Mondays on the Margins: Reading: It's Possible I've Been Doing it Wrong

Not for my whole life, of course. I learned how to make the letters form words, make the words form sentences, and I was off to the races. I read everything I could get my hands on, which wasn't a great big amount back then, but most of it was fucking magical and blew the doors of my mind wide open. The Faraway Tree. Narnia. The Cricket in Times Square. I would go to the library alone and the librarian would make me call my father to come and get me and approve my book choices (because I had blown through the kids' section and was on to adult reading). If I couldn't get it at the library, I would beg my parents to buy it for me.

Once school started, I read for marks and for pleasure. In high school, I was reading a science fiction anthology in homeroom and a girl asked me which class I was reading it for. Her expression when I said I wasn't reading it for a class was uncomprehending.

I did a B.A. and and M.A. in Comparative Literature. I had to read some fiction that I wouldn't have read otherwise. Some of it I thought was great, and with some of it it seemed like the entire Western world agreed that it was great except for me. I had to read a lot of critical theory, some of which was intriguing and fun and some of which was dry and pedantic and entirely too impressed with itself. And then I would read something fun - once I stayed up all night reading The Animal Hour by Andrew Klavan even though my parents were coming to visit the next day, early. I regretted nothing.

Then I got a job in audio publishing. Then I worked in a bookstore. There were always things I 'should' be reading, and things I wanted to be reading, with a good amount of overlap between the two.

Then I had kids and stopped working at a formal, official, 'job'-type thing. Other than some usually pretty light course reading, I am now the captain of my own reading destiny.

I have recently come to realize that I am kind of a shitty captain and that it's possible I should be keel-hauled, or mutinied, or some other negative ship-related term.

Generally I try strike a good balance between reading for pure pleasure and reading for education. The books I love, the books I anticipate, the books I pounce on like a deranged slinky,  tend to be mysteries and science fiction and fantasy and horror, and I do think that the best of the books in these genres are valuable as more than escapism - they have things to say about being in the world, about longing for things and searching for things and loving people and loss, and empathy and hope and redemption – more than enough to qualify as “the axe for the frozen sea within us” that Franz Kafka says literature must be. But I also try to read non-fiction and literary fiction, stuff that sometimes takes a little more work, and even if it takes me a while I almost always find it rewarding. I think of these books as my broccoli books. There’s nothing wrong with broccoli. It’s green and crunchy and chock-full of fibre and anti-oxidants. It really rounds out a meal, although you don’t necessarily want to curl up on the couch with a carton of it after a bad break-up. I like broccoli. I like asparagus. I even like Brussels sprouts.

You know what I hate, though? Green beans. To each his own and everything, but I don’t get green beans. The texture seems like a cross between fishing line and shoe leather. The taste is incredibly dull while still being disagreeable. I was always exceedingly bitter as a child when on fish night my fish-hating sister got chicken, but on green bean night I always had to eat a few. I decided quite a few years ago that I’m an adult now and, barring extreme circumstances, green beans will not pass these lips again.

So I have this thing I do with books that I'm almost sure I will love - because I know and love the author, because it's the next in a series, because I've read them before and I'm due to reread. I stockpile them. I build them into walls and towers around my room, and I defer them endlessly. Sometimes I buy a book in hardcover because I really, really want to read it, and by the time I actually let myself it's already out in paperback. And in the meantime, I read not just broccoli books, but books that I realize at some point don’t have any redeeming qualities at all – green bean books, if you will.

It would be one thing if there was a really good reason for this. If there were things I needed to read first, for some reason, or I just got busy. But I've suddenly realized that that's not really it. Partly it's that I feel the need to keep Really Great Books in reserve for some theoretical day when I might really need one. This is stupid. There is no possible way I can keep up with and surpass the literary output of all the really great present and future writers that make my reading brain sing. When the zombie apocalypse comes, a wall of unread Fred Vargas and Susan Palwick will not stop them. There is absolutely no need for me to browse the library ebooks and fill up my ipad with them and finish even the really bad ones against some day when I might run out of things to read.

The other part? The Super-Dumbass-with-Extra-Stupid part? I think I'm not letting myself read all the Really Great Books right away because I don't feel like I deserve to. And this is not because they’re empty calories, but because they are sweet, and rich, and nourishing on a whole other level. For this reason, I feel like I can't let myself read one until after I've done something really difficult or unpleasant. Which would be fine if I was reasonable about it – sure, rake up some leaves, or shovel some snow, or clean out a closet, and then settle in with a good book. Except I do that thing and it’s never enough. I still don’t deserve the – let’s call it the doughnut book. Because I don't have a job that I hate that takes up all my time. Because I haven't published anything. Because I have trouble getting up early. Because I feed my kids kraft dinner and hot dogs some days. Because I shot the Archduke Ferdinand and started World War One that time (yep – depression lies, and, in my case, also has delusions of grandeur.) What I’m trying to say, before I torture this poor beleaguered metaphor any further, is that sometimes when you live in Depressionland, it feels like there’s no possible way to choke down enough green beans to earn your doughnut.

