Unglamorous: becoming a better reader

Okay, that’s it: I can’t take it anymore.

These piles of books are now almost as tall as my computer screen, and those are just the ones on my desk, the ones I mean to read soon, the ones I’ve been reading, for reference, for my writing, for inspiration or information. Best American Short Story Anthologies, Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town, Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde, The Drifting Cowboy by Will James, The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, The Creative Writing MFA Handbook by Tom Kealey and Seth Abramson, Puget’s Sound by Murray Morgan, several literary issues of Glimmer Train, Electric Literature, Fugue, Zoetrope, and Annalemma, Chekhov’s collected stories, Tobias Wolff’s collected stories, a just-published novel by my step-brother-in-law that’s just itching for me to get to (with a title like High Desert Barbecue, how can one avoid it?), a just-published novel by a teacher of mine (see my previous post, “The Age of Fucked Up Shit“), old and folded copies of the New Yorker, and, underneath a dry and crusty bowl of yogurt and granola, a chartreuse doorstop titled The Making of a Story by the wonderful Alice LaPlante, which is my go-to book for writing craft and inspiration.

Oh, there’s more.

There are also the piles on my nightstand: the most recent Best American Short Story anthology, Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, Franzen’s The Corrections (yes, I’m only getting around to it now), and an abandoned copy of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, a majestic work of marketing that, so far as I can tell, is all about the arrangement of tents.

My point is this: my reading list has far outstripped my reading pace. I was doing fine for a while: between college and 2010 I read remarkably few books.

Part of it was English Major’s Burnout, partly it was general business. And to be fair to myself: I did read books—a fair number of them, actually—but they were virtually all books I was promoting, either at Heyday Books, Ten Speed Press, or independently as Nelson Consulting + Communications. I read very few books for pleasure, and none for instruction on craft.

Then I came clean with myself, and admitted to being a writer (they say that’s usually the first step) and lo, the floodgates opened. I started accumulating books again.

It had been years since I worked in a bookstore, when a sizable chunk of my wages went right back to my employers, and my book-collecting frenzy had largely died off. I had even purged my collection before moving to Seattle, and in 2010 my entire collection was contained in fewer than three bookcases. But as with most hibernations, my output had slowed to match my intake.

When I started reading again—really reading, with intensity, with passion, with the hunger of a newly awakened bear in spring—I naturally found myself spending more time in bookshops. My wife even gave me permisison to spend some change on books: this was an educational investment, and one of my only real hobbies.

Yes, there are libraries. Tacoma’s main library is decent, too, but I’ve often been one of the worst offenders at returning books on time, racking up huge fines and eliciting glowers from the circulation desk. Even the simple act of renewing online is more than I can manage. (You should’ve seen me when Blockbuster Video was the main video rental show in town; before Netflix I was giving money away just to hang on to a VHS of some old Jan Svankmajer film.) So yes, I acknowledge libraries, and in a better world would patronize them more.

But I think there’s also something to be said about the psychology of collecting books, of that feeling of needing to have the books, of having the books represent the platform of my collected wisdom. James Wood said it nicely in his piece for the New Yorker (“Shelf Life: Packing Up my Father-in-Law’s Library,” November 7, 2011): “the acquisition of a book signalled not just the potential acquisition of knowledge but also something like the property rights to a piece of ground: the knowledge became a visitable place.”

But enough of that: Wood already wrote that essay. My point is simply that once I started collecting books again, whether out of actual intention to read them (there’s always that) or some fealty to the culture of writers and reading, I soon became aware that I was collecting too many books, and still do. It needs to stop. Or else, I need to sell back some of my already read books. Or better yet: I need to read the books I have at a faster pace.

Which brings me to my final point: that to be a good writer, I need to read. Period. I need to read wide and I need to read deep. I think—this is just a guess—that all good writers have, to some degree, this feeling of incompleteness, if not outright incompetence. I’m never widely read enough or well-versed enough in Bakhtin or Barthelme, in Roth or Wright, on and on down the endless list to which I dream of someday affixing my own name.

