Friday, May 30, 2008

Outside of a dog...

Flavia's recent post about the consolation provided by books (which is itself a response to a thoughtful post by MeanSomething) has gotten me thinking about how my attitude toward reading has changed over time. In a comment on her post, I listed a few books that I consider consolatory in some way. To be honest, though, I've never thought about these books (or any others) in this way. Maybe the term New Kid has used in her posts on the subject, "comfort reading" comes closer, since it evokes the idea of "comfort food," that is, not necessarily the food that comforts us, but the food that makes us feel comfortable. The books I listed in my comment, books like Brideshead Revisited, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and John Crowley's Little, Big, are books that I've read many times. I used to wonder what it was that drew me to these books and then drew me back again. It wasn't the plot of the books or even for the characters, and it certainly wasn't some kind of abstract academic appreciation of literary skill, though I do believe that all of these books are excellent examples of 20th-century literature. If I had to put a specific label on it, I guess I'd say that it's the tone of these books that is so appealing to me, the feeling that permeates them and that they convey to me when I read them. In fact, now that I think about it, tone and feeling may be what attract me to reading in general. And by reading here, I'm talking, of course, about reading for pleasure and for leisure. One of the greatest joys in life, am I right?

At least that's how I remember leisure reading. The truth is that I don't get much chance to read for pleasure anymore. The combination of my teaching job and two small children has made it very difficult to spend those hours on the sofa lost in a book, hours that I only knew had passed after I looked up at the clock. That's not to say that I don't read for pleasure at all, of course. Some of my favorite days each year, in fact, are those first days after a semester ends, when I agonize over the choice a book to read. And I do read those books. Right now, for example, I'm reading Foucault's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco. I read The Name of the Rose last year and liked (not loved) it, so I thought I'd give Eco another try. I'm about 250 pages in so far, and it's not bad. But here's the thing: it's taken me more than two weeks to read those 250 pages. Two weeks! I can remember times when I was younger, when I'd read an entire book in a day. I once read a trilogy of novels over a 3-day weekend. Age and children can change all of that.

But to some degree, that's a copout. Sure, I have less time to read than I used to, but I have more than the 20 minutes or so each day that I allot to pleasure reading. I spend a lot more time than that reading blogs each day, or checking for the nineteenth time before lunch. I could get up early and read for an hour or so before the kids wake up. I could read after they go to bed (instead of watching Californication online with Miss Goddess). And, of course, I could read instead of writing long posts on why I don't have time to read. But I usually don't.

Why don't I read more? Maybe it's an inevitable by-product of a career that relies almost entirely on reading. Saying I don't read for pleasure is not the same thing as saying I don't read at all. Like all other English professors, I read almost all the time. Literary works for survey classes, articles for Freshman Comp, loads and loads of student essays. My professional life is full of reading, and much of it is fairly pleasurable. Well, not the student essays so much, but I do enjoy the reading I do for my Lit classes. In the past year, I've read The Good Soldier, Mrs. Dalloway, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all for class and all for the first time (not to mention the scores of shorter works and criticism). So maybe I'm just burned out on reading by the time the end of the semester rolls around.

There may be other reasons, too. Trying to remain active in scholarship while teaching five or six classes per semester means that the bulk of my scholarly work gets done in the summer. Time spent on research is time not spent in leisure reading, and since, as we've already established, I have a limited amount of time to begin with, that often means that pleasure reading simply doesn't make the cut. When I do decide to read for fun rather than for work, that monastic guilt often kicks in, telling me that I'm wasting valuable time that could be spent more profitably. Re-engaging in scholarship after a few months absence (due to grading, etc.) makes that guilt worse. Furthermore, when I'm working on my own research, I'm often reminded of how little I actually know about my field, convincing me that I should spend any extra time boning up on my Latin, on my German, on Anglo-Saxon history, on the exciting new scholarship that I didn't have time to read during the school year, etc.. I rarely follow through on these goals, of course, but that doesn't stop my from feeling guilty when I'm doing other things.

