I used to read almost a hundred books a year. Sometimes more, but the 80-100 range is where I usually stayed. Funny the things you take for granted. My experience as a child and young adult reader (with sincere but nevertheless slightly affected precocious tastes) was of weekends lost to the pages of books, and of weeknights disappearing into an unexpected dawn as I finally finished the books I could not put down. Then I would creep out of bed and pull away the towel I always stuffed beneath the door in order to keep my parents from spotting the light.
In college, I felt like I read less, but I probably ended up reading even more. I would lock up a booth or a table in my favorite coffee shop for hours on end and retreat to what Prof. Kern called the “historian’s research lab”: stacks of primary and secondary sources, surrounded on all sides by notes. I still miss that active sort of reading, the purposefulness of my college studies. Maybe that is why I almost stopped reading entirely. Once college was over, there was no further need to spend eight hours a day reading and memorizing, and I had almost forgotten other reasons for doing it.
Or maybe I simply got tired of getting bad book suggestions from NY Times reviewers and NPR, two sources that can always be counted on to recommend topical new history that is irrelevant almost as soon as it is published, who seem to love plodding literary fiction, and who seem never to have encountered genre at all. I tried to reserve my time for only the best books, but all I ended up with was a stack of obligations that I didn’t really enjoy.
All that, and then I’ve been busy. I put off reading until I could get some free time for it, except the nature of nearly full-employment is that there are no more long stretches of free time. I can’t cruise by on five hours of sleep a night anymore, and I can’t blow off work to crank through a paperback. So I basically stopped reading.
Not all reading. But books and magazines dropped out of the rotation, and about the only thing I could find time for was articles on the web. A few good blogs, and whatever Twitter said was good. But that’s the kind of reading that doesn’t quite count. The nature of the web itself doesn’t help, of course. Crowded with links and ads, a hundred things on each page clamoring for attention, and that’s before you even look up at the browser tabs and their illusory promise that you really can keep from missing a thing, and that you wouldn’t want to. I was a consumer of content, a voracious one, but not a reader.
Oddly enough, it was my friend J.P. Grant who snapped me out of it, although he didn’t mean to. He simply gifted me with several volumes of Warhammer 40K fiction as a Nook-warming present, a gift that was as much a joke as anything. We love the unrestrained, arch-Gothic gravitas of the Warhammer universe, but I never imagined I would actually want to read more than a few pages set there. But maybe it was the knowledge that I was reading the literary equivalent of junk-food (and we are talking Bugles-and-fried-Twinkies levels of junk-food here) that let me drop all my pretensions, including respect for the written word as something to be consumed in life’s quieter, more thoughtful moments. When you’re reading about Space Marines blowing each others’ heads apart with bolters, or Imperial Commissars enjoying romantic dinner dates with Inquisitors after a hard day of destroying Necron tomb-worlds, you might as well just read the damn thing in whatever fragmented fashion you can manage. It’s not like you’ll want a silent room in which you can enjoy the sound of the prose.
But those books served their purpose: they reminded me how much fun it can be to tear through a novel just to find out what happens next, and how relaxing it is to become absorbed in a story. They also showed me that I do have time to read, just maybe not the way I used to. Most importantly, however, is that they reminded me how nice it is to read without too many expectations, to encounter a book on your own terms without an idea of idea of how you “should” react.
So when I was on vacation this last week, I managed to finish Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy of fantasy novels, and on the flight home I grabbed Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile and renewed my acquaintance with Patrick Kenzie and his partner Angie. I’ve got A Dance with Dragons on the table next to me, and after I finish that, I might catch up with Michael Connelly or maybe get started on Terry Pratchett. Hell, there are even some comics I’ve been meaning to get caught up on. I won’t completely abandon my reading list, with its tomes on Russian political philosophers and Irish recession fiction, but I’ll remember that it’s what I get out of reading that matters, not whether I could hold my own at an author’s reading in Manhattan. If it’s a choice between barely reading Important Books or reading lots of enjoyable genre stories, I’ll take my dog-eared paperbacks and impulse Nook purchases. It’s more fun to have stories back in my life.