I read voraciously. I read as if I need it to get through the day. Because of my reading habits, I never thought that I had an attention problem, until I learned about hyperfocus. If anything, I have attention to spare, at least when it comes to reading. (Being able to direct focus is a different story.)
In any given day, I’ll read political blogs, surf Wikipedia, read poems, work through one of the three or four books I’m usually reading, and none of that includes the reading I have to do for my job. I estimate that I read and comment on about 2,500 student papers a year. (Grading is my scourge.)
I didn’t always love reading in and of itself. In middle school and high school, English was my least favorite subject. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, what was the point of all that nonsense? To me, reading was instrumental, something I did to learn something useful or satisfy curiosity, and it only seemed, based on the way many of my teachers taught, that the point of reading dusty old literary stuff was to answer questions on quizzes, like this:
Ophelia is to Hamlet as
A) Peanut butter is to jelly
B) Peanut butter is to tuna
C) Peanut butter is to anaphylaxis
D) MacGyver is to bubble gum
That kind of read reading you did to get the right answer from a poem or whatever so you could learn something that somehow was supposed to be good for you. I’ve written more poems than anything else since high school, but did not learn to love them until later.
The reading I liked then was the JC Penny Christmas catalog, model railroading magazines, computer magazines, photography books, and strange tales/science fiction writing. For example, when I visited my grandmother in her drafty old farmhouse in rural Wisconsin, I would terrify myself by reading a book she had, Haunted Wisconsin. I would stay up all night hearing all the creaks in the house and the animals outside and imagining the worst. I’d hear the twang of the frogs in the marsh and the clunk of cowbells and imagine whatever the rural Wisconsin version of the ghost of Christmas yet to come might be. It didn’t help that my great uncle kept a pelt from his favorite deceased goat in my room, stuffed head and all.
I read that book every time I visited and would not sleep and go back home exhausted. I couldn’t help myself. I loved getting freaked out by the book during the day. If I had some sort of interest in something, I could read it all day, damn the consequences.
I had always read easily. Like my sons have today, I taught myself to read even before kindergarten. In the first grade, a teacher thought I was just looking at pictures because I would page through the books so fast, but she quizzed me and found out that I indeed read them. Through most of my primary and secondary education, I breezed through anything, unless I thought it wasn’t all that important, in which case I just listened to the class lecture.
When I first got to college, however, I had trouble reading. I would have trouble sitting down long enough to focus to get through a chapter of a textbook. There was so much fun to be had instead. If I had to read something difficult, I would read the words much faster than I would comprehend them. The reading was markedly more difficult than high school, and I couldn’t just skim stuff and retain it like before, and I didn’t have the patience or focus to slog through it.
After a couple of years of struggling, I learned to read with a highlighter or pencil in my hand. I underline important concepts, sometimes write questions and comments in the margin. I still do that for difficult reading. The pen in my hand sliding across the page helps me slow down and stick with something difficult. I focus, temporarily, on making really straight lines when I mark, and then the words stay clear to me. That’s why I love the Kindle today, you can highlight as you read, and it stores all the highlights together. And the lines are perfectly straight!
I got serious about reading after my first year of college. After a disastrous start at the university, I took a writing class at a community college, having changed my major to English. I told the professor, a calm fellow with small glasses and a big beard, that I wanted to be a writer. He asked me what I read. Mostly I read a lot of Reader’s Digest, because they were lying around my parents’ house as I was lying around my parents’ house at the time. He told me I needed to get more serious about reading if I was serious about writing.
From then on, I’ve always read like a writer, focusing on how something is written in addition to what it says. I can’t separate the two. And always I read for comparison: could I write like this? Should I?
This habit has led to some difficulties. First, if I read a novel or something that’s in an genre that I might be interested in writing, I get angry if I feel it’s not written well. Second, I often get seduced by what I read. I read a science fiction novel; I want to write science fiction novels. I read a good poem, then I want to write poems. I read Edward Abbey; I want to go live in the woods. It’s frustrating that I know I could write a similar book only if I could sustain the interest long enough.
I often don’t have a strong sense of self and lose perspective once I’m “in” to some new book (the same goes for new hobbies). There’s an overall pattern of inconsistency in my life. That pattern appears in the piles of papers, tools, boxes, and other stuff I leave sitting around to take care of later. That pattern is in my whims and fancies: Pen turning! Kayak building! Photography! Kitchen remodeling! Seventeen different writing projects! Or in scholarship: Literacy studies! Critical pedagogy! Faculty development! Contemplative education!
I’m always molding myself to the present, seeing how I can fit in to what’s going on around me. It’s only very recently I’ve learned to start saying “no” at work to new projects and committee invitations unless they are core to my vision of what I do. Only recently I am able to stick to that original vision of my professional self: I teach and write.
As I said above, reading is seductive. Great writers create a new state of mind and they take me along for the ride. Even merely good writers draw me in. And when I’m reading something great, I dwell in possibility. A portion of experience opens up to me, even a new way of seeing myself and the world, which is exhilarating and uplifting. Until I find the new best thing next week.
I have been reading like a writer for a long time now. It’s been twenty years since that teacher told me to read more like a professional. And, for that long, I have been living mostly in possibility. That is, reading and thinking like a writer, but not so much writing as one. Missing is the important step: publishing!
* * *
That seemed like a tidy place to end the post, but there is one more, um, experience I did not yet include. I am a bathroom reader, and I don’t mean while soaking in the tub.
Upon the throne is a great place to read. One is not supposed to be doing anything, uh, productive with one’s time. So there’s no I should be paying bills thinking going on. I can’t quite remember when I started taking reading into the W.C., but I remember taking in magazines and catalogs when I was a kid. My parents keep stacks of Reader’s Digest and The New Yorker in their bathrooms.
I read somewhere (probably in the same room) that reading helps one, ah, relax in that situation, stimulates the limbic system or some such system.
It’s gotten to the point where I feel I have to read to go. Yes, I take books or a newspaper with me into the men’s room at work. If, for some reason, I have no reading when I need it, I’ll even read a shampoo bottle or toothpaste tube and analyze the sentence structure. (Shampoo bottles love active voice and imperative mood: Lather. Rinse. Repeat.) I’ll admit to hiding out in the bathroom once in awhile just for some reading. And while my discovery that I’m gluten intolerant has made my digestion and overall health much better, I find that it seriously cuts into my reading time.
The other issue there is the safety of my Kindle. I’ve had to try hard not to drop it in the toilet. And while this piece of technology is wonderful, I have also admit that, yes, I have purchased a book wirelessly from the bathroom and yes, that does seem a little strange.