I've decided this is bullshit. Life is too short to read bad books on purpose, and I've punished myself for just being who I am enough for several lifetimes. I've spent the last couple of weeks rereading the first two books in the Magicians Trilogy by Lev Grossman, and it's been delicious. After that I'm going to read the second book in the Colours of Madeleine series by Jaclyn Moriarty, and then something else by Christopher Moore. I might stick a broccoli book in there, but I will NOT stuff myself with green bean books anymore.

It feels simultaneously like a momentous decision and an effortless no-brainer.

These are strange, exhilarating times.


Alison said…
It's so strange when you realize your own twisted subconscious reasons for doing something. And by "you" I obviously mean "me," because today at therapy I realized that I refuse to treat myself when I'm depressed and anxious, like I don't deserve it because I'm a bad person for feeling that way. Huge lightbulb moment.
I totally understand the "hoarding books in case I really NEED to read them" impulse, though it isn't mine. I get upset looking at my TBR pile when I'm not doing well because I can't enjoy almost all reading then, and I get upset that I won't be able to read all those lovely books that are too dark for Those Times. Time to remind myself that I couldn't read All The Books anyway, even if I read 8 hours a day.
StephLove said…
When Noah was in first grade he pitched a tremendous fit one day when he thought we'd read too much Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ("a book I like so much") on a day when it didn't count for reading log. He thought he'd run out of books he liked before the end of the school year. I wrote a blog post about it.
StephLove said…
9/14/07, if you're interested. It's a favorite of mine.
Sasha said…
Ok, so first of all, because I can't write anything without including at least one completely irrelevant tangent, I just had to tell you that after clicking on your post in Facebook I flipped back to find that FB had helpfully offered up these "related links":

How to Eat Sushi: You've Been Doing it Wrong

This is everything you've been doing wrong your whole life: What connects packing, cooking bacon and flossing?

I never fail to add something to my reading queue when I come to visit, and look! Now I have three new things! (I also added The Cricket in Times Square to GoodReads. I can learn about sushi AND bacon while I wait for the elevator).

So, um, what was I going to say? Oh yeah - YAY for epiphanies! Yay yay YAY! I've recently (almost) stopped beating myself up for re-reading favourites about a gazillion times. Because frig, it's your (reading) life, do what makes you happy. I've never been good about reading things I'm not enjoying. I don't think I managed a whole chapter of The Great Gatsby in highschool. I recently dragged my ass all the way through The Goldfinch, and let's just say that the Pulitzer committee and I will have to agree to disagree (I think you liked it too... oops, sorry). I envy the people who loved it, it's nice to love things. I would have loved to have loved it. Especially after having spent so much of my LIFE reading the damn thing.

I think I had a point, but I can't remember what it is now.

But yay!
Lynn said…
Yay! I totally support this. I am at the stage of life now when I want to read stuff I *like*, and I just do not see the point of wasting time on stuff that I do not really enjoy. I should want to sneak my book to the dinner table, or waste away precious hours when I should be sleeping or working because I couldn't put it down. I've learned that if I get a book from the library and it doesn't grab me - I just JUST RETURN IT. Unread! Totally unthinkable in my youth.
Nicole said…
YES. Life is too short not to read what you want exactly when you want. I have a tendency to stockpile books - my MIL gives me basically everything on my Christmas list - wait, by that, I mean I make a list of books and she gives them to me for Christmas - and for some reason I think I need to make those eight books last all year. So I don't just read them all at once, I hoard them. I need a book for vacation, I'll think. I need one for this or that. Apparently I forget that I have a library at my disposal and I don't need to squirrel them all away.

Semi-related tangent - that "you've been doing it wrong" is such a hot thing these days I bet you're going to get tons of pageviews. I have a recipe like that and it's constantly getting pageviews and the kind of controversy you'd expect from a tomato sauce recipe.
Ms. G said…
You Read Girl! AND enjoy. I have a similar thing where if I have an amazing book I don't let myself pick it up till the end of the day. Even if I have nothing to do.
That's ridiculous isn't it?
clara said…
Oh this is nice! I'm happy for you. The things you enjoy can just be enjoyable, without making them a reward or a punishment. I decided recently that life is too short to buy clothes I think are cute but sort of outside my scope of style, put them on and then take them off in favour of jeans every single day. Yesterday I wore my new boots, and it was good. It was just boots.
clara said…
^ not that boots replace jeans, because they don't. Of course.
I would stockpile books, too, if my husband hadn't banned me from buying books. This ban is a very good thing for our lives. Now I just keep a long list of recommended books. I'll never have time to read them all, but I like savoring the list. And I have also put off reading a really good book because I am just saving it for later, for when I really deserve it. Or for when I have no other obligations.

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