I have been reading seriously for a long time. And I can’t imagine a life without books. As someone wise once said, “If you find reading boring, you’re not doing it right.”
Which begs the question, what does it mean to “do it right?”
I think the first thing a reader must do is to read what they love. When I was a child I read a great deal of fantasy literature, preferring it to the Nancy Drew/Bobbsey Twin mysteries many of my friends enjoyed. I liked fairy tales and Narnia. I adored comics. Every Thursday, when my mother when grocery shopping, she would buy me a new Classics Illustrated Comic. This was my introduction to Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick, Les Miserables, Ivanhoe . . .perhaps this explains why I was the only kid in my class I recall truly loving The Scarlet Letter. During my teens I read Tolkien, Elizabeth Goudge, Gabrielle Roy and then Sylvia Plath and James Agee and Flannery O’Connor and Anais Nin. I always like a human drama, tinged with a wallop of darkness.
Then I went through a period of reading very dubious novels indeed — trashy, sexy, scandalous things I could devour in an afternoon, like a binge of junk food. These were undeniably difficult times when I suffered, I now see, from a fairly serious depression and simply couldn’t concentrate on anything more challenging. I picked them up cheap from the drugstore on a Friday afternoon, sometimes four or five or six of them, and spent isolated weekends gulping them down. I think something in this period harked back to my childhood and a box my often-depressed mother kept in her closet It was full of paperbacks with lurid covers: half naked women in various forms of distress, pulp fiction crime novels and pot-boilers. My mother would retreat into her room for long periods and perhaps dream that someone would come and rescue her. I might have picked up the same habit — at least for a time. It didn’t last and wasn’t satisfying, as junk food never is, but I now find it interesting that even in a painful time reading, even if it wasn’t nourishing reading, still figured. I learned from it.
Certainly, reading well is a question of being able to enter a semi-trance and engage one’s imagination in co-creation with the author. That takes, I admit, a bit of practice, and for those who did not fall into the world of books as into cool water on a blistering hot day, as I did, a period of apprenticeship may be required. In other words, to learn how to read well, one has to start reading regularly.
I understand it can be difficult to find the time when one is leading a busy life, but oh, my, what rewards there are. On this subject Annie Dillard says, in The Writing Life,
“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.”
I begin my day by reading as I am brushing my teeth. And yes, My Best Beloved finds this hilarious. I always have a book or two in the bathroom, as I suspect many people do. It’s a fine spot for reading snippets and I finish roughly a book a month in the loo. Flossing is an especially good time, as are baths, of course. The kind of books best read in bathrooms, however, differs from the sorts of books one might read elsewhere. Personal essays are terrific, as are books of letters, literary essays are also good, and short stories. Here, one wants something that can be dipped into, sipped, and nibbled at. Collections of folk and fairy tales can be particularly delightful. It is best to read books here that are not priceless first editions, for water stains and toothpaste drops are inevitable. Having one’s hands free for the aforementioned flossing and brushing is critical, and so I use a wonderful book weight here, a lovely leather object, which one can purchase from Levenger. Right now, I’m reading Bookworms, a wonderful collection of essays by writers about reading.
I read during solitary meals at home, of which I have quite a few since I work from home and My Best Beloved only does so occasionally. Breakfasts and lunches, mostly, and I enjoy them mightily. I have another book weight in the kitchen so I can use my hands for knife and fork. My e-reader also comes in handy here. I have spent thousands of lunchtimes — back when I worked in offices — reading in restaurants and at lunch counters, and although it is also pleasurable and useful to do so it does make me feel a little more self conscious about my table manners and reveals what Joseph Epstein calls “a certain ineptitude with lettuce.”
I read almost constantly when I’m working, even if it’s only reading over whatever I wrote yesterday, and deciding it isn’t nearly good enough. What time is not spent reading is spent writing, with breaks to walk the dog. Such breaks are good. They are mental palate cleansers.
I also spend a few hours a day in more serious reading, of the kind done with pencil in hand, underlining passages and making notes. I love to see how fine writers craft their work and learn a great deal from them. I also, it must be said, learn from writers who try but fail. One can often see quite clearly why a writer hasn’t met their intentions for a work, and it is good to make note of the problem so as not to repeat it oneself.
I am an eclectic reader, which is possibly the result of being an autodidact. I’ve never had the benefit of such a thing as a course of study. I am a magpie. I let my curiosity lead me — astronomy today, prison reform tomorrow .. . biographies, psychology, theology, Scandinavian murder mysteries, South American magical realists, poetry, Celtic saints and Anglo-Saxon England . . . it just depends on what catches my attention. The books scattered round my rooms might give the impression of someone with far-reaching interests, or of someone with attention-deficit-disorder. The only constant thread is literary fiction. It’s the bread on my reading plate.
Reading, although a solitary experience, need not be an isolated one. Some of the best hours of my life have been spent curled up at one end of the couch with my nose in a book whilst My Best Beloved sits at the other, his nose in his own book. The dog reposes between us, dreaming no doubt, of finally catching that rabbit he’s been after for months. This may be the doggie version of reading, although I suspect Bailey, The Rescuepoo, is literary, as one can see from the photo. A love of literature knows no bounds.
And in the final analysis, perhaps that’s what matters most, that’s what it means to “do it right.” No matter what you read, no matter where it leads you, read what you love, what feeds you, and keep on reading.