". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Lost Art (For Me) of Reading

I used to read. I suppose I still do. But for years now my reading has been geared primarily towards the utilitarian and practical: I read for the purpose of receiving and transmitting information, not to muse, ponder, and consider. When I was a little girl I could spend the entire day reading; now I find it hard to sit still with a book for 15 minutes. What gives? One of my courses of study in college was literature. I loved it so much that I put up with several years of postmodern, deconstructionist gobbledygook in order to earn my Master's. I spent about 15 years teaching English at the high school and college level. And now it takes me a year to get through one book. What happened to my reading self?

The answer is complicated. Life happened. Adulthood, responsibility, motherhood, middle age--they have all taken their toll, as has the information age. I do think there is something to the theory that electronic communication has made human beings less able to concentrate for any length of time. We are truly addicted to our machines and the constant barrage of little informational spit wads they shoot our way, and we are so consumed with cleaning up those spit wads off the floor that we can't stop long enough to pick up something more weighty.

I say "we." But I know not everyone has this problem. I have friends that actually still do read, and I envy them. I want to be like them. I want to read again and I am trying to figure out how to make it happen.

Perhaps this is a rationalization, but I think my reading difficulty arises in part from my current season of life. It is known sociologically as the "sandwich" phase. I do think that all other things being equal, middle age is probably the most difficult and challenging period of life. It is the time during which human beings have the greatest number of demands being made on them and the greatest number of people depending on them, all while they are dealing with the shocking realization that all that stuff they always heard about the decay of the body really is true.

So not only do I find reading mentally difficult, but I also find it very hard these days to justify sitting down and reading a book for an hour. There are so many other more productive things I could be accomplishing! And yet I easily justify taking a five minute break to check my email or look at Facebook or read a blog post. Because it's just five minutes, you see. But I'm fooling myself, because those five minutes so easily turn in to ten or fifteen or thirty, and certainly when you string all those five-minute diversions together they easily add up to an hour or more per day.

I think I also sometimes revert to electronic reading because I am so used to being interrupted that I am afraid to commit myself to something that is going to require more than five minutes for it to be meaningful. I can spend five minutes in my email or on Facebook or even a blog and come away feeling like I really did read something (however worthless), whereas to really get something out of a book I need a half hour or more of quiet with it. So rather than be thwarted, I choose not to try.

But here at the age of 47 I am starting to ask myself, with regard to many things from exercise to reading to fun, "If not now, when?" My weak physical condition has convicted me of the need to recommit to an exercise program (with my husband's help I am working on that), and now I am ready to acknowledge that my weakened brain is in dire need of some conditioning. And what better way to exercise it than to reintroduce the best and most enjoyable form of mental calisthenics I know: reading. The trick is making it happen. I have decided that like most things to which I want to give priority in my life, I need to schedule a time for it, preferably in the morning (I wish I could live my whole life in the morning). My plan is to set aside a half hour that will be only for unplugged reading of in-depth material. Food packaging, medication bottles, and mail don't count, nor do magazine surfing or reading aloud to Evan. I'm talking big, thick, book reading--you know, those things with, what are they called? Oh yeah . . . chapters.

This post has gone on too long already, so I will report back later with a little more about my efforts (they have already started) and how they are going. I am interested, though, to hear from anyone who has had a similar experience to mine. If you are someone who used to read but who now doesn't, on what do you blame the change? And if you have managed to rediscover your love for reading, how did you do it?


Susan said...

Me, me. You're talking to me.

I have not found that it's mentally difficult to read. I know some of my friends have commented that it is for them. But I guess I'm exercising my brain with other [non-book] reading/editing projects that I'm not a complete puddle of mush.

I know what put the nail in the coffin of my reading. It was Emily of New Moon. Well, it wasn't Lucy Maud Montgomery's fault. It was when things were getting increasingly busy in my life. I only made it through about 1/6 of the book in the three weeks I had it out from the library. So I renewed it. In the next three weeks, I read another chapter or two. I checked it out again, for my last shot at it [you can only renew something twice] and read another whole chapter. During that time, I had to keep backing up and rereading because it was so long between chapters that I forgot where I was.

I cried.

I didn't bother reading another book for years. When we went on vacation and I knew I would have loads of time to read, I tackled another book. It was lovely.

Cheryl, what you said about having five minutes, but using several of those 5-min segments per day to make a half-hour for real reading, yup yup yup. I hear ya. But I don't seem to have the option of conglomerating those 5-min chunks into one 30-minute chunk. Maggie needs to ask questions. Bread must be kneaded; loads of laundry must be changed. I just can't seem to get it together.

I did LOVE my picnic lunches at work. I read some books this summer. Nobody to interrupt. No tasks sitting there, waiting, stressing you out because you're neglecting them. Nothing to do on lunchbreak at work but STOP. Right now I'm catching up on some magazines, but I will go back to a book sooner or later.

I feel your pain and share your loss. I can't put a big enough "ditto" onto this post.

Cheryl said...

Susan, I remember your sharing about your summer reading and it sounds wonderful. I hope you are able to recapture that this summer.

It seems like a lot of my friends are thinking/talking/writing about reading. Is it because it's New Year's Resolution time? Or is it just that thing where because you are thinking about something yourself you are more likely to notice when others are also?

I am glad that when you can find the time you don't actually find it physically/mentally difficult to read. I do. My attention wanders so quickly. I have a hard time sitting still. This is why I have decided I have to work on this now rather than wait until it is easier to find the time. I'm afraid when I get to that place in life where there is more time I'll be unable to read at all anymore.

Mary Ellyn said...

I got a Kindle last Mother's Day and my reading has increased quite a bit. There are a ton of classics that are free for the Kindle. I've discovered authors I never heard of before. I've discovered that I really enjoy historical fiction. A couple of 19th century authors are GA Henty and Henry Rider Haggard.

I still go the library and I have a ton of novels in my house -- I just keep plugging along. Some times I'm successful and other times FB takes over!

Alex entered high school and I've read books that I missed because he's not a stronger reader and needs a helper at home when it comes to writing about what he's read. That's been a bonus. "We" just finished "Of Mice and Men" and "we" didn't like it.

My Kindle keeps my list of books since that where I tend to complete a book.

I carry it with me so I always have a book if I choose to read.

I have never read The Hobbit either -- but I have the book.

I have several friends in book clubs -- one club reads classics and they have been together for about 8 years and are reading book #80 this month. Most of the other book clubs that I know about read current books (Oprah style). Book groups are intriguing, but I'm not sure they are what I want either.

Here's to reading a good book for pleasure!

Susan said...

Cheryl, I think they're talking about it because of New Year's Resolutions and those book lists that come around each year. I've noticed it several times in the Christmas-to-Epiphany season. Maybe it's just really whomped on you this year where you blew it off in previous years.

By the way, the stuff I'm reading for myself tends to be fluff. That's why my brain can handle it. :-) The work necessary to be reading Ivanhoe to Maggie ... hoo boy!