Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Why, Johnny Can't Read
I’ve had the same New Year’s Resolution for the past two years: take my age and finish that number of books in the calendar year. There were a couple of reasons for this resolution: the most obvious was to force myself to read more, but the second was to have something to consistently write about on this blog. Unfortunately, I failed each goal each year. Perhaps I should have tried this when I was in my twenties; seeing as I’m in my mid-forties, trying to polish off 42 or 43 books in a year is, personally, no easy task.
In 2007, I only finished 28 books. A failing grade, no doubt, but I consoled myself with the fact that I read throughout the year and, better yet, enjoyed a number of books on my list. Any disappointment came from not finding time to post book reports on this site. There were a number of things I was looking forward to discussing, but it seems the time has passed.
If 2007’s report was cloudy with a chance of silver lining, 2008 was a complete washout. Not only did I not finish much that I started (I have 30 pages left in Proust and The Squid. 30 lousy pages! But I haven’t picked it up since November), but looking over what I did read, there’s little that I loved. Perhaps there’s a connection. I’m loath to completely abandon a book. I soldier on with a pigheaded determination to finish what I’ve started, even if I don’t like it. As a teenager, shortly after I began Something Happened by Joseph Heller, a friend told me his father was unable to finish it. In some private act of literary machismo, I was determined to finish the book, inspired perhaps by the fact that my friend’s father was a college English professor. It wasn’t until I finished the book – it took me all summer – that I realized that perhaps my friend’s father was right all along. Something Happened is deliberately repetitious, a statement on the trap the main character finds himself in. I can justify it, but did I have to read all of it?
Apparently yes, and it’s a habit I can’t break. If I begin a book, I have to finish it whether I like it or not. This might be a nice example of commitment, but it also means that some books become blocks. I won’t read something new until the current book is finished and if I don’t like the current book, then I don’t read. The cycle can be as monotonous as the experiences of the main character in Something Happened. O, the irony.
There are other reasons for the sharp decline in number of books I read, and you’re staring at one of them right now: I spend much of my leisure time on the computer or watching television. I don’t feel bad about either of these activities: there are a number of movies or tv shows I want to see (I never random channel surf – the DVR has truly changed how I watch tv and for the better). When I am online, I am reading. But it is a different kind of reading. Text online is closer to magazine-style writing. Easy to comprehend, it consists of facts and, invariably, a heavy dose of attitude. You can read online for a couple of hours, zipping from site to site, only to discover that you’ve retained very little, apart from “this is cool!” or “that sucks!”
So why devote so much time to reading online or watching tv, especially when I have a resolution (which, let’s face it, is like a contract with God) to read so much? Well, I’ve noticed that with visual media (defined here as the computer and tv), my attention is immediately riveted, whereas with literary media (books – comics and magazines are excluded) it takes me a while to settle in to what I am reading. I fidget, I look at the cover for the umpteenth time, I glance at things around the room. It takes time and effort, it’s almost a process, for my attention to be fully pulled by the string of words. But once there, once a book has my attention, I don’t want anything else. Visual media captures my attention more quickly, but the hold is almost never as strong.
I didn’t consciously realize the other reason I wasn’t reading until late in the year. It was simple: I needed glasses. Reading isn’t much of a pleasure when you have to hold a book at arm’s length in order to see, and even then, the words are all soft grey. Something I forgot but instantly recalled was how nice black letters look on a white page. With my glasses on, the text just pops! off the page. It really is a pleasure.
So we’ll see if the third time is the charm. I’ll be 44 this year, so I’m trying to finish and write about 44 books before December 31, 2009. I’m already behind, but at least I’m currently reading (and enjoying) The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano and only have 30 pages left in Proust and The Squid.