Writing leaves little time for serious reading

Not so long ago, in a city very near, I contemplated doing 50 years at the Philadelphia Daily News, and then retiring.

Why do 50 years? Because I could.

It’s hard to find time for this

I got to 47. Not to brag, I never took a sick day. That’s mostly luck, the blessing of good health. After the first 20 years or so, it got to be a thing, so on the few occasions I couldn’t drag my sorry ass to work, I took off using plentiful vacation days. After 20 years, thanks to my union, I was getting five weeks vacation, which was more than I needed. Plus some personal days. The perfect attendance record was a point of personal pride. Old school, but, as I said, a lot of luck.

I don’t spend a lot of time in the morass of self reflection because other people are very generous about enumerating my faults. When I contemplated retirement, I thought I could start reading the books I had mentally laid aside for decades.

I thought I might return to teaching a journalism course at Temple University, something I had done for a decade four decades ago. I hear one of my students daily on KYW NewsRadio, and read another (a Pulitzer Prize winner) in the Washington Post. That’s pretty cool.

I’m at the age where many of my friends are retired and imagined I would slow down and be like them.

Retirement arrived a little sooner than expected, and since I wasn’t really ready, I started up the StuBykofsky blog — basically an extension of the column I had been writing for the Daily News and then the Philadelphia Inquirer since 2004, after I put my 17-year run as a gossip columnist to rest. I actually wrote an obituary for that column that turned out pretty good, I think. But I can’t find it, I could only find my last “final” column, from 2019.

It turns out my online column takes as much time as the old print column and — surprise — leaves me no time for books. Just about the only time I have time for books is vacation — and staycations don’t work because I work when I’m home. In the year I have been doing this, the longest break I had was three days. Even when I visited family in West Virginia last summer, I filed reports. The truth is, when you do something you enjoy, it’s not like work. My entire career in journalism — despite the periodic lows — had been joyful. 

But it doesn’t leave time for book-reading for pleasure. Books I must read for work, I can read at work. Sometimes.

I explained this to a Facebook friend who suggested I read a book he liked. I don’t have time for books, I explained. I do plenty of other reading, but books, like a girl friend, require time and attention.

I bought “American Lion,” the biography of Andrew Jackson so long ago, the former president was still considered a folk hero, but has since morphed into a killer of Native Americans and nothing else. Should I even be reading a book about such a villain?

I have read the first three chapters about three times, then set it aside for a while. When I return to it, I have to start again.

Then — an intervention. 

A friend highly recommended a book, and I told him the same — I don’t have time to read straight through, and if I read a little and then lay it aside, I forget what I read.

“Not this book,” he said. “It is a collection of short stories.”

And so it was: “Meet My Maker, the Mad Molecule,” by J.P. Donleavy. No story is longer than a long magazine piece, and many are just slightly longer than newspaper columns. I could pick it up, read 10-20 pages, complete a story and lay it aside.

When I first thumbed through the book, I found something unusual inside the back cover: a pocket for a library card, a library card in the pocket and a stamp that identifies the book as property of the New York State Maritime College Library, Schuyler, N.Y. It was last checked out in 1987 and somehow made its way to a book store, where my friend bought it. (I am not using his name to prevent possible legal action against him.)

The short stories — some of which were published in magazines — reminded me of a merry-go-round: They could make you slightly dizzy, and they had no point.

I also was put off by many typos, and the author’s inconsistent capitalization and quote marks, plus humanizing inanimate objects, which is part of his style.

My friend could not believe I did not like the book.

“I don’t read the same way you do, because I am a writer,” I explained. I know the tricks of the trade, and know when an author is gaming the story.

Not that it’s evil, but it is distracting to me. The same is true for news stories. I read them differently than you do.

And I admit, as I writer, I am often too literal, which pisses some people off, but words have meaning, and if you misuse them, it’s like a poke in my eye.

Long story, short — if it’s not too late — I finished the book, but still have to wait to renew my acquaintance with “American Lion.” I am not holding my breath.

