Reading Made More Difficult

I’m astonished to report that after decades of putting reading before everything else, I have been made a (somewhat) more reluctant reader. I blame it on my internet wanderings on a shiny, sleek laptop, my interest in social media, the constant buzz of Facebook, and the flutter of Twitter. The allure of my Blackberry texts. The shift in my free time from reading fiction to psychology. All of it. And it is disturbing.

I have had three or four novels this fall that have just sat there, waiting for my attention. But the deck needed waterproofing. The oven broke, and then companionably, so did the dryer. And my gym time cuts into the hours of the day. And work demands my energy in different ways. My older eyes have a harder time with small fonts at 10:00pm. Reading began to slowly seem like effort, and watching reruns of Law and Order like mental balm. I know, I know, it’s pathetic.

Before I completely become unrecognizable to myself, I recommit myself to Pleasure Reading. I have an annual goal this year of 50 books on, and though behind, I’m going to try and make it. If you count the books I start and then put down because they aren’t worth any more time, then I am still on pace. Even if one of my current books is 1,200 pages long, weighs a couple of pounds and moves along like cold molasses.

So here’s to my return to a better self. I don’t believe that all this technology in any way makes me a better, smarter, more interesting person. It just sets me adrift into the world of re-tweets, random quotes, cute photos, and unimportant status updates. Mind candy. Back to the real world of fiction in which I understand myself and others better, and gain a more whole and compassionate perspective on the human race. Yes. I’m feeling more myself already.

The Modern Novel: Why bother?

I spend a good amount of my free time reading novels. It’s a past time that is more like a personal compulsion; this form of storytelling has grabbed me ’round my neck since I started devouring The Bobbsey Twins. This need to read turned me into a collector of books, a lover of dictionaries, an English major in college. I care about this art form. A lot.

So if you are a reader, too, you may share my enduring heartbreak over what happened to the long form of storytelling that is the novel in the 20th century. Certain writers broke form, and turned the sweeping, luxurious narrative into a broken, piecemeal, fragment of story; a weakened stream of image, word and punctuation. What could have been beautiful became a stumble through words until you want to die from boredom.  (For me, the names of such writers as James Joyce, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and David Foster Wallace send me running for the door. ) The intelligentsia – the critics and editors and publishers – all lauded this development as a maturation, a transition to new greatness, and we the hapless readers were forced to endure it like bad medicine. I did what I think most regular readers did: I read everything else. There is no shortage of writers who can still write a good story.

Hence, my joy at reading the TIME news magazine cover story about author Jonathan Franzen, whose latest book, Freedom, is due out shortly. Finally, a popular literary fiction writer who is understanding the need for storytelling. Here’s what he said:

It seems all the more imperative, nowadays, to fashion books that are compelling, because there is so much more distraction they have to resist. To me, now, to do something new is not to develop a form for the novel that has never been seen on earth before. It means to try to come to terms as a person and a citizen with what’s happening in the world now and to do it in some comprehensible, coherent way.  

We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we’ve created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful. The place of stillness where you can actually go to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can acutally make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world.                                      (8/23/10, p. 48)

So, here’s to Franzen’s perspective: a hope for the return of the value of story telling, the grand, wide sweep of a world that readers in the 18th and 19th centuries simply assumed. English majors, UNITE!

Memoirs R Us

American readers seem deeply interested in memoirs this year. I’ve been wondering why.

What books people write, publish, review, buy, share and talk about tend to go in waves. Some years, historical fiction rules; in others, fantasy and other worldliness (think Gone With the Wind and the Harry Potter series as examples). A few years ago biographies were flying off the shelves; last year, anything vampire sold. All it takes is one, big, humongous publishing success and it seems like we are all off to the races.

I read a lot of book reviews, in search of the next great American novel. And while the great novel is still being written, more memoirs are available than ever. Of particular note are two of the more famous memoirists: James Frey (A Million Little Pieces) and Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club; Cherry; and now, Lit). You may remember that a minor brouhaha erupted after Frey admitted to fictionalizing some of his drug addiction and treatment story; Oprah, who had chosen the book for her Book Club brought him onto her show to confront him. While Karr, a brilliant writer and poet, seems to have been spared the public skewering that Frey endured, her 3 volume story of degradation and personal reform seems impossible to fit into one small lifetime. 

Americans are endlessly interested in how other people live their lives. But what seems to have shifted in our culture is that the lives we want to read about are less about strength, courage or righteousness and more about failure and secrecy. Instead of presidents and religious leaders, we buy books about drug addicted professors or single women on a quest for God. We want to peer behind the curtain to reveal the humanness of those around us, and not only confirm our own brokenness, but also heave sighs of relief when our own lives aren’t so dramatically distorted and bent.

It fits with the trends of paparazzi following the famous, the famous repenting on television, and the not so famous watching this all on 24/7 news cycles. It also follows on the decline of the organized Church, where not too long ago the lives of saints, old and new, were held up as models of faithful living.

People are always going to look for help in living their lives, and trying to understand their own through the lens of another is one powerful way to do it. But I wonder: is it helping anyone to lead a better, more satisfying life when all the stories we buy and sell are those of deep failure, relationship pain, and the crawling back toward the shores of self respect? Or does it set us up for lives of lower standards, lives measured against the latest and biggest personal fall?

Among other things, we are what we spend time reading and thinking about. Garbage in, garbage out?