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I Attempted to Make Reading My Brand, but Then ‘El Camino’ Happened

Don’t ever try to take up a new pastime when the television event of a lifetime requires you to rewatch your favorite TV series in its entirety

I don’t think I’ve read a book, cover to cover, in more than a decade. Trust me, I know how embarrassing that sounds. In my defense, I’ve tried. In fact, I’ve started a handful of books over the years — Meet Me in the Bathroom, The Long Goodbye, and most recently, Bad Blood. It’s not so much that they were bad or difficult reads — they’re not, at all. My problem staying with them is the same problem I assume many people have: Overstimulation. Namely, I’m fully addicted to my phone and binge-watching TV shows. To make matters worse, over the last couple of years I’ve discovered that I can watch my phone and the TV at the same freaking time

It’s all kinda disgusting. Especially because back in high school and college, I used to read voraciously. So there’s a big part of me that misses the quiet solitude of being totally taken in by a good novel, where everything else — from DMs to texts to news alerts about whatever the president just barfed up on Twitter — falls away. 

A few weeks ago, then, I put on my big-boy pants and told myself I was going to get back into the book game. I didn’t know how or when, but gosh darn it, I was going to make reading a thing.

But a funny thing happened on the way to making reading my brand: El Camino. That is, could carving out some time to read every day compete with also trying to re-watch every episode of Breaking Bad in order to mentally and physically prepare myself for the second coming of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman on Netflix?

There was only one way to find out.

The Problem: I don’t read enough.

The Potential Cure-All: A good book — and a plan for reading said book. 

First things first, I needed something to read. Seeing as I had, only a few months earlier, opened, enjoyed and almost immediately lost interest in finishing Bad Blood, the uber-popular nonfiction book which (in case you don’t already know) recounts the rise and fall of grifter Elizabeth Holmes and her vaporware blood-testing company Theranos, I decided to just pick up where I’d left off. I mean, it was still there, sitting on my bookshelf. Why overthink it?

Now that I had what I was going to read, it was time for the hard part: Figuring out when and how to read it. I’m sure you’re banging your head against the screen right now saying, “Duh, just pick up the book and start reading, stupid!” But there’s more to it than that. I have things going on in my life. I need to work at my job. I need to get home and cook a succulent dinner. I have a girlfriend who would like to be fed a succulent dinner. Oh, and I have about a thousand other things vying for my attention, most of which are either on my phone or on the TV. So no, it’s not as simple as picking up a book and reading it. I needed to be strategic.

But you know what they say about “best-laid plans,” right?

Best Breaking Bad Scene, According to My Girlfriend: When Jane dies.

The Science: Before we get into that, though, let’s consider the “why” of it all. Why is reading important in the first place? Well, for one, it’s real good for your noggin. It involves all sorts of neurological processes, like phonemic awareness, fluency and comprehension, making you better at understanding and internalizing what you read and hear. It also improves working memory and boosts connectivity in the left temporal cortex — all of which can persist long after you’ve put the book down.

Not to mention, studies have shown that reading in childhood physically rewires your brain, creating new white matter — i.e., the stuff in your head that carries signals to other parts of your brain — literally making kids smarter.

For a mid-thirtysomething like me, though, I just really want to be cool and learned and stuff. And cool and learned people read.

The Normal Person’s Guide to New Year’s Resolutions: Reading More

Best Breaking Bad Bald Head: This is a hard one, but out of the 13 or so bald dudes on the show, I’m gonna have to say my favorite is… Miiiiike. 

The Experience: My initial plan to begin my great reading experiment was as simple as forcing myself to set aside one solid hour a night after dinner with zero distractions — no phone, no TV and no girlfriend. 

Typically, my evening hours are broken down as such: Get home around 6 p.m., converse with my old lady for 30 minutes to an hour, start making dinner at 7 p.m., eat at 7:30 or 8 p.m., watch some TV and be in bed by 10:30 or 11 p.m. Which is to say, surely there would be an hour to spare in the second half of the night.