17 thoughts on “Writing leaves little time for serious reading”

    So true ! You are the latest person to quote that famous phrase. When we actually retire from our chosen profession, we go back and start the endless projects, works, desires that we put aside over the years. All of that, while we take on new adventures. “If I could clone myself”, is a quote that I often use. Time dictates my projects, and that demand, sorry to say, adversely affects the other important projects in my life. I really hate to hear someone tell me, “It waited this long, it will wait till you get to it”. While being true, it certainly doesn’t make it right, nor do I need an excuse for not following up on projects that I have chosen. Pressing right – till November – POLITICS . Then, back to the cemetery and look after our interred Vets.

  2. I thought you were retiring from your blog. So glad your not!!
    Granted when reading history, bography, and other non-fiction I have to stay with it or start over. That’s why I prefer mainly novels. And when I want pure fiction, based on fantasy, I’ll scan the Inky🤣.
    Have you ever read “Miracle At Philadelphia” by Catherine Drinker Bowen? The story of the Constitutional Convention. I found it a hard read, but educational. Read it twice over the years.

    Keep up your literal style!

    1. Thanks, Tom. I have not read that book, but I did read one about the 1876 Centennial, which I needed for a column about the proposed 2026 celebration.

  3. TRUMAN by David McCullough, a truly wonderful book about one of our greatest presidents.
    Stu, I am so happy that you did not go gently into that good night, but instead chose to continue enlightening, entertaining, annoying, gratifying, and forcing us to think about things we maybe do not want to think about, but should.

  4. Please keep up your blog.It is my only source of common sense and truth in the media these days.I can not thank you enough for your writing and insight and especially your fairness on traditional Philly values.You are probably the last writer to speak up for our generation.

  5. Stu,

    Since you do not have time to read for pleasure, I suggest you do not attempt to read John Bolten’s book.
    I ordered it early in the publishing phase,but did not begin reading it until I spent some weekends ““down the shore” in July. His book reads more like a political science class than an Interesting read. That being said, there are some great details into the Venezuela attempt at a coup as well as the Kim/ North Korea fiasco. Bolten’s book simply details the lack of experience of our current President and his need to “win,” rather than properly handle international as well as domestic issues.

    Enjoy the last few weeks of the summer.
    Stay safe and stay well,
    Susan Green

  6. Stu – you should stick (or should I say that in past tense?) with Mad Magazine and our friend Alfred E. Neuman, as in, “What? Me worry?” Great short stories that you can’t put down, never forget, and always have time for, since it made great bathroom reading material.

  7. I am with Rich, Stu!

    I keep forwarding a link to your blog…I wish that more would read and digest the meaning and significance of your articles!

    Keep them coming!

  8. Philadelphia, PA

    Dear Stu,

    Do keep up your good work on the blog! I like your common-sense approach and the pokes at the establishment orthodoxy.

    I also rarely read books, because of writing. But I made a pleasant exception recently for John Taliaferro’s biography of John Hay, “from Lincoln to Roosevelt,” titled “All the Great Prizes.” This is a genuine historical page-turner: a great pleasure to read, cover-to-cover. Hay was a private secretary to Lincoln, wrote a famous biography of Lincoln, and became a diplomat and Secretary of State under McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. (By the way, Taliaferro says, his name means, in Italian, what “Eisenhower” means in German –something like blacksmith.)

    The book provides an intimate look at life among the Gilded Age, American elites–both political and economic. In a way, it tells what was going wrong at the time, but the story is beautifully told and is bound to appeal to history lovers. By analogy, you may even be able to work out what is going wrong now –in the wake of the long economic expansion of globalization. Its somewhat like a second “Gilded Age,” –leastwise for our “1%.”

    H.G. Callaway

    1. I plan to keep writing and may have mentioned I was trying to read the bio of Andrew Jackson, but it really requires more time and concentration than I can give.

      1. I read his bio and was struck by how many times he dueled with men who sullied his wife’s honor. Plus he had to defend himself against claims he was a bigamist. Nothing much has changed in politics.

        1. Philadelphia, PA

          Dear Benedict,

          Andrew Jackson is, of course, a much less appealing figure in American history. Hay, in contrast was quite the gentleman. But one may come to doubt, reading the biography, that he was entirely pleased with winning “All the Great Prizes.”

          A large part of the story concerns how the “party of Lincoln” became “the party of big business” –and eventually, the party of the Spanish war and overseas colonies.

          H.G. Callaway

Comments are closed.