Why Reading Gets Me Off

My youngest son has recently caught on to the joy of reading.  It happened abruptly, and when it did it snowballed or avalanched into an all-consuming passion.  The catalyst was a book that sparked his interest – nothing more.  But I had to insist he read that book.  It turned out I only had to insist he begin.  After that he caught fire and continued on his own.  Before this event, when living in Greece, he was, if anything, anti-reading, proclaiming it boring, preferring movies and video games.  Which makes the turnaround all the more remarkable.  Now I have to be sure his book hunger is regularly fed.  It is like throwing coal into a roaring furnace:  the more you feed it the greater the fire and the more fuel you need.  I have to take him to bookstores, order books on line, visit the library.  He consumes books as fast as I can gather them.

He reminds me of myself when I was that age.

I can’t remember when I first became interested in books.  I seem to have been born with the addiction.  Was there ever a time I was not intent on devouring reading material?  At a certain time in my life I forsook television.  It was a deliberate act; I sold my TV and just didn’t bother anymore.  But forsake books?  Never.  Even when I hitchhiked around the world carrying nothing but a duffle bag I always carried a book along.  One book was the limit, for the sake of the weight, but I always had that one book.  I chose long books, because I was not always able to find them so easily.  I read Henry Miller’s “The Rosy Crucifixion” at that time, if I remember correctly.  And in Greece I picked up a paperback copy of “Shogun”, by James Clavell, just before I headed across the Middle East; that one lasted me a while.

The point is, the books have always been there.  They have added nuance, depth, and richness to my life.  I still always have a book on hand that I am reading.  Nowadays I alternate between fiction and nonfiction.  I plan ahead so that I have a book ready for when I finish the current one.  If somehow I misjudge and I finish a book before I have acquired the next one in line I’m thrown into a tailspin; I’ve got to find something to read quickly.  I’m like a smoker running out of cigarettes or an alcoholic running out of drink.  I might pick up a magazine or reread a section of something I have read before, but I am ill at ease until the next reading project is underway.

That’s just how it is.  And when I speak of reading I am not talking about an expediency but a glorious adventure.  When politicians and educators talk about literacy programs, they refer to kids learning the type of reading you do when you have to:  making sense of words as a means of communication of facts or data.  That is one type of reading, and it is, of course, essential.  But the reading to which I refer is different.  It is like a drug rush.  It is an experience, a sensation, a phenomenon.  Many people never feel it precisely because educators try to inculcate it in them with the wrong kind of books, the so-called classics which turn out to be beyond their comprehension, over-long and boring.  It’s like trying to turn someone on to gourmet cooking by serving them a huge bland bowl of porridge.  It might fill the stomach and satisfy the hunger if you are starving, but it will not hone the taste buds and give you an appetite for more.  Many of the books I was forced to read as part of the curriculum in high school I have forgotten, and so bland was the experience I never had any interest in going back to them later and rereading them.  Maybe some of them are good books; I don’t know and I don’t care.  The problem is that many people develop a distaste for reading that goes back to those poor selections; they never get past the mediocre experience of being force-fed literature for which they were not ready or that simply was not their cup of tea.

My great reading experiences were all my ideas.  Wait.  Let me qualify that.  There was once when a high school assigned text caught my interest and led me to further reading.  The book was “The Pearl” by John Steinbeck.  The story so enthralled me that I sought out more works by Steinbeck, and ended up reading almost everything he ever wrote.  He was, in fact, one of my first literary loves.  I liked his simple, straightforward style, his depiction of fascinating, idiosyncratic common folks, his California settings.  My favorite was “Sweet Thursday”, the comedy-romance between Suzy the hooker and Doc the marine biologist.

But this was the singular exception, as far as I can recall, of assigned texts ever being interesting or leading to further reading.  It’s a fine line that teachers walk.  On the one hand you want your students to develop their individual tastes, but on the other you want to have a common text to be able to study and analyze.  But therein too lies a part of the problem:  the studying and analyzing takes the fun out of it.  Reading a book is different for each individual, and you cannot dictate terms under which it is relevant for anyone but yourself.

You might say that one reason you don’t read much is that reading doesn’t engage the senses as much as watching films or playing video games does.  In fact, just the opposite is true.  Reading is a much more total experience than either.  In films and video games the creators take you by the hand and do everything for you.  You have to use much less of your intellect, much less of your concentration.  With books, on the other hand, in order to achieve the fullness of the experience you must draw yourself into it; in a sense you create the experience as you go along:  the sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes.  The author’s words ignite your psyche and create an internal multidimensional, multisensory experience which can be totally fulfilling, totally absorbing.

That is why I need a quiet place, free from distractions, when I read.  Outside stimuli destroy the illusion, the suspension from reality.  As a young teen, after my father had built me my own small room in the basement of our house I would hole up in there, lay on my bed and read for hour after hour.  That is where I first encountered “The Lord of the Rings”.  I had heard nothing about it, and as Frodo, Sam, and Pippin hiked across the Shire with the dark riders close behind, I was more in Middle Earth than I was in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.  If someone inadvertently left the basement door open and the sounds from upstairs broke the spell I was under and brought me back to the real world, I would have to pause and march up the stairs and close the door again, cocoon myself in silence, so I could re-enter the fantasy world that had become so real to me.

(To be continued)

I’m a professional writer; I make my living by my words.  I’m happy to share these essays with you, but at the same time, financial support makes the words possible.  If you’d like to become a patron of the arts and support my work, buy a few of my available books or available stories.  Thanks!

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