My twins, Eliza and Hazel, are in the golden age of reading right now. They haul books home from the library by the dozen and devour titles quickly and swap back and forth and eagerly tell me about them and have lengthy analytical conversations with each other well past their bedtime. It's insanely fun to witness and to remember a similar time in my life when my relationship to reading was that pure and enjoyable and uncomplicated.
But here's a confession: as much as I talk about reading around here, after I left grad school about five years ago, I hit a long and serious dry spell. Here I was, having spent almost twelve years studying English and book arts. And now school was over, and my new nightstand in my new home was piled high with the usual stack of books, and... there they sat. Unshuffled and unshifted and gathering a layer of dust that shamed me to my core. If ever someone asked me what I was reading, I stammered around in embarrassment and answered evasively.
In all fairness, I have been plenty busy in the past five years. But busy-ness has never stopped me from reading into the wee hours of the night before. I had always loved literature. It was central to who I understood myself to be. Why, I wondered, wasn't I naturally motivated to pick up a book? Was my entire educational path ill-chosen? Had I only been reading all those years out of obligation, and now left up to my own devices, I'd just never feel like it again? The thoughts were unpleasant at best and a challenge to my identity at worst.
In retrospect, I can see that during grad school, my relationship to reading had become fraught. For a decade and a half, my reading had been both prescribed and voluminous. I was never not making my way through a stack of thick novels for a class, or reading a lot of criticism about that stack of novels or reading around within a particular historical period or in service of my dissertation project. And then there was the reading I was doing alongside my teaching. Add to that an ever-present pressure to be conversant in the current critical and theoretical landscape -- which requires being up to speed on "important" new books -- and I simply couldn't keep up. After a while, it just all began to feel too defeating, the hours spent staring at pages both obligatory and never enough.
But leaving school posed a different sort of challenge. Suddenly without a line-up of syllabi or an overarching theme directing what ten books were on deck next, I was paralyzed by freedom. Have you ever walked into a bookstore and picked up and set down dozens of books and longed to read so many titles that you walk out with nothing? That was the feeling crashing down on me after so many years spent exclusively reading Victorian and modernist literature and criticism. I didn't know where to begin again.
Although I haven't really talked about it out of confusion and self-consciousness, it has taken me years to re-learn how to have a rewarding literary life outside of academia. But I am happy to report that reading is beginning to come alive for me again in a way I didn't know was possible anymore. I now feel downright giddy to climb into bed at night -- the earlier, the better! I read in the bathtub. I read while I'm drying my hair. I read while the girls are at piano. Sometimes, the girls and I cuddle up on the couch and all read side by side. Reading again feels like the utter joy it was once upon a time.
Here are some of the realizations I've arrived at after finding my way through this dry spell:
- Read whatever is striking to you at this very moment in time. If you start something eagerly but then get bored with it, don't force yourself to finish. Move on to something that captivates you. No time to waste! While it can be true that pushing through difficult parts of reading can yield rewards, if the obstacles bring your reading to a halt entirely, that's obviously not a productive challenge. Cut your losses and move on. You might be inspired to come back to that title later.
- Know thyself and thine own reading preferences! Here's my dirty little secret: I rarely read novels. That's not to say that I can't love novels -- I love countless novels and have had so many extraordinary reading experiences with novels. But at this stage of my life, what I most want to read is nonfiction. Essays, memoirs, biographies. Those genres are what light me up, get me thinking, make me giggle. Even if most of the folks in your circles are reading other genres than what you're drawn to, you can and should know your own preferences and embrace them. Maybe I'll feel compelled to dive into novels again someday! We'll see. For now, I'm loving essays and biographies so much, I'm just going to carry on.
- Always have a next book waiting. Part of how I sometimes lose time or steam is not having a title immediately in mind to turn to next. Keep a running list, get your hands on a copy of something you want to read before you've finished your last book. Always having a title you're eager to start keeps your momentum going strong.
- Reading is more joyful for me when I can share it with a community. Luckily I was able to form a book club with some other women after I moved to Ashland, and it's so great to get together once a month to talk about books. And this community, too, introduces me to books I wouldn't choose on my own, which is always a good way of being stretched. But the low key nature of the expectation is liberating -- again, I generally try to finish, but if I'm not loving a given book pick, I move on for the month to something else and listen to others talk about it that go-round.
- I personally like to have two books going at once. I like to be reading one that is more educational and/or directed toward a certain goal, and one for my own general curiosity. I find this helpful because at the end of a day of work, I don't always want my reading to feel like work. So it's good to have a fun and fascinating title to turn to in those moments and a title that is more work-oriented in the moments I'm craving that.
- I make sure I have a book with me at all times. If I'm detained for any reason, I feel so happy knowing I have a book rather than losing time to the mindless scroll. You never know when a wait will strike, so it helps to just always be prepared.
- Use the library and interlibrary loan to liberate you from worrying about cost. Often I want to read a title that I don't want to buy. If the library doesn't have it, they will ILL you anything they can get for just the cost of shipping. Such a great way to get inexpensive access to books.