I read because I feel like I’m behind on some cosmic reading list. When you graduated with a degree in English and taught high school English, everyone looks at you with astonishment any time they realize you haven’t read Moby Dick or most of Dickens.
I read because I am curious. I hear about a fascinating new book on NPR or Facebook, and I immediately click over to the library to get on the Holds list.
I read because I get excited about following ideas and I read the footnotes of a book I loved and check out all the books that look interesting on that topic. I’ve genuinely found some of my favorite books that way, and enjoyed tracing lines of thought through several authors.
I read because I like getting lost in time, forgetting where or when I am and what I’m supposed to be doing. I enjoy letting a book do my thinking for me for awhile. I like experiencing other lives. I want to look up and find the present world is different because of where I’ve just been.
But I’ve been recognizing lately that I’ve become a bit compulsive about books. I routinely go to the library to discover I’ve reserved three or four times the amount of books I can reasonably expect to read in 3 weeks, especially considering I get new books coming in every few days. I have specific pencils for underlining and specific tabs for saving passages. I have to type favorite quotes from every book I read AND review it on Goodreads. Frankly, I am starting to feel like an addict.
My competitive nature has maybe gotten the best of me this year. I set my Goodreads Challenge at a book a week, but ended up reading 20 more books than that. I didn’t choose shorter books just to fit in more reads, but I did start to notice that I wasn’t savoring my books. I would start a book with enthusiasm and about half way through start to get kind of jittery. How many more pages? How many nights of reading until I can start the next one?
And still, after all the reading and reviewing and returning to the library, I felt this gnawing self-doubt. I can’t keep up. I’ll never read it all.
I have to get back to basics this year. I’ve been reading lots of really. great. books. but I haven’t been savoring them, taking the time to read and re-read passages that please me. I haven’t had time to pick up old favorites and enjoy them again. I’ve been busily flitting from new book to new book, racing against the wind. And do you care? No, you do not.
If I’m not reading for myself, then who on earth am I reading for?
This year I’m dialing back the reading goals back to a book a week. I might actually reward myself if I DON’T make it. I’m going to re-read my favorites–even the long ones–and take my time admiring the inner workings. I want to celebrate what makes a novel work on me.
One of the images that most fascinated me from last year’s reading was in Matthew Zapruder’s book Why Poetry. He described how powerful language is like a machine–it is designed with the intent to do something to us. He quotes Paul Valery who says “A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words…If the term machine shocks you, if my mechanical comparison seems crude, please notice that while the composition of even a very short poem may absorb years, the action of the poem on the reader will take only a few minutes. In a few minutes, the reader will receive his shock from discoveries, connections, glimmers of expression that have been accumulating during months of research, waiting, patience, and impatience.”
All of the reading, thinking, and organizing of thoughts may take a great deal of time, but when the writer finds the perfect way to describe a thing so that it shocks the reader with new “discoveries, connections, glimmers of expression,” it will have been worth the effort. It means the language-machine is working. You send your mind into the language-machine and it comes out remolded, perhaps temporarily like playdoh extruded through a plastic filter, or more permanently like fabric stitched through a machine or metal heated and molded into new shapes.
I want to admire the machinery of my favorite books. I want to see if the machine still has the same effect on me that I remember, especially the oldest reads like The Bronze Bow and A Wrinkle in Time (and the other Madeline L’Engle books I devoured as a teenager.)
I want to see if I can reverse engineer the machines and figure out how to write a book that would have the same impact on the minds of other people. I’m not sure I’ll succeed. I’m not even sure at this point that I’ll ever actually feel ready to try. But I will enjoy figuring it out. And I won’t be doing it for anyone but me.
Here’s my tentative Re-Read list for 2018:
Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
(I’ve always wanted to compare the two books. I occasionally will tell people that one or the other is my favorite novel, depending on the day, and I want to go back and see if that still stands.)
Madeline L’Engle’s Time Trilogy
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Little Bee/The Other Hand
The Great Gatsby
The Heart of Darkness
The Bronze Bow
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson.
(I’m almost finished and so far loving it even more the 2nd time around.)
Reading for Pleasure in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
(A book which profoundly impacted me a few years ago when I was feeling insecure about not having read enough. Might be time for a refresher.)
Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
(I’ve already read it several times and it keeps getting better.)
My most challenging goal is going to be ignoring all the great new books I discover this year. Keep a good best-of-2018 list for me. I’ll be back for those later.