Reading Again, Racing Again

IMG_4785For most of my life I’ve been a reader.  I devoured books.  In 5th grade I got ahold of a list of the recommended 100 books freshmen college students should have read – from Oxford or Yale or something – and I set about reading them.  I kept detouring as I discovered one author after another and would stop to read all of that author’s books before moving on to the next. But I’d made my way through the hundred before I finished junior high school.  Sharing book experiences with me was one of my father’s favorite bonding activities.  He’d casually mention that he thought I was ready for “this” as he gave me a book or told me a title to look for and then we’d talk for hours about the book after I’d read it.  Gabriela Clove and CinnamonJustine,  The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Magus, A High Wind in Jamaica, The Left Hand of Darkness, Xenogenisis were treasured gifts.  From my mother there was osmosis as she read a book a day and would leave them about the house, knowing I’d pick up the ones that interested me; I, Robot, Elfquest, Gone with the Wind, The Hobbit, Shakespeare.  My stepfather reinforced humor and sly perspectives by introducing me to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the GalaxyBook of the New SunTitus Groan or encouraged me to look for mythology beyond the Greek and Roman, pointing out how interesting Native American, Egyptian, and Norse gods were.  At the library I’d unearth things on my own and feel proud of myself if my parents hadn’t read it, choosing to overlook that sometimes that’s because what I was delighting in was a bit junior or girly for them, but Beauty sparked a lifelong love for the retelling and reframing of fairy tales and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld spurred me to creating worlds of my own and a love for fantasy and science fiction independent of my parents fondness for the genre.

My tastes are and have always been varied and broad and it hasn’t been uncommon to find me reading a non-fiction business or professional book, a biography, a summer romance, the latest on the human mind and neuroscience, a classic novel, a cyber-punk sci fi, and a murder/suspense novel back to back – or overlapping.  In addition to reading magazines, countless blog posts, and articles throughout the day.  I have identified most predominantly as a reader from a family of readers for as long as I can remember.  It’s always been on the list; woman, writer, Jew, reader, San Franciscan, white, liberal, feminist, producer… it’s a core part of my identity.  Included in every “about me” profile for as long as I’ve had to convey the essence of me in 100 words or less.

I’ve had two periods in my life where reading – the kind of sit down, focus, and disappear for a couple of hours reading – was rare if not impossible for me.  The first was after my father died, which had been close on the heels of my best friend dying and grief for a decade of departed friends and family.  My mind was incapable of focusing on anything and everything was so raw it felt like rubbing acid on an exposed burn to get inside another person’s (a stranger, the author’s) mind or touch their emotional life in such an intimate way.  The only thing I wanted at that point was superficial, funny, and easy – so t.v. sit coms and rom-com movies.  But eventually I found my way back to comfort in the written word and was reading more again and then things were slowly back to normal and it felt good and was a relief.

The second time was recent and much longer – three years – and precipitated by several things.  I’d had a broken heart and was trying desperately to get over someone.  I was stressed out and routinely found myself ill or injured; was working too much, overcommitting myself theatrically, and caring for too many people – myself not being one of them.  I’ll blame Facebook and smart phones and social media for eroding my ability to concentrate a little bit too.  I went from routinely reading several books a week, to reading three books in a year.  It was awful trying to read.  So I all but stopped.

At first I don’t think I noticed how infrequently I read, then I noticed and it frustrated me.  I tried reading ebooks, thinking maybe the convenience and immediate access to different ones in case it was a “mood” thing, might help.  Then decided that the e-reading wasn’t right, I needed to have the physical book, but made excuses about not having any with me when I had time to read (a hurdle I’d never had previously, because I was never without a book before), or that I didn’t have anyplace comfortable to read, and since I was driving so much more for my commute that meant no time.  Then when my commute was 10 minutes instead of two hours, it was because the commute was so short.   Then I sort of accepted that maybe I just wasn’t a reader anymore.

I was still a book buyer, though.  I love them too much to not want to possess them (the 30+ boxes of books that just moved with us from Oakland to Concord is a testament to that materialistic weak spot). I kept buying them as if I were still reading at the rate I used to read.  I had a pile of “to read” books next to my bed that went from the floor to pillow level, another entire shelf of books I wanted to read but had forgotten I owned.  Books stashed in the shopping bags I’d taken them home in that were squished beneath props and scripts and other theatre detritus in the trunk of my car, or stashed under never-wear-them clothes on the floor of my closet.  A stack of started books on the edge of the counter in my bathroom (yep a family of bathroom readers), tucked on the floor next to the couch, or collecting on the corner of the dining room table that would migrate to a chair I rarely used.  It was like I was an alcoholic only instead of bottles of whisky and vodka tucked away here and there it was books.  I think about it now with some shame at how much money I was wasting, how privileged and whiny this entire subject is.

