As soon as I finished my master’s degree in English literature (and decided not to go on for a PhD), I declared that I would go back to “reading for pleasure” as I had done in my youth – before the canon, before the 30-page lit crits, and before the late-night discussions with professors in seedy Camden barrooms. For me, “reading for pleasure” meant that I would just read a book cover to cover – no underlining, no sticky notes, no analysis – and let the book do whatever it wanted to me. I would allow myself to just say “I liked it” or “I did not like it.” That was six years ago, and recently, I have come to regret that decision.
I have saved pretty much every essay I ever wrote in college, and I look back through them on occasion when I’m feeling nostalgic. As I read through my papers on Shakespeare’s child-characters, The Scarlet Letter as meta-fiction, or the role of Freud’s Reality Principle in Heart of Darkness, I think to myself, “Wow…I used to be smart.” I was smart, and I’m not above saying so. Unlike my many attempts to learn other foreign languages, the language of literary criticism – or, more broadly, academic language in general, regardless of subject – came easy to me. But, that was when I was in academia. Once you’re out, you’ve officially entered the “use it or lose it” vortex. And, to be frank, I’ve lost it.
I’ve lost my ability to read critically, and it’s really starting to weigh on me, especially now that I’m in a book club with some very smart women, who, believe it or not, can outtalk me. My last few poor showings at book club, as well as some side discussions with other reader-friends of mine, have led me to analyze why it is that my reading skills have declined so dramatically.
When books, poems, plays, or essays were assigned to me in college, there was a basic understanding that “this work is important.” Why else would we be reading it, right? So, I knew that I HAD to pay attention. I HAD to take it in slowly, methodically. I HAD to look at it with the intensity that an archaeologist would give to an excavated piece of pottery. More, I HAD to be able to discuss it in class since writing and talking were really the only two graded components of any lit course I had ever taken. Even though I was basically reading just to be able to write or talk about it later, it gave me purpose and focus. It gave me a reason to do what I don’t do now: pay attention to – and, by extension, savor – what I’m reading.
Within this past week, two of my friends on two separate occasions used the word “savor” to describe their reading practices, and that’s when I realized the only things I really savor are good meals and booze. I don’t read purposefully anymore. I may read for knowledge/content (if I’m reading nonfiction) or storyline, but I certainly wouldn’t say that I savor, not usually anyway. More, I don’t always take my time or devote my utmost concentration and attention to whatever it is I’m reading. Sometimes I find myself having gone through three or four pages with my eyes just swishing back and forth across the page, maybe picking up important words or plot points here or there, but without connecting, without understanding. This leads not only to me quickly forgetting what I read, but also to a lack of something good to say about that which I can’t remember.
I admit all of this with dismay and embarrassment, of course, because how did I, someone who teaches critical reading and writing for a living, become such a lazy reader?
I became a lazy reader, first and foremost, because I became lazy in general. I tell my students all the time that the brain is like a muscle. Working out the brain is much like working out the body: if you want to keep it toned and in shape, you must exercise it. BUT (and this is a big BUT)…you cannot do the same exercises every day, or else the brain’s power – like weight loss or muscle mass – will plateau. You need to increase and diversify your workouts if you want your body to change. The same goes for the brain.
Since leaving college, I don’t really read “hard” books anymore. I used to read all sorts of classic literature with its stilted prose and o’eruse of the word o’er. I read philosophy, political science, history, and even physics books (yes, really). I challenged myself to read things I didn’t know or understand or was even all that interested in. And my brain grew, not just with knowledge but with strength and endurance. After reading Being and Time, understanding Chaucer in Middle English was a cakewalk. Now, I’d be lucky to get through the first five pages of No Exit without giving up.
