Tuesday, January 6, 2015

On Reading

It’s resolution season, and the people of the Bookternet are all about the reading resolutions, setting goals and making plans to “read harder” this year. There are some fantastic challenges to take on, and since books are central to my life and work, it would make sense if I were to tell you about my grandiose reading goals for the year, too.

Instead, I’ve been thinking about how much time I spend thinking about how much I haven’t read. There are so many classic novels I just haven’t had a chance to read yet, and there’s exciting new work coming out by contemporary writers all the time. Even with Kierkegaard, one of my main academic interests, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. For a feminist academic, I’ve read remarkably little feminist & womanist theology and queer theory. And don’t get me started on Karl Barth and everything I simply flat out know I will never get around to reading.

I read constantly. Novels -- both “literary” and “popular,” new and old. Poetry. Essay collections. Memoirs. Magazines. I try to read literary journals, too, though lately they’re mostly gathering dust in a corner. I read so many great online sources, too. And now I get the Sunday Times, the arrival of which is like a mini-Christmas each Sunday. My favorite section? The Book Review, of course.

But I have always read slowly for the most part. With the exception of mysteries and YA novels, even a book I really like will take me a few days to get through -- if not a week or two. I will never, ever get through all the books I want to read, even if I stopped adding to the list today (which I won’t). At the beginning 2014, frustrated by this fact, I set out to read a book a week, with an end goal of 50, figuring I could plan in a couple of reading vacation weeks. I made it to 37, if you leave out a handful of other books I only made it halfway through. Like I said: slow. (If you're curious about what I read, click here. I read a lot of YA novels and it was great.)

As far as goals go, it was fine. I read many wonderful books, and I got to choose most of them myself, having finished up my school reading requirements in mid-January. But I am realizing the whole reading goal thing just doesn’t work for me. It makes me feel anxious about something that has always been a delightful escape for me, guilty because I’m not doing more, not checking off the boxes, not stuffing enough information into my head. I read for more than just information.

This week, I remembered the summer my college friends and I created the Best Ever Book Club, and one professor met with us to discuss Madame Bovary, her recommendation for our ambitious little book group, a classic I was reading for the first time. We asked her what her summer reading goals were. She said she was reading Middlemarch.

“That’s it?” we asked.

“It’s a big-ass book!” was her response.

This was a revelation to me, this kind of commitment to being with one book, spending one whole summer in Middlemarch. (Note: I have never read Middlemarch.) A great book is worth that kind of time.

I remember, too, how one of my favorite English professors used to tell us to read things twice whenever possible -- one for the story, and a second time to begin our analysis. I was crazy enough to try to do this (hence my lack of sleep sophomore year), which I don’t necessarily recommended while you’re still in college, but definitely recommended as a general practice. I know that, first, if I read for analysis right away I miss the whole point of the reading in the first place. And second, if I do plan to analyze, my analysis simply won’t be as good if I’ve only read a text once. (The real reason I haven’t read more Kierkegaard? I was too busy re-reading Works of Love multiple times.)

Reaching further back still, I know how much of my love of language was born from my mother reading aloud to my siblings and I, the same series, again and again. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings. That is how we got through long Michigan winters. It’s how I get through winter, still. I’ve lost count of how many times I heard those books, and I don’t regret that I didn’t hear more books -- though of course there were always stacks of library books in my room to read on my own, as well. And I did, hungrily, in bed each night with my Itty Bitty Book Light clipped to the back cover. The Betsy-Tacy books, the Complete Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, L.M. Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott, and others I’ve long since forgotten. I read and re-read and re-read.

In that spirit, instead of setting a numerical reading goal this year, I’m aiming low. Let it be a year of re-reading, of working through massive tomes that have intimidated me, and of getting through the winter with all the good stories I can find, even if they aren’t classics or so-called “literature,” and even if there are a lot of things I “should” read that I am not going to get to this year. I want to read slower, not harder.

So what am I excited to read this year? For starters, I got halfway through Joakim Garff’s 827 page biography of Kierkegaard over a year ago before setting it aside, so I’m going to finally finish it. Also, though I have read all of Jane Austen’s novels, I feel that one could re-read them every single year and never exhaust them. Plus they’re just...the best. So I’ll re-read some of them, or maybe all of them if I feel so inclined. Then I’ll probably re-watch all of the film adaptations again too, for “research.” My favorite mystery novelist, Laurie R. King, has a new Mary Russell novel coming out in February, so you can just plan on not hearing from me for about 24 hours after I pick it up. I've been digging into James Baldwin's essays lately, so I'm sure I'll read more of those. I’m thrilled about the new Toni Morrison novel coming out in April, too.

If don’t read all of these things promptly, I’m not going to beat myself up about it, though. When you think about how much time someone like Morrison puts into crafting a novel, it seems obvious that it’s worth entering the world she’s created and staying a while. It’s worth coming back, again and again.