Still, there’s that very real need to catch-up, to read as much as I possibly can. Not only do I want to sound informed and widely read when I myself write, but I want to be informed: I’ve posited before that contemporary literature is a great peloton—a fast-moving mass of individual writers (ahem: riders?), all of whom have their own thing going on, their own careers, their own body of work, their own themes and messages. And then they come together to benefit from each other’s slipstream, advancing literature (insofar as literature is a thing that can be moved) by virtue of covalence.

So what? The simple answer is to carve out more time in each day to sit and read. Perhaps cancel my cable subscription. I would miss my Jon Stewart and Anthony Bourdain, but in this day and age they are omnipresent online, nu? And wouldn’t the net profit from that time spent reading be greater than any time spent watching satire or social commentary on the boob tube, regardless of how well-wrought? Again, that’s another essay. I just know that I need to read more.

It’s my intention therefore to spend more of this year reading, and to devote more of my blog posts to discussing my reading. It’s probably as important as trying (foolishly) to come up with fresh fiction every time I post, or feeling guilty for not having fresh fiction.

Yes, I also intend this year to finally start publishing some of my damned stories, which involves devoting considerable time to revising old ones and writing new.

But in writing the new, I get stuck. What to write about? What questions haunt me? What emotions pique my interest artistically? It’s hard to come up with material in a vacuum. Especially if that vacuum is my mind. I find it so much easier to get started writing a new story when it’s bounced off something—or someone—else. Another writer, say.

I suppose it comes down to the economy of time management and the chicken-or-egg question of whether writing begets reading or vice versa. There are only so many hours in a day and  always other chores and projects to do, errands to run, and so on. But shit, I’m not even employed at the moment, who the shitfuck am I to even pretend to want for time?

In college I read several books a week. Okay: I didn’t read them all cover to cover. In fact, mostly I’d just read about a hundred pages of each, tops. Just enough to do a close reading for a five-page essay. But it felt like I was consuming way more literature. Ans with that close reading, I was actually getting something real out of it.

Recently I met with the manager of an independent bookstore in Minneapolis, and whenever a title came up, I asked impulsively if he’d read it and what he thought. He always had an opinion, even if tempered with modesty. But he confessed he’d seldom read any of these books from start to finish. “Who has the time?” he said simply.

A little light bulb fizzled and flickered over my head. I had just received—or maybe given myself—permisssion to not finish books.

Is this a bad thing? Would the many fine authors (my future colleagues!) be pissed at the seeming lack of effort? Not necessarily. If a book is good and compels me to finsih it, I’ll finish it. But if it’s not holding my interest, there’s no point in belaboring it.

God, I knew this truth in my bones in college: I jettisoned more literary cargo in the ocean of my education than I care to admit. And I still got a good education, took away the key points (albeit with the help of a brilliant lecturer explaining it all), and still manged to get a good night’s sleep every night.

Now, as I wrap up my reading of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife—the second novel I’ll have read in a month—I resolve to read even more: at least a book a week, from now on. And my “secret” to success will be to count among the books I’ve read the ones I’ve discarded midway through, so long as I hang in there long enough to (a) learn something, (b) enjoy something, or (c) to discover that the book hasn’t enough for me to learn or enjoy to warrant the time to read.

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  1. a bold theory, and one that makes me quake in my completist boots; i’ve read the first 5% of gravity’s rainbow ten times, and the first tenth of tristram shandy five times, and i shan’t consider either mastered until i’ve made it all the way through, and had a crack at my editions’ critical essays. television’s even worse: i’ve been watching dark shadows for the last several years because i won’t consider it properly viewed until i’ve seen every. single. episode (there are 1,225). your approach is much healthier, i think, and is a fabulous way to kick off a year with an eye on publication; good luck!

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