a billion wasted words

April 28th, 2014


The titles stand like dead trees.

I was at the school board meeting last week. Kids were getting certificates for doing things that lift our hopes near the end of another hard year. The first middle-schooler called up had participated in a program called the Million Word Challenge, a six-week contest to read a million words. I can’t imagine enticing a young teen to read one hundred words, let alone a million.

How much is a million? My latest book barely registers, clocking in at about 38,000 words. Small words, too. So 25 times that.

The principal bubbled over when introducing the honoree, a slender girl behind a curtain of dark hair who had read two million words in the contest period.

After the awed applause, a board member asked the girl what she had read. The answer was nearly inaudible.

“I can’t remember,” she said. The man behind the mike repeated it so everyone could hear, and we chuckled, as if she had instantly disqualified herself. She read two million words and didn’t retain the title of even one book.

And then I thought: Yes!

Yes! Read two million words just to read them. Read five million for no reason. Read a billion without knowing how. Use them for kindling, for compost, for dust rags. Swallow, spit, shit, and forget. Take your certificate home and leave heads wagging. That’s what reading is for.

I read a lot in the last year. I wrote a lot in the last year. The two are indistinguishable. What did I read? So much that I didn’t keep track — couldn’t keep track — can’t say and don’t remember. I read poetry every day, first thing in the morning or last thing at night. I read bestsellers and no-sellers, big names and not. Two books a week or was it three? My appetite was fierce, my need consuming. I read whatever there was to read today, no waiting, for free, from the e-book library. If I scroll through my device I can tell you what they were, but not what they were about. The titles stand there now like dead trees, empty shadows. What did they give me? I don’t know. They fueled an invisible, molecular process, the combustion of dirt, air and water, and from it, came this glorious, shimmering waste.

Read, read, read, and don’t remember why.




  1. reading is like life, you live it, it fills you in the moment, or not, but most of it is quickly forgotten, thankfully. a night sky with only the most precious details sparkling like stars, it is enough for me, the only question I have is, “Why is it a contest?”

    Comment by MJ — April 28, 2014 @ 8:51 am

  2. gorgeous! yes!

    Comment by julie — April 28, 2014 @ 6:20 pm

  3. I like the imagery of dead trees because dead trees are not dead—they are full of life. People mistakenly ‘remove’ dead trees like so much garbage, tearing a hole in the ecological web of life nothing else can fill. They are soil. They are food. They are home.

    Comment by Laura — April 29, 2014 @ 3:43 am

  4. I love you Karen….those are some words I won’t forget 🙂

    Comment by Eva Brune — April 29, 2014 @ 11:33 am

  5. A few months ago I thought I might want to publish my body of poetry. I had it evaluated by a professional and got feedback. Then I set it aside because other tasks presented themselves.

    I also read voraciously and rarely remember it.

    After reading Paradise, and now especially after reading this post, I experienced a shift in awareness that shook me. I could publish my work. But I don’t need to. I can make art. It doesn’t need to be sold or seen. The sheer experience of creating is really enough — especially in light of how everything, EVERYthing, changes. The word on the paper, the paper itself, will disintegrate. So what’s the point?

    The experience itself — reading, writing, creating — is the point. As I write these words they don’t seem shattering, but when I experienced the a-ha of them it was deliciously surprising.

    Comment by Kathryn — April 29, 2014 @ 11:35 am

  6. I was prepared to be a bit upset about this post, but I read it anyway. I’ve developed a hungry ghost reading appetite this year by challenge myself to read a book a week. I wish I could read more than that, but with two little children, a full-time job and extracurricular activities, it’s the best I can do. And it’s working. I read for pleasure, for the moment, and I read to have my feeble mind stretched in new directions. As Francis Bacon said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” In the end, I suppose I simply read for the sake of reading. Thank you for this post.

    Comment by Sergio — May 1, 2014 @ 6:48 am

  7. “Reading for the sake of reading”, YES, and for the feel of the book in my hands. The printed words give lasting life to the thoughts or spoken word.

    Comment by mary p — May 1, 2014 @ 8:00 am

  8. This is wonderful. All the more true when applied to reading or listening to dharma. Just listen, just study, then let go! I’ve been reading fiction like mad this year so far.

    Comment by Susan Nelson — May 1, 2014 @ 4:53 pm

  9. less poetic, but similar line of thought: http://time.com/77555/reading-literature-brain-neuroscience/

    Comment by julie — May 2, 2014 @ 4:50 am

  10. I have read a lot of books and stumbled on remembering the titles when asked. But a good book stays with me, in the images, emotions, and connections I made while reading it.

    Speaking of which, I am reading yours right now and loving it. It is just what I need right now. My only question is, how do you know me so well, Karen?

    Comment by Clare — May 3, 2014 @ 9:35 am

  11. Nourishing reading can be careful and mindful, too. I don’t necessarily feel good about reading a ton and not remembering what I’ve read.

    Comment by Kurt — May 6, 2014 @ 6:40 pm

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