But as I mentioned earlier, this new effort toward reading more was coming around the same time that Netflix announced that El Camino, the long-awaited feature-length follow-up to the seminal AMC series, Breaking Bad, was to be released on October 11th. 

My initial thought was that this wouldn’t be a problem; I’d obviously seen the show (duh, I adored it) when it was on air back in the late aughts/early teens, and while I’d forgotten most of the details, I remembered the broad strokes and figured I had enough under my belt to watch it as-is. 

But still, there was a lingering desire to pick the series back up. Plus, my girlfriend had never seen it. So one particularly slow night on Bravo — our typical cable haunt as a couple — I explained that I was interested in restarting the show, and asked her if she wanted to watch it, too. This, sadly, turned out to be a critical mistake in my reading plan. Because she fucking loved it.

What had begun as a casual re-watch on a slow TV night turned into a race against time — or more accurately a race against spoilers for the movie — and everything was against us. Almost immediately, time that I’d been reserving for reading was being commandeered by multi-episode bingefests because shit, man, there were five seasons to get through. 

I think we equally shared the blame for leading ourselves down this particular primrose path: For me, the show was almost new again, and I was eager to relive the series best parts; for her, it was all new. But whereas I didn’t have to watch more than one or two episodes a night, she was perfectly happy watching two or more, and that siphoned a lot of my set-aside time for reading. Granted, it’s not like she was twisting my arm, but I definitely needed a new plan because I was spending far too many nights saying things like, “I’ll read tomorrow.” 

And so, I asked my colleague Miles Klee, the only person on our staff I was certain read the way most people aspire to read — and an actual novelist — for some pointers on how he does it. “I think you’re doing it right. But personally, I like to find a quiet place to read by a window,” he told me. “Also music.”

Music, I agreed, would be key. I also decided to try doing my reading in the bedroom with the door closed, as opposed to the living room with its numerous distractions. If I was in the bedroom, I could get away from it all, or at least so I thought. 

That night I got home, put down my bag, kissed my girlfriend and said I was going in the other room and I’d see her in an hour. About 40 minutes later, she came in and caught me on my phone. I was only on it for a few minutes — I think I was checking baseball scores, it being the playoffs and all — but it was indicative of where I was at. This simple task was turning out to be surprisingly difficult.

Over the next week or so, I put in maybe three solid hours of reading. I was listening to music, I was finding quiet spaces, but when push came to shove, I had other priorities. That said, when I did read, I really enjoyed it. Bad Blood is, as many have said, completely engrossing. (Man, Elizabeth Holmes is a piece of work.) I also remembered what I loved about reading more generally: The thrill of picking your next book, bringing the words to life visually in your head, the satisfaction of getting physically through the pages. 

But like I said, duty calls, and while those precious hours alone reading stirred a long-dormant muscle just as I’d hoped, it wasn’t enough to get me to choose reading over watching Walter White mow down drug dealers with his Pontiac Aztek.

Best Breaking Bad Easter Egg: The episodes from Season Two that open with scenes of investigators fishing airline-passenger possessions out of Walt’s pool are episodes 1, 4, 10 and 13. They’re titled “Seven-Thirty Seven,” “Down,” “Over” and “ABQ.”

An Actual Film Critic on El Camino:

At Long Last, Jesse Pinkman Is the One Who Knocks

The Takeaway: As difficult as it’s been to put together more than a string of a few days of dedicated page-turning, I do feel like I’ve gotten at least some of my reading mojo back. It hasn’t, however, helped that I chose to embark on two, equally monumental undertakings at the same time. And are we surprised that the one that requires only a passive attention span won out?

But I’m also sure that, once El Camino has been dusted (in about a week or so at the rate we’re going — we’re currently into the second half of Season Four) I’ll be much more willing and able to finish what I started — cover to cover.

Jeff’s Rating: 5/10