It was the constant stumbling upon books with bookmarks barely a chapter in and forgotten about that made me miserable. Unopened, unread, broken promises accusing me and reminding me at every turn.  Worlds and experiences I had wanted to explore and failed to follow-through. It was like the unpleasant feeling I’d had after I gained so much grief-burdened weight and saw a complete stranger in the mirror.  One I didn’t particularly respect.  Only instead of seeing a face that reflected the wrong facial expressions – “do I really look like that now when I arch my eyebrow and tilt my head, double chin sagging to the side?  Where’d my cute sly look go?  No wonder I get the wrong reaction to that look. Who are you mirror person with your stretched out smooched face?” – with the unread books I was confronted with an internal person who was increasingly a lazy and slow thinker.  I don’t mean that people who don’t read are lazy or slow thinkers, I mean that I was pushing away that kind of engagement with the world and I’m not sure if it was in reaction to not being able to read or if I wasn’t able to read, because I was refusing to spend extra energy I didn’t have on that kind of engagement.

Acquaintances on FB would get into long involved threads debating the nuances of works I was familiar with and previously wouldn’t have hesitated to jump into the fray, but for some reason I could barely muster the intellectual energy to understand the debate, let alone care about it enough to try to contribute.  I had started to worry and berate myself for not reading but wasn’t doing anything about it.  I slid away from conversations about books with family and friends, hoping they didn’t notice.  Or talked with masochistic nostalgia about books I’d read long ago, hoping they didn’t realize I hadn’t mentioned a single recent read.  I felt like a fraud and a liar.  How could I continue to perpetuate the idea that I was a reader, let alone a writer, when the idea of opening a book was only slightly less irritating and undesirable than going to the dentist.

Then I saw a FB invitation pop up in my feed from a fellow playwright I’d long admired, but hadn’t yet met.  BOOK RACE 2015 it said.  It was a challenge to a friendly race to see who could read more books in a year (measured in word count) with a prize at the end.  I looked at who had also been invited and it was enough to make me blanche.  I mean here I was feeling slow-witted and incapable of focusing and if I participated in this race, it would be with people in my network who were the lively book debaters, most of whom usually didn’t remember who I was and were re-introduced to me at theatre events. Confident assertive people who would certainly not like having a fraud in their midst.  A pretender.  A poseur (one of my dad’s favorite insults).  The people I felt somewhat cowed by and envious of, who would surely find whatever my reading choices would be laughable.  Because all I’d be able to read would be ridiculous and fluffy.  Thankfully those thoughts only lasted a short while.  Because I knew it was bullshit and was just me being anxious and scared.  I hate being anxious and scared and it generally makes me more determined. (“What are you going to do? Quit and regret it? Stop being a baby.  As if the world centers around you. Just do it.”)  I decided that it would, if nothing else, give me some competitive energy to read at least more than one book this year.  The race would be against and toward that former book-devouring Me.  It wasn’t really about anyone else than the fog in my head.  So I said yes to the race.  And have been relieved and happy to discover that though slow at first, I have been able to focus for increasingly longer periods of time and have completed 14 books since January – as of the writing of this post I’ll finish the 15th this weekend – I’m neither first nor last and holding my own position in 6th place.  I am content to recognize that my life is still busy, I still work a demanding day job, I still have a commute, I still have theatre commitments, I still take care of people.  In other words I’m still fractured and scattered in my thinking and over-extended.  I’ve just refused to let that be the only thing I am anymore.

