Before the internet, I was a reader. Specifically, I used to read print: novels, scholarly articles, magazines, narrative non-fiction, and the labels on condiments in restaurants. This wasn’t because I was so interested in the ingredients as it was a form of avoidance.
As one of my graduate school professors famously said, “Reading ain’t writing.” Back then, I found reading pleasurable and writing frightening. Writing for graduate school was an occupational necessity, but it was also scholarly, vicious, and dull. It required a voice that was more white male than me.
I wanted to write in my voice and was terrified to try. So I kept reading, and I wrote scholarly essays, thinking that’s how I was going to earn a degree and land a job. Sure, reading was part of my profession; it was also a form of avoidance. When I confessed to reading the ketchup label at a diner counter while waiting for my grilled cheese, my then therapist suggested I wasn’t so much an avid reader as an addicted one. She prescribed I go cold turkey for a week. After just three days, I started writing what would become my first unpublished novel.
I chose marriage, motherhood and medical management rather than an academic career, believing I could write while the babies slept. I did: payroll, shopping lists, and essays. And I kept reading. In fact, shortly after the birth of my second child, I bought reading glasses on the theory that they would help me see print more clearly through my baby-blurred eyes. It worked, and I read into the night.
I also facilitated Reading and Discussion Programs for the Vermont Humanities Council. This has been a wonderful way to use my advanced reading skills to guide ordinary readers beyond the text, into discussions of what gives life meaning. Over the course of thirty years, I’ve delivered hundreds of programs in more than fifty libraries, four hospitals, three teen parenting centers, and two prisons throughout Vermont.
I did most of this work before the internet and the portable devices that connect us to it took over our lives, mine included. This all intensified a year ago, when I started subscribing to The New York Times online in a bid to stay informed so I could write letters to politicians.
I’m not sure that my letters have made any difference nor if this daily dose of bad news is good for me, but the recipes are, and the daily mini crossword a welcome break in my day.
I’m still in the habit of reading in bed, but these days, it’s just a matter of minutes before I’m trying to do so with my eyes closed, and I end up rereading the same three paragraphs night after night. I often think about reading first thing in the morning, but by the time I’ve silenced the cats with great gobs of food and meditated, I’m ready for breakfast and work.
Happily, I often read for work, but that’s different: at my desk, taking notes, thinking about the information for the purpose of writing about it. Somehow, reading for pleasure during daylight seems decadent, like drinking mimosas at brunch – unless it’s reading The New Yorker when I stop for lunch.
I miss those days of being engrossed in a well-told story.
It’s easy to say I just don’t have the time, but that’s not true. What’s true is I spend the time online, reading news, checking social media, and generally wasting time. So my challenge to myself this week is to read a good story well written and well told. If you have any recommendations, please send them along.