Reading habits, examined

Hello, and welcome to the mid-to-late 2019 edition of Slow Twitch Prose! The intent is this: I publish a weekly roundup of what I’ve been producing as well as what I’ve been consuming – my writing, my recording, my reading and my listening (incidentally, representative of what we call “all four skills” in the language-learning world!). These e-mails will only come once a week now, but they will contain within them (I hope) a post like this one, with some writing and some thoughts on things I am reading, and in the same e-mail, a separate post where I will embed the Morning Mantra podcast episodes I have recorded over the course of the week. Feedback is welcome! Suggestions, equally so! I want to push all this stuff out, and I want my blog to be a place where it can all live in some way, and I also don’t want it to overwhelm you, lest it start to feel irrelevant. I don’t know how this is going to go! We will see! But so far, it’s making me less afraid of the blank screen, more eager to write here, and that indicates that it’s at least inching in the right direction, if not bulls-eye-ing any precise destination (yet). Thank you for being here. I know I’m breaking the 4th wall, but someone named Phoebe Waller-Bridge proved it can be done extremely well.

So, yeah, what have I been reading since that brassy post on how I don’t give a shit about John LeCarré’s rugged British spy-men? I’m glad you asked, and I’m assuming you’re here for the essay-length answer (the tl;dr answer is in a separate post, because I love you and respect your time). The more interesting question (but who would ask this, really) is not what I am reading but how I am reading. I’ve been a reader for nearly thirty years, and my reading “mode” du jour is and has been in many ways a kind of barometer of my mental and emotional state. This didn’t really occur to me until this week; as I was listening to the Work Play Love podcast with Lauren Fleshman and Jesse Thomas. Lauren, in addition to being a former pro runner (still impressive in retirement, if you follow her running), is a beautiful thinker and writer, and the reason I love the podcast she and her husband Jesse make is the little observations that she makes even in answering what seem like basic and straightforward questions. This week, she noted (and I don’t even remember what the question was, because the questions are rarely that interesting) that a writing teacher had once told her to “pay attention to what you pay attention to.” As she admitted, it sounds fairly basic and self-evident, but sometimes the right words around an idea can make it light up and glow. I bookmarked that sentence and it keeps coming back to me. What I am reading is so often a function of what I am paying attention to, even if in all the decades I have been reading I have always thought of myself as the one in control of what exactly I am reading. But what if all this time the books have really been the ones choosing me? Have I really been the agenda-setter here?

When I was little, I would routinely be “reading” several books at a time, much to the polite amazement (and possible skepticism) of many adults. I collected a lot of praise for the sheer volume of reading I did, and I liked praise, so I kept it up. A Babysitters’ Club here, an Anne of Green Gables there, a Matilda for the seventh time there. How many books could I finish in a day? A week? A summer? The summer before 6th grade, I read 41 books. More praise. More books. Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin (the softcore porn of the late ‘90s),

This continued until college, when pleasure reading took a bit of a backseat for a time: at this juncture the reading really did choose me, and if I wanted the praise (and I did) I had to at least appear as if I did all of it (I mostly did; I wouldn’t learn to not actually read everything until my Ph.D). After that, graduate school for a degree in literature, where pleasure reading became nearly indistinguishable from my job. Even the reading that was not syllabus-directed looked a lot like a list-making and a checking-off and a tallying. Read War and Peace: my goal for this, my first winter break of graduate school. Read all of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels: my goal for this, my first pregnancy. Read all of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: my goal I never wanted to admit I hadn’t achieved. It had to be about the lists and the checkmarks or it would all slip away (I thought). If I let myself wander aimlessly from book to book without ever finishing something and checking it off, why, WHAT WOULD I HAVE? I needed to maintain the illusion of control, of being the one choosing. But the more I demanded of myself in the way of organized, directional reading, the more I found myself not wanting to do it anymore.

Somehow, in the great letting-go of the last year or so of my life, my reading habits have come full-circle. I have a stack of books on my nightstand, all of which it would be fair to say I am “reading”. Each night before turning off the light, I pick one and read until my eyes get heavy. Some have bookmarks in them, so that I can keep making my way forward (I hesitate to use the word “progress”) and others I just sort of pick up and find a spot to read. I’m not currently reading any novels, because this approach would not work with a novel, no matter how whimsical and un-goal-oriented I want to be. I’m reading the poetry of Patricia Lockwood (fascinating, hilarious and at times impenetrable), and I’m reading about heart rate training according to Dr. Richard Diaz (excellent information, but not packaged quite right for the sensibilities of most runners I work with). I’m reading the occasional short story of Flannery O’Connor, but I reserve those for the evenings when I have a lot of brainpower left over. For now, it feels good to let the tide pull me along without trying too hard or worrying that I’m doing it wrong.

