on a book, to let me know whether it’s worth rereading in future; I can be as caustic or bubbly as I like, and nobody can judge me on it. But I had thought that a pleasant side-effect of leaving was that the internet wouldn’t be quite so aware of everything I’d read, in order to use it to advertise at me.
Except that Amazon knows. And Amazon is in the internet. And Amazon not only knows what I’ve bought, but whether I’ve read it, and on what day I read it, and maybe how long it took me or how long I paused on certain passages or whether I reread a section. What else do they know?
But, I’ll be honest, I’m part of the internet generation, and while I make a few attempts at maintaining some privacy online — using Firefox and Facebook Container and uBlock and so on — I know that in the end, I’m fighting a losing battle. I can avoid Google Chrome all I like, but my phone is Android, so Google knows too much about me already. I can stop Facebook tracking me on other sites, but that doesn’t change the fact that they get enough info from Facebook itself, and Instagram, and WhatsApp…
My data is out there, whether I like it or not, and I’m not committed enough to burn it all down to eradicate those pieces of my online self, so I just have to live in this constantly-surveilled world. I’ve made an uneasy peace with that. Accepted that in our imperfect reality, that’s the price of convenience. I should probably be angrier about it, but I’ll be honest, it feels like we have bigger problems, and I have a finite amount of energy. I’m still unlikely to ever have Alexa or whatever in my home; I don’t want something listening to me on purpose. But I’m not putting on a tinfoil hat just yet.
No, the thing that really bothered me about these Reading Insights was the fact that reading, like everything else, had become something … almost competitive. “Bests and wins”? Really? Is maintaining a daily streak of reading a “win”? For me it usually means I’m fatigued and spending a lot of time in bed: the less energy I have for other things, the more time I spend reading. Do we need to measure these things?
Part of the reason I left Goodreads, and stopped doing bookstagram, and generally took my reading offline, was because I felt like after a while it became about the numbers and statistics. It was a race: how many books could I read? How many likes on that photo? Could I complete this challenge, that readathon, this bingo card? Did I have a TBR? Was my TBR out of control? Would I like it to be? Did I have a list for this month, next month, next year?
It wasn’t me. I wanted to read what I wanted to read, when I wanted to read it. I’ve never struggled to motivate myself to read, partly because it’s sometimes the only thing I have energy for, so a yearly reading “challenge” seemed superfluous. Plus, I’m what the bookstagram types call a “mood reader” — I read things when I feel like reading them. I actually don’t have a TBR (to-be-read list), except in the vaguest sense of “oh, I’d like to read that sometime”, or my wishlist of books I want but can’t afford.
That’s without getting into all the ways I couldn’t handle consumerist book culture, or the books-as-sacred-object mindset that I encounter so often online. I eventually came to the conclusion that while I was a booknerd and a very voracious reader, I was simply not a Book Person in the internet sense of being a Book Person. I had no interest in collecting six versions of the same book, I didn’t want character-themed scented candles, I think a lot of books actually smell pretty bad, and I really don’t care if people break the spines of their own books, or dog-ear the pages, or write in them, because they’re just books.
(If you do this to my books when I lend them to you, I’ll end you. But that’s a completely different thing.)
So, I thought, I’ll opt out. Go offline. Forget the streaks and challenges. I’ll track my reading in a text file because I have a terrible memory and I need a record of what I’ve read; I didn’t track it at all last autumn after leaving Goodreads in August, and now I have no idea what I read then. But I’m not going to bother about statistics or numbers or challenges.
And all the while my Kindle is sitting there going, “You have a 22-week reading streak!”
I’ve discovered that I can opt out of these insights. I probably will. Because even in the few days since I discovered them, that competitive instinct has ignited in my brain. “I have to read today, to continue my streak,” I find myself thinking. I probably would have read anyway, but not in such a self-conscious way. Not in order to fulfil some meaningless obligation to a chart I didn’t ask to have created. Not to give a corporation more information about me and my habits.
I have a 1000-day Duolingo streak and a 4-year+ Timehop streak. The former is a helpful pressure to keep me hacking away at the mountain of language-learning, even when it seems insurmountable; it tells me that a little every day is better than 3 hours and then a month of inactivity. The latter is honestly a coincidence, the result of my fun mixture of nostalgia and memory loss, that keeps me looking back at old social media posts every day to recall parts of my life I’ve lost. Timehop is forgiving of missed days, I suspect; I know I’ve missed some in the past four years, but it keeps my streak nonetheless.
But reading? Do I need a streak for that? Do I need to be pressured into doing something that for years has been my most consistent and least demanding hobby? Do I need to make that a numbers game too?
Last weekend I was reflecting on the fact that writing, which has always been my emotional outlet, is transitioning from being my hobby to being my career. I can no longer abandon a project to write something else that better reflects my current mood, not if I’m under contract for it, nor can I stop writing for weeks because I’m depressed (unless I’m willing to explain that to my editor). In the light of this, I figured I would probably need a new emotional outlet, a new hobby, ideally one that I couldn’t possibly monetise or make into a career.
These days, it feels like we’re discouraged from having “unproductive” hobbies. We’re told to have a side-hustle, encouraged to sell the things we make. If you’re good at something, there’s an increasing expectation that you’ll find a way to monetise it. Personally, as a perfectionist who has always dreamed big, I’ve always struggled to have hobbies I wasn’t way too serious about. Within weeks of taking up Irish dance as a teenager, I was imagining going to the World Championships; I imagined going to vocational ballet school before I’d even resumed taking classes. These were impossible, implausible dreams, but symptomatic of my inability to do things casually, a mindset that society these days only encourages.
I asked on Twitter and Instagram what people did just for fun, and received more answers than I’d expected. A lot of people found video games helpful — lots of small achievements to keep the brain ticking over and happy. Some watched a lot of TV and films. There were lots of crafty types: knitting and crochet were popular, but also art. Some people played music, or baked, or went for long walks in the countryside.
And then there was reading.
Reading’s a weird one as a writer. Not only do you end up reading books by friends and colleagues and acquaintances, it can also be hard to turn off the analytical part of your brain that reads as a writer reads. I find this is particularly hard when I’m in the middle of edits — copyedits, in particular, made me judge everybody’s punctuation choices, and made it a lot harder to get immersed in anything because I was primed to nitpick. But still, when my pain levels are flaring or my fatigue is bad, it’s always the hobby I come back to. When my hands don’t work well enough to knit and my eyes can’t take the flashing lights of TV and my body won’t let me go for walks, it’s always, in the end, reading.
Not for the numbers. Not to maintain a streak. Not to reach a new personal best of number of books read in a year.
But because books give my brain a break from the world for a couple of hours, and sometimes, that’s all I want from a hobby. A chance to stop being inside my own head for a little while. A comfort when I don’t have anyone to spend time with, or the energy to spend time with them.
As a writer, I don’t always read casually. I often read critically, and analytically, and with an eye to improving my own professional skills. But that doesn’t mean I have to read competitively, as though my reading streak might be marked up on a leaderboard to see where I rank among similarly bookish friends. That doesn’t mean I have to give in to the internet’s desire to categorise and track everything with streaks and trends and statistics, to make me a more ‘productive’ reader.
I probably can’t stop my Kindle collecting that information. But I can ask it not to tell me, and I will. Because sometimes, I want to read because I’m sad or tired or lonely or bored and I want the comfort, distraction, and joy of disappearing into somebody else’s head and somebody else’s world. And that isn’t a numbers game, and never will be.