This year I set a goal to read a book a month, which seems pretty wimpy considering that I used to read a book a week in my college and grad school years.
But the thing about reading now, as opposed to then, is that now I am reading for me, for my own edification, curiosity, and pleasure, and not to write a paper about the book.
In college I didn’t so much read, as process books into papers. Armed with a pen, I would take copious notes on thematic approaches, character development, and how this novel might illustrate the philosophy of Aristotle or Nietzche. I was on the hunt for the meaning in those books, and also to be able to manufacture enough verbal garbage to fill up 10 double-spaced pages.
If, god forbid, I got to the end of a novel and I didn’t have a thesis statement and a rough paragraph plan for a paper, I knew I was totally screwed.
Even back then I knew this wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing with these books. Even back then I knew this was a travesty. I longed to let those books marinate, to seep into my psyche, into my life, my soul. I wanted to enjoy them, and understand them, not dissect them like a frog.
But I couldn’t. There was no time. I had a list, a syllabus, other classes to deal with. I couldn’t muse about anything. There was no time to let a book rattle around in my brain for a while, because hot on the heels of one book, was yet another one to be read and “papered.”
When I think back to all the classic Lit. I read between the ages of 16 and 23, I could positively weep. I was too young for Tristram Shandy, for the Red and the Black for Anna Karenina for Ulysses.
I couldn’t even maneuver my car onto the turnpike let alone follow Leopold Bloom around Dublin for a thousand pages.
Now that I am free of academia, I long to go back and re-read everything I read there. Nabokov said that the best reader, the only good reader, is the re-reader, but do I want to start over again? Now? At this late date? I don’t have that much life left, and even if I did, do I really want to go back and re-read the classics? I am out of shape for iambic pentameter. I’d have to work back up to Shakespeare, to Proust. I no longer have the attention span for the semi-colon. I twitter now.
But one thing I have become painfully aware of in the last few months is that, probably due to all that reading of classic Lit in my “childhood” I have become an insufferable literary snob. I expect a lot from books. I may not have gone deep into the classics, but I went wide enough to know what real artistry is, and I know how to appreciate it.
Funny, I am not this picky about any other art: not music, not painting, not theater. But when it comes to books, I have my standards; I make demands.
I expect structure and voice and poetry and beautifully articulated ideas. I want to be lured down the rabbit hole of a book and feel happy to live in that world for a long, long time.
I don’t pay attention to themes or motifs or character development or (god forbid) meaning anymore, all I want from a book is to learn something new about the world, and possibly a new way to look at my life.
Even though I am not consciously on the lookout for theme and motif anymore, I still care about them. I still care about character development and pacing and poetry. And I especially care about those delicious silences built in between the words, and the way when things are left out, that makes all the remaining things glow.
I am not often disappointed in anything I read nowadays because one, I don’t read much, and two, my policy is if I get to page 3 and I am not entranced, I will close the book and quietly donate it to the library’s book sale. I don’t waste my time on anything that doesn’t thrill me. And this is why I call myself a snob.
I am a snob because I don’t want to be disappointed, and for that reason I tend to limit myself to Pen/Faulkner Award winners, National Book award winners, Booker Prize winners, and Pulitzer Prize winners. (And yoga books, good and bad.)
I get all squinty-eyed and smirky-faced when it comes to the New York Times Bestseller list, especially when it is littered with the likes of Fifty Shades of Grey.
But recently I have read and really enjoyed “Bestsellers” in both the fiction and non-fiction categories that friends have recommended. I found Haruki Murakami on a friend’s recommendation, for example
Recently Emily (my daughter) said she was reading Gone Girl so I picked it up just to see, and got sucked down its rabbit hole. I admired Gillian Flynn’s storytelling, and especially how meticulously crafted her story was, and was flabbergasted when I saw her picture on the back cover. So young! I could not believe someone that young could craft such a remarkable book.
The book I am reading now, Quiet, is also on the Non-fiction bestseller list (NYTimes) but for some reason I don’t feel as embarrassed reading bestseller non-fiction. Is this just being snobbish? I don’t know.
I recently ordered Louise Erdrich’s The Round House (the 2012 National Book Award winner) so I can compare it to Gone Girl in terms of its artistry. I really wouldn’t mind being called out on my snobbery if Gone Girl holds up against The Round House.
All I know is that I love living in someone else’s dream, in their word world. I love the interiority of reading, the listening inside that it requires. It’s such a relief to have the voice in my head not be my own for a while.
This winter has been especially long, and tiring, and dreary, but I have been consoled immeasurably by the books I have read. I am happy I have mustered the self control to put down the IPad for awhile and let my brain marinate in books. I feel nourished in a new way already, and it’s only the end of March.
Here’s a list of what I’ve read since January.
Alone Together by Sherry Turkle
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Have you read anything lately that has made you feel nourished? Care to share?