I have a strict policy that each weekend must include down time – no screen time, I must do nothing but read, take a purposeless meandering walk, stare into space, or nap – in order for it to count; for the weekend to have been “productive”. (Because, god forbid I have a non-productive weekend. That inner bookkeeper has to tally the to-do list each week or else. So down-time is a high priority to-do item.) I bring books with me again when I’m going out and read on BART or at my infrequently-taken lunch breaks.  It helps with the writing to be doing this again.  It helps with my willingness to engage and think.  It helps me recognize that the only reason I’m standing on the fringes of a conversation is because I’ve chosen to, not because I’m not welcome. And as it happens, while some of the books I’ve read are light and frivolous, not all of them are, and my cohorts aren’t all reading like literature graduate students either (as I had needlessly feared).  Sometimes I even delve into a debate too.  I am happily watching the to-read pile get shorter while the have-read-it pile gets bigger. I might never get back to the 100+ books a year I used to do, but 30 would be a good balance, and not bad at all.  Just like with the fat woman in the mirror who I’ve come to recognize as me and not see as quite so disconcertingly wrong looking, I’m also starting to feel like myself inside again too.  A reader.

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Read-it List

  • Men Explain Things to Me
    More an exercise in preaching to the choir than enlightening, but I enjoyed it.
  • The Invention of Murder:  How the Victorians Reveled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime
    An interesting topic, but written like an academic paper – a very dry thick book – so failed to really engage me. Repetitive, without necessarily adding anything.  I learned new things though.
  • Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time
    Work related.  I prefer to read about the methodologies from the people who took part in forming them, so it was interesting to read one of the founders’ takes on this methodology.  I’m not a convert, but I get it and agree with a lot of it.  There were many points where this was also preaching to the choir for me.
  • Serenity:  Leaves on the Wind
    Sigh.  Graphic novel, sequel to Firefly.   I liked the artwork, and loved that it allowed for the characters to be their own without entirely being the actors who portrayed them. But it just made me miss the show more.
  • Sense and Sensibility
    I don’t even know how many times I’ve read this.  I love Austen.
  • Beowulf
    I can’t believe I’d never read this.  I loved it.  It conveys so much while being both relatable and completely alien to our current culture – much more so than the Greek or the Roman.
  • Metamorphisis:  A New Translation
    Under the guise of research for a playwrighting project, but really just because I wanted to read it.  Downside to the roman-greek stories: So much rape.  I had to read it in smaller doses or it felt like a bombardment.
  • The Expats
    I guess this classifies as suspense/spy fiction?  But I found it enjoyable. The fact that it was inspired by a man who’d found himself an expat, house-husband made it better.
  • Salinger
    I never knew most of this about J.D. Salinger and I’m so glad I read this.  I know what the critics have said, but honestly I loved it.  I think particularly the beginning about World War II – best illustration of the horrors of it I’ve read and partly because it was focused on telling one man’s experience of it through many voices of people who knew him then and were there or heard what little he said about it, rather than the big picture.  He was a troubled and troubling individual.
  • Cold Case
    True murder case, investigative journalism. Quick read, well written.  But I wasn’t interested in the suspects or the victim.
  • Bones Never Lie
    I so much prefer the book Brennan to the t.v. Brennan and while Reich had taken this series into some pretty eye rolling places, with predictable situations and frustrating woman in heat/distress scenarios that almost made me give up on the series.  But with this one she seems to have re-found what makes Bones interesting.  I look forward to the next one.
  • The Monster of Florence
    Fascinating.  Not really about the famous Italian serial killer but about the relationship and obsession of finding out who the killer was by two journalists (an American and an Italian) and how they ended up tangled up in the investigation.  Like the fiction of the Millennium series (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) gave great insight into the cultural workings of the Swedish legal system for me, The Monster of Florence gives a head shake inducing look into the Italian legal system.
  • Notorious
    An ok murder mystery.  I was encouraged that the main character wasn’t completely boy-addled and had a strong sense of herself.  But it was so repetitive – seriously, once you establish something you really don’t need to repeat it in every chapter – I thought a soap opera writer had turned detective novelist.
  • Beautiful Secret
    I thought it would be something more along the lines of Bridgette Jones, unfortunately it was really just thinly veiled soft core erotica, with some romantic plot points.  I would have liked it better with less sex and more substance, the characters had promise of being more interesting than they were, since they were essentially distilled down to their sexual neurosis – and his in particular seemed like a reach with little payoff.
  • A Casual Vacancy
    What I like about it is how much human nature she’s able to capture and portray in a variety of ways.  Rowling doesn’t shy away from the silly, perverse, or mean ways humans can behave and think.  (Something British writers seem to prevail in). She conveys a sense that she has pinioned someone specific and at the same time no one specific.  I would feel under the microscope in her presence I’m sure.  What I don’t like is that there isn’t much more to the book than that.  It’s a nice vivid escape to someplace half way round the world.  Someplace, unlike Hogwarts, I’m very glad to not live in.

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