I’ve started reading again lately. Not that I ever really stopped entirely, but I’ve been lazy about it these past few years. I could blame it on the screens, or on my busy work life, but really I’ve just fallen out of the habit. The problem with that in our culture of attention-deficit, is that once you’ve stopped reading, it becomes hard to start again because the brain has to be retrained to focus for long enough to finish a whole chapter, and then a whole book.
From an early age, reading was my preferred activity, and I can’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t have something on the go. I have not had cable TV in most of my adult life, and before the advent of Netflix and other like services, that meant if I wasn’t out socializing, then I was home reading a book or a magazine (loved magazines and journals). Before the advent of smart phones, whenever I had to wait in a queue or take the bus, I carried a book with me to pass the time. There is no doubt the encroachment of electronic services on my life has pushed the printed word to the margins. My brain seems to think it is so much more rewarding to check Facebook on my phone or crash out in front of a Netflix show than it is to immerse myself in the world and words of an author.
A couple of months ago I read Stephen King’s On Writing which has been kicking around my shelves for awhile. Part memoir, part instruction, it’s full of excellent insight and advice. In it King says “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write.” He also advises that aspiring writers should get rid of their TV. His book was written in the very early days of Internet, how much harder this instruction becomes if we think “get rid of all screens”.
I really took the advice about making time to read to heart, realizing that at the most intellectually productive times of my life (last seen during my Master’s degree) I was reading from a wide variety of materials simultaneously and at great volume. Not only that, but it is by other writers I am so often inspired in both content and style. While I do not write “from” the work of others (responding to or borrowing from), I carry all those other words around with me, not to mention a sense of how I (don’t) want to write when I come to work on a new piece.
And so I’ve been reading with ferocity lately, turning the TV on less and taking a book with me wherever I go. My house is littered with reading in progress, and I’ve re-subscribed to literary journals and magazines (oh! how I’ve missed you!) It’s been a few weeks and I seem to have turned my brain around: I increasingly seek out a book rather than my phone or the television when I want to unwind. Right now I’m engrossed in The Farm by Joanne Ramos. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood made me want to go back and read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and the latest issue of the Paris Review is sitting beside my keyboard, waiting for a moment when I can crack it open and read the Lydia Davis essay.
In A Writing Life Annie Dillard says, “if you ask a twenty-one year old poet whose poetry he likes, he might say, unblushing, ‘Nobody’s.’ In his youth he has not yet understood that poets like poetry, and novelists like novels; he himself likes only the role, the thought of himself in a hat.”
A renewed focus on writing should increase our attention to reading. I feel a deep sense of relief about it, turning the pages as I curl up on the couch or ride the ferry to Nanaimo, as though getting off the screen and back to the inner worlds of books is what I’ve been craving all along.