Friday, October 14, 2011

On Not Reading

A couple of weeks ago I tried an experiment--not to read for a week.  I didn't think of this on my own; I was under the influence of some ideas popularized by Julia Cameron in her famous (or infamous, depending upon how you look at it) program, The Artist's Way.

At first the idea struck me--as it will no doubt strike you--as ludicrous.  Give up reading?! For a week?  During the teaching semester?! IMPOSSIBLE. But then I remembered that over the summer, while on the boat and in the throes of repairs, though I felt terribly guilty about it, I'd sometimes gone days without reading.  I knew I could do it, so I decided to try.  The week before the week I was going to give up reading, I read relentlessly.  There were classes to prepare, things to find out, a sort of bottomless well to fill up before I ceased moving my eyes across print. 

And then, suddenly, there I was, in my week.  I resisted the urge to look at the paper in the morning, to log online and cruise the pages of the internet.  I avoided facebook, long letters, magazines, and peering over the corners of others' desks at the publications scattered there.  And with each gesture of "resistance" to the thrall of print, I became more settled and more relieved.  I sat and just listened to what others were saying around, their stories and jokes and worries and tantrums.  Sometimes I laughed, as if to myself.

Peculiarly enough, the week that I was to give up reading, I was also to go to Ohio, to celebrate my mother's 70th birthday.  That meant that I would spend long hours in flight and transit lounges (there's a euphemism--uncomfortable places where loudspeakers exhort you, repeatedly, to watch your bags, report suspicious behaviour, step carefully onto the moving sidewalk and other inanities) without print to distract me.  What was I going to do? 

I walked.  I looked at things.  I spoke to people.  I listened to more conversations.  And I did, I'll confess, grade my papers (all of them!)--something I'd already decided wasn't quite reading, but more like accounting (ah the flexibilities of redefinition!) Once in the bosom of my family, I resisted the thousands of books stacked and shelved and lying about the house. I sat quietly, sometimes, or took photographs, or talked with my parents and siblings and their spouses and children.  And I learned a few things--

Among them, that reading is often, for me and others in my birth family, a compulsive act of abstraction, a determined flight from the discomforts and disagreements so close at hand between us.  I also realized that if I had a bar against reading, then I wasn't compelled to read whatever was set before me...the airline magazine say, or other books lying about, the "extra" and never finished supplements to my classes, or one research project or another....I permitted myself, thanks to the fact that I wasn't reading, to imagine or observe other things while I was waiting, or sitting for a moment, or eating breakfast or dinner alone.  (Imagine simply eating! No words!)

I found I was happier, more at ease; I didn't feel guilty all of the time.  I wasn't forever accompanied by that awful incompleteness that reading seems to deliver, the threat or the promise of the forever more, the feeling of being out of time, out of step with myself, forever behind.

I'm going to try this experiment again sometime--as soon as I can get through this stack of books and articles and magazines on and beside my desk, the bed, beside the bath, on my other desk, the floor....


  1. Its weird, isn't it, how something we start out deriving so much comfort from starts to be a burden, something we carry on with, bravely shouldering as if another pile of logs for the fireplace, instead of the delight it used to be. (You're the only blogger who brings out the metaphor in me. Or is that a simile? )

    What to do?

  2. So funny, I am reading this at the airport having prepared for my 2 hour flight with 2 articles, 2 books, and 2 manuscripts. I consider myself media light without a laptop or iPad, my bigger word windows! Think I will try to delay teaching my 2 year old to read now. Though she is already at that stage of amazing discovery, that the letters she just learned are actually EVERYWHERE...

  3. I still feel so guilty when I don't read. For years after Grad School and reading lots of Salman Rushdie I just couldn't read novels anymore. Then I realized I was privileging the novel as "true" reading forgetting that I had been reading tons of stuff. So, I feel guilty when a day goes by when I don't read anything! Lost in a Wiki thread, a great book of any kind, something penny dreadful-like, great magazine articles, etc. That part of The Artist's Way caused me to dash the whole experiment. Someone has been trying to convince me to try again.