Reading while writing

Why writing a book means I struggle to read one.

I don’t think of myself as a big reader. I learned to read pretty early, but I never became one of those kids who reads one paperback after another in his room, possibly under the covers with a flashlight. I have never read a single word of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew or the Narnia books. I did read a little Tolkien, but not until college, and mostly out of guilt for not having read him sooner.

The book I was most drawn to was the World Almanac and Book of Facts. If I remember correctly, it came out every December, and I would check Waldenbooks every chance I got to see if they had the new volume of facts I would need to remain informed throughout the new year. I read summary reports on all the countries (and studied the full-color pages of their flags in the middle of the book). I read population tables obsessively. I read figures on crime and infectious disease prevalence. The sports statistics in the back of the book fascinated me above all else. In my early teen years, I probably could recite the starting five of every NBA team and give a good estimate of each player’s average point, rebound, and assist production across multiple seasons. I could also name the tallest buildings in major American cities.

All of this knowledge was perfectly useless. But then, so are novels. That’s a big part of their merit.

What I read today is either mercilessly purposeful or utterly accidental. I have read many psychology papers in recent months as I seek to understand burnout for my book manuscript. I recently spent several hours in a database of news articles from the 1990s looking for single fact. Because I cave to the slightest resistance in my research and writing, I turn often to Twitter. Once I’m there, I read whatever people I trust tell me to read. Or I read whatever people are outraged about during those few minutes.

I find I have little appetite for intentional, recreational reading right now. It isn’t a matter of time; I have enough time to read for pleasure. But it’s much easier to watch a hockey game. Well, since my favorite team is the Buffalo Sabres, it isn’t all that easy to watch a game. But it is often easier on my ego to watch a game than it is to read one of my favorite writers. I’m not trying to be a pro hockey player. (Not anymore, at least. When I was a kid who didn’t read a lot, I dreamed of an NHL career.) I am trying to be a professional writer of nonfiction. I think it was a Leslie Jamison essay I tried to read recently, and I just couldn’t get past the first couple paragraphs. It was just too good. If I had forced myself to read the whole thing, I would have fallen into despair over my own work. I have a deadline; I can’t afford despair.

I did recently read Howard Mittelmark’s new novel, Written Out, which is about a fairly loathsome, failed novelist and failed husband named Roger who returns to his childhood home on Long Island to figure out how to get his life back together. Before long, he finds that he has become a hitman. You would think murder-for-hire is the kind of career path you really think about before embarking upon it. But that’s a big part of the novel’s theme; our ethical decisions are more commonly after-the-fact rationalizations than they are before-the-fact deliberations. What matters is the story we can tell ourselves afterward. Written Out is ultimately a comedy, and Roger is ultimately a guy I found myself rooting for. You might like him, too.

Mittelmark is married to Sandra Newman, whose beautiful and mind-bending novel The Heavens I thoroughly enjoyed last year. Why not read them both? Newman and Mittelmark are also two of the very best people on Twitter. They are simply hilarious in their different ways: Newman expansive and absurdist, Mittelmark sharply self-deprecating. I often think of Twitter as a huge, noisy, terrible bar that you feel you have to keep going to, because all your friends are there. One reason I keep going back is so I can crowd around their table and listen in.

I also read (and reread) Lauren Oyler’s review essay on Jia Tolentino’s recent essay collection, Trick Mirror. I think Tolentino is a very good writer, but her essays never quite sit well with me. I was frankly annoyed and jealous when her book came out and was universally praised. It can’t be that good, I thought. Oyler, a truly brilliant critic whose prose is sometimes a bit too oblique, explains my unease with Tolentino in a way that goes far beyond either my unease or Trick Mirror iteself: Tolentino is practicing “hysterical criticism,” a kind of performance of humblebragging superiority that conceals underdeveloped ideas beneath a cloud of “relatability.”

In my last newsletter, I wrote about the books and essays that make up a kind of cultural decoder ring for me. Oyler’s essay is now a crucial addition to that canon. Worth noting: While Tolentino’s career is unthinkable without Twitter, Oyler has quit the platform altogether.

News & events

If you’re in New York tonight, please go hear the brilliant jazz pianist and writer Deanna Witkowski perform and speak at Fordham on “Jazz is Love: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams.”

If you’re in Columbia, South Carolina on Thursday, go hear Ross Douthat speak about “The Crisis of Meritocracy” as part of the Barnes Symposium lecture series. (My father-in-law is a driving force behind this series.)

If you’re in Dallas on Sunday, Feb. 16, come hear me speak about “The Limits of Vocation” at Christ Lutheran Church on Lovers Lane. Thanks to Christ’s new pastor, Ben Dueholm, for inviting me! (I already knew Ben through Twitter, further complicating my love-hate relationship with it.)

Thanks as well to my longtime friend Jason Morgan, who got my essay, “The 40-Year Old Burnout” included as a passage for the new edition of Cracking the AP English Language & Composition Exam. It’s a test-prep handbook; there are 11 practice questions about my essay. When I took the test, I only got 8 correct. I’m not sure if that’s a good performance on the exam, but it’s probably not an impressive performance for the author. I have often thoguht that authors don’t have any privileged position in interpreting their work; once a thing is published, the author is just another reader. This performance would seem to support that hypothesis.

I need your help

I am looking for two kinds of people to interview for a chapter of my book on burnout: people who have experienced burnout, and people who work for places that have humane policies and cultures that help prevent and heal employees’ burnout. If you know someone like this who might be willing to speak with me, please invite them to get in touch. They can email me at If you’d like, you can also send them a link to some of my earlier work on burnout, so they know where I’m coming from. And if you fit either description, please reply to this message. Thank you!

You can share this post in an email or via social media by clicking the red “Share” button below. Next newsletter will go out in early March. Thanks for reading.