January is the month when a book lover's dreams run high. The weather outside might be frightful, as an old song puts it, but the fire inside is delightful. It's the perfect place to settle in for a long winter's read, cocooned in a cozy afghan and soothed by the melodies of a CD playing softly in the background.
Let it snow, let it snow.
Then again, dream on. For many bibliophiles, this scene isn't necessarily the stuff of reality. Reading by a fire in winter, like enjoying a page-turner in a hammock on a summer day, has become one of the myths we live by.
In a 24/7 world, pleasure reading is becoming an endangered pastime. Long work hours, family responsibilities, television, the Internet, and cellphones all nibble away at the minutes and hours we long to spend getting lost in a good story.
A recent New Yorker cartoon sums up the problem perfectly. Five women, obviously members of a book club, are seated in a living room. Each holds a copy of the same book. As they begin, one says to the others, "Well, instead of discussing the book we could discuss why none of us had time to read it."
Damien Whitworth, writing in The Times of London after Christmas, offers his lament about the shortage of time for books. "In reality the long hours of contented reading never occur," he writes. "I consume only a fraction of the books that I buy or that are bought for me."
His "Christmas haul" of books adds up to 1,975 pages. On a good night, Mr. Whitworth says, he might read 10 pages. But there are nights when he reads nothing. Estimating a weekly total of 30 pages of pleasure reading, he calculates that it will take him until April 2007 - nearly 16 months! - to finish these new books.
That's not even counting the unread volumes from Christmas 2004 still stacked on his bedside bookcase. An informal poll of his friends indicates that he is far from alone.
His calculations are enough to make his readers consider the number of unread or partially read books on their shelves. The results can be humbling.
As if to taunt Whitworth, three days after his literary confession appeared, another British newspaper, the Guardian, printed its annual list of readers' favorite books. More than 125 respondents submitted over 300 titles they enjoyed in 2005. It's a heartening reminder that some people still do carve out time to read and reread.
Many contributors recommended new books. Others reached for the old. One woman spent the summer reading Dickens. A man in London explained that he spent much of the year lost in Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov." Even a man who has been homeless for 12 months offered five titles, noting that he keeps up his reading "for pleasure, structure, and sanity."
Among my friends, the champion bookworm is a retired college dean who often spends several hours a day with a wide-ranging list of titles. In 2005, he read 136 books - about 2-1/2 a week. His secret? He watches very little TV.
As the rest of us read reviews and scribble lists of titles that interest us, we feed our dreams and indulge our literary fantasies. However time-deprived, we continue to buy and borrow books.
We also keep adding bookcases and bookshelves. Few things are harder to part with than books. We rationalize that we might need certain volumes someday, convinced that we'll get around to reading them. It's a harmless - if space- consuming - indulgence. After all, what other possessions offer similar comfort?
It's time to create a new theme for January. Call it "Make Time to Read" month. Even 15 minutes a day adds up to 7-1/2 hours a month. It's not much, but it could mark the beginning of a habit that grows.
So put another log on that fire, real or imagined, and savor the lasting pleasure of words on paper. Anthony Powell hinted at that pleasure in the title of one of his novels: "Books Do Furnish a Room." As he and other devoted readers know, they also furnish a mind.