And who knows, maybe it's just the books that I choose to read. Like many academics, I've gotten to the point where even my pleasure reading has to meet a fairly high literary and intellectual standard. That trilogy I read over a 3-day weekend? I was twelve, and the books were the first three in Piers Anthony's Xanth series. Today, I couldn't make it past the first page of those books. I don't mean to sound like a snob, and I don't mean to suggest that I sit around reading Ulysses every summer, but the fact of the matter is that I only enjoy books if they are reasonably well-written. The problem is that some reasonably well-written books are less, well, engaging than trashy genre fiction. So while I'm enjoying Foucault's Pendulum, which is complex and moderately intellectual, I'm not loving it. More to the point, I'm not getting lost in it in the way I used to get lost in fiction. I don't find myself thinking about it when I'm not reading it. I don't steal away to a hidden corner just to squeeze in an extra chapter. I doubt I'll experience that strange mixture of joy and melancholy when I finish it. Accomplishment, maybe, but not sadness that it's over.

So is it the books I now choose to read, or is it me? Have I reached an age where the mermaids of fiction no longer sing to me the way they did in my youth? I have a friend, a former literature grad student, who hasn't read any fiction for more than a decade. He claims to have outgrown fiction, that it just seems silly to him now to read all those made-up stories. I'm not to that point. I still love fiction, at least the idea of it. And occasionally, I still find a novel that engrosses me completely, a novel like Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (but, I have to admit, I read that book almost a decade ago). They just don't crop up quite as often as they used to.

What do you think, loyal readers? Have you experienced similar shifts in the role reading plays in your life? Alternatively, if your summer reading is still transformational (or at least transportational), what are you reading? Maybe in the items on your current reading lists, I'll find a little bit of reading salvation.


Jeffrey J Cohen said...

I replied here. Thanks for the post!

Flavia said...

Oh God, yes. And I don't even have the excuse of small children (or as intensive a teaching load as yours)! My leisure reading these days, when I'm at home, consists of catching up on three back issues of The New Yorker. It's really only when I'm on vacation or traveling that I read new fiction, in part because my family lives 3000 miles away and in part (I'm embarrassed to admit) because being on a train or plane or bus--or in most hotel rooms--generally means that I'm without a computer and/or internet access.

But I think there's something to your observation that as literary professionals our standards for our leisure reading are higher. Last summer I was in the UK for 10 days and I finally read Moby-Dick. No time/energy for anything else, though.

But! Now here I am, in an unfamiliar city for a month, and I carted a ton of books with me. We'll see how many actually get read, but this is the list: Richard Russo, Straight Man and Empire Falls; Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Yiddish Policeman's Union; Mamet, American Buffalo (seen the movie, haven't read the play); Wilson, The Piano Lesson (just saw a production); Joshua Ferris, And Then We Came to the End; Anthony Burgess, Dead Man in Deptford (bought last summer, read three pages); Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (the only McCarthy I've read is All the Pretty Horses), Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex.

You'll observe, perhaps, that most of these represent an attempt to maintain/lay some claim to Being Up On Contemporary Authors. . .

Prof. de Breeze said...

That's an impressive list, Flavia. The only items on the list I've read are Straight Man (I want to be Hank Devereaux when I grow up) and Kavalier and Klay, though I've been meaning to read MIddlesex for some time and may steal it soon from my sister-in-law, who just finished it to rave reviews.

I don't envy your relative solitude for the next month, but I do envy the stack of books siting before you. The last time I had such a prospect was when I was 14 and went with my parents on a two-week driving tour of Civil War battlefields (my hand to God). Riding alone in the back of that ridiculously large van, I finished eight or ten books during the fortnight, emerging only long enough to gaze on the glories that were Vicksburg, Petersburg, Appomattox, etc.. Good times.