The reason that I don’t actually worry that this is evidence of a brain deteriorating, whether from age or, you know, being a shitty millennial with too much internet and not enough contact with good writing (fuck you very much, David Brooks), is that things really do still grab me, sit me down, and make me read hungrily until the last line. Given that I’ve been in this rather casual pattern of reading for some time now, I am always interested to note the things that grab me and will not let go. On my recent weekend trip to Philadelphia and New Jersey, I actually read two whole books cover to cover, only taking breaks when it was socially or physically necessary: Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, by Lindy West, and Hunger, by Roxane Gay. The first I bought on Kindle to keep me company on the blessedly quiet and solitary five-hour train ride to Philadelphia, and the second I picked up in an irresistible bookstore in downtown Philadelphia (Shakespeare and Co., if you’re ever killing time around Walnut Street before a borderline-unthinkable 8:15 dinner reservation). Neither book was planned, but both had me completely in their thrall within the first five pages. The only time I slowed down was as I pulled into the home stretch, when I knew that the more slowly I read, the more time I would be granted to sit with these writers. I was ready to read them forever; I was not ready for either one to end. I read every single acknowledgment at the back of both books, because damn, even the acknowledgments were word-perfect. I restrained myself (with difficulty) from grabbing every person I saw by the shoulders and demanding they read this book, right now, so that I could talk to them about it. Now that, particularly in a landscape of fairly half-assed but contented reading, is paying attention.

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Lindy West and Roxane Gay chose me that weekend, not the other way around. Both books go to dark, sad, and darkly, sadly relatable places. West writes about being bullied and threatened by internet trolls on a daily basis for years, once she began speaking out against rape jokes and rape culture in stand-up comedy. These were years that in addition to being long, frightening, and sad, took away a part of her identity that she once felt proud of: “There’s only so much hostility you absorb before you internalize the rejection, the message that you are not wanted,” she writes. “My point about rape jokes may have gotten through, but my identity as a funny person – the most important thing in my life – did not survive.” Not that she isn’t still threatened with violence on a regular basis for being a public-facing fat woman with opinions and a desire to be treated like a human being. There’s a resolute optimism in the conclusion to her book, and it’s coupled with resignation. The world we live in is malleable, as she says, but it’s pretty cruel to begin with. Roxane Gay writes about the way sexual assault (more specifically, a gang of boys who raped her in the woods when she was 12) changed her entire life, her relationship to her body, her trust in the world. She writes about eating and eating all through high school in college to make her body big and impenetrable, a place of safety. Eating made her feel good, taken care of, loved…and boy am I well acquainted with that hunger. I think we all are, no matter how much our parents love us.

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Both women write about how much they were truly loved, as they can now see from a distance, and they also address the ways in which being loved isn’t always something young girls feel they can trust when they feel so unacceptable to the rest of the world.

As I write this, I am looking at a grinning photo of my three-year-old, whom I know I can’t protect from a world that will inevitably hurt her. As unconditionally as I might love her, as many times as I have told her so and will keep telling her, a day may come when she worries that something awful happening to her might make me love her less, and that scares me perhaps more than anything else about her growing up. “I know, now, that I was wrong,” Gay writes on keeping her sexual assault a secret from her family, “that my parents would have supported me, helped me, and sought justice for me. They would have showne me that the shame was not mine to bear. Unfortunately, my fearful silence cannot be undone. I cannot tell that twelve-year-old-girl who was so scared and alone just how much she was loved, how unconditionally, but oh, how I want to.” I know that my job as a parent is to prepare Ros to deal with a hurtful world where people make bad choices, and I am as ill-equipped as any other parent to do it. Besides loving her, the most important thing I can do for her at this time in her life is encourage her to love reading, as I did when I was a kid and as I still do. Let her be chosen by book after book, in the hopes that what she reads can show her things that I cannot.

Reading Shrill and Hunger was brutally hard, and yet I paid attention because even in my 30s, years removed from being a fat and lonely teenager, I needed to hear what Lindy West and Roxane Gay were telling me. That I am worthy and always was, and that the reasons I sometimes hated myself are deeply human and possibly even universal. That I wasn’t alone. Very, very very good TV shows can do this (see Hulu’s Shrill, an adaptation of West’s book about which I have written at length), but books and poems and words can still do it better. May I always read, and may I always be chosen by what needs my attention and my reflection.