I also think that technology has affected the way I read and the way that I value reading. I’m not old enough to say that there was no internet when I was in college, but I am old enough to say that it wasn’t anything like it is now. There were about twenty different domain names in a college email address (I think my very first email address was email@example.com – or something obnoxious like that), and Google did not yet have the complete history of everything in its databases. So, at that time, I still subscribed to magazines – you know, the ones that come in the mail. I got The Progressive, The Economist, Bitch, and The New Yorker, and it was a BIG DEAL when they arrived. I would lock myself in my room for hours reading one radical left wing article after another, stopping only to send my dad an enraged email that began with a rant on some atrocity or another that the US was committing or supporting in some way, and ended with a long, sad goodbye because, of course, after all this reading, I now had to move to Canada. Talk about savoring….
Now, with all of my favorite magazines and newspapers being just a LIKE-click away on Facebook, that level of excitement just isn’t there because the articles are ALWAYS there. Plus, instead of just having those four publications to read and think deeply about, I have 900+ subscriptions to get through just on my Google Reader alone, which basically means I do a whole lot of skimming or, as is more likely, let the articles collect virtual dust on my virtual coffee table. No doubt, there is a lot to be said for being able to have whatever you want to read at your fingertips, but, like anything else that comes too easily or too often, after a while, it becomes boring, unchallenging, and watered-down. It also becomes a race to get through as much of it as you can as quickly as you can because you know that in five minutes, there will be a thousand more articles to take the place of the thousand you just barely read.
Speaking of a race, that brings me to my next reading roadblock: Goodreads (www.goodreads.com ). At first, I was very excited about this website, and, in fact, it motivated me to up my reading intake dramatically. This site can be a great forum for discussing books that you’ve read or discovering books that you may never have heard of otherwise. Like any other social media, Goodreads is even better for its voyeuristic look into the reading lives of others. However, recently I’ve started to feel that Goodreads is sometimes more like a reading competition than it is a community of readers. Since becoming a regular participant on this site, I seem to speed through books just to mark them READ and give them three stars on my Goodreads page. This encourages the aforementioned behavior of not savoring what I read because I’m more interested in letting everyone else know that I read it so I can be the girl who eats 500-page novels for breakfast.
Not only does there seem to be a “who can read the most” competition, but there also seems to be some judgment about who’s reading what and what they like or don’t like. If I’m afraid to post a book that I’ve read on Goodreads, especially some of my “guilty pleasure” books, for fear of what someone might say about my selection or my “ratings,” then I’m clearly on the wrong website. To be sure, I make fun of the Dan Brown/Sue Grafton crowd every now and then, but I have to say that, in general, I’m not a fan of the competitive, elitist turn that I think reading has taken. Reading is a different experience for each person. Not everyone has the same purpose in mind when they read and, therefore, their choice of reading materials – like the clothes they wear or the food they eat – is their own. Why judge someone for wanting to slip away into a fantasy world, and what difference does it make if that fantasy world was created by Jonathan Franzen or John Grisham?
When I look back at my Goodreads page, I see how many books I’ve read in the past year, and I’m lucky if I can remember any significant details from three-fourths of them. I stare at the titles and try to recall the main character’s name, the setting, anything that would jog the memory of having actually had relations with this work. But, there’s nothing; it’s lost like the memory of a drunken one-night-stand. There’s nothing to remember because I read it too fast, too dismissively. I didn’t mull over beautiful sentences or complex characters. In fact, I can tell which books I read closely: they’re the ones with long, somewhat detailed reviews. When I pay attention, when I really READ, I find that have a lot to say.
So, starting today, I’m taking a pledge to read right. First, I’m going to diversify my reading materials in both genre and level of difficulty. Second, I’m going to read slowly and carefully, even if it takes me two weeks to read one book. Third, I’m saying goodbye to Goodreads (I’ll just go back to the old way of asking people what they’re reading if I really want to know) because I’m tired of competing in the reading race. Last, I’m going to reduce the amount of reading that I do on my computer and/or iPhone because this, more than anything else, I think, has contributed to my short attention span and my overall insouciance toward reading in general.
It’s time for me to get back to the metaphorical gym. It’s time for me to get back that love and passion for literature that pushed me, initially, into my major and, ultimately, into my career. It’s time to get back to savoring books.