While browsing through a Reddit thread on reading habits the other day, I came across an excellent word mentioned by a user who goes by the name of TomChaps. Velleity, he wrote, should really be better known. He defined it as “a desire to see something done, but not enough desire to make it happen”.
In other words, velleity is an inclination that isn’t strong enough to lead to action. (It comes from the Latin velleitas, meaning “to wish”, in case you were wondering.) You may have the velleity to run a marathon, but it will remain unfulfilled unless accompanied by the urge to start training rigorously.
Velleity is a step up from inertia, but the upshot can be the same. For Nietzsche, “the typical velleity of the artist” is to be part of what they want to represent, instead of simply depicting it.
Moving away from lofty athletic and philosophical ideals, velleity is also why there are so many unread books on shelves and e-readers. It’s become a cliché to moan about tottering to-be-read piles (I’ve done it myself), giving rise to the quip that buying books and reading them are two distinct activities.
There’s even a Japanese word for it: tsundoku, the art of buying books that accumulate in unread stacks. Search for the hashtag on Instagram and you’ll discover thousands of artful and not-so-artful examples.
Of course, social media and streaming services, along with constant online buzz, have a lot to do with it. Studies have shown how the Internet fragments attention and affects concentration. Recent research points to the possibility of humans acquiring “online brains”, with rewired areas of cognition.
From this, one could even claim that the individual is bearing responsibility for technological changes that have made books lose primacy. Self-recrimination over not reading enough is a personal response to a structural shift.
Leaving material conditions aside, there are still times when the specific intention to read a book for pleasure isn’t matched by action. We wallow in velleity until the time comes to do something else.
Take the occasions when there’s a book we think we ought to read. Among them are the bestsellers on everyone’s lips, volumes designed to turn us into better people, and other titles recommended by all and sundry. These can become obligations and, more often than not, remain on the shelves, their pages slowly and sadly turning yellow.
Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is a good example. Despite selling millions of copies, it’s earned the distinction of being “the most unread book of all time”. Mathematician Jordan Ellenberg even came up with the Hawking Index, a mock measure of the percentage of a book people will read before giving up.
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is another case in point. I’ve read less than half so far and keep meaning to go back to it, although I now suspect that I never will. It’s not you, Donna, it’s me.
The Hawking Index reveals the books people find unreadable, whatever the cause, but the concept of velleity indicates something deeper: the reasons for not picking up a title in the first place. Sometimes, the desire to read a book comes with an unwillingness to make the commitment of time and engagement.
This is magnified when the book looms large in the cultural imagination, and contains a staggering number of pages to boot. It’s going to be daunting; it’s going to take too many days; it’s a Sisyphean chore: those are the internal objections to picking up Proust’s multi-volume In Search of Lost Time or Tolstoy’s War and Peace, to name just two.
Unfortunately, waiting for the right time and place can mean waiting forever. For more years than I can count, I’ve been meaning to read Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. I’ve taken the plump Faber paperback with me on a holiday, only to return with it untouched. On the next trip, I downloaded it on my e-reader, with the same results. Perhaps the audio version will change things, but I wouldn’t count on it.
There’s no shortage of advice on how to get over the hump. The usual tips include carrying a book wherever you go, using small chunks of free time, and setting reading goals. These are practical and well-meaning suggestions. Paradoxically, the effect is to turn the act of reading into a beneficial activity like eating broccoli.Like any other habit, however, reading is a muscle that’s strengthened the more it’s practised. Perhaps it’s best not to overthink it but simply adopt the rallying cry of the brand named after the Greek goddess of victory. Just do it.