I have been surprised lately, by my new-found determination to finish every book I begin. Through my college years I had gotten into a very nasty habit of starting books sporadically, and then if by 40 pages in I wasn't intrigued, I was on to my next interest. Resulting in a book shelf of half-read works that I now cringe to look at, knowing of the pathetic excuses I had used (i.e. too dry, too self-indulgent, too boring).
I knew people in school who read, word-for-word, all assigned reading. I however could not bring myself to do it. I was a "skimmer"; I would scan the literature looking for key words and lines, getting the gist, but never digesting a piece in its entirety. As a result, I probably missed out on some great writing, that I hope someday I can go back and give another chance to. Until then, my bookshelf continues to mock me every time I pass by.
If you can get your hands on the article, "In Defense of Distraction" by Sam Anderson (New York Magazine, May 25, 2009), he makes the argument that this has become part of the culture and less about the writing itself. I agree that as a culture we are all a little attention-deprived (and a little over-medicated for it), but I also believe we can blame the writing a bit too.
Many people choose their reading mostly, based on an entertainment factor. They do not choose writing that both challenges them and keeps them riveted. It's usually one or the other; it's challenging or entertaining. It's the difference between the mass-market writings of John Grisham, James Patterson, and Jennifer Weiner and the novels of Ayn Rand, James Joyce, and Ernest Hemingway. These are all great writers, they just write to appeal to two different types of readers. And it's very difficult to find writers that write for the people, who want something in between.
Selection is important. If I start a book with an obvious or repetitive storyline, basic language, and ridiculous characters, you better believe I won't get through two chapters, before I think it is a complete waste of my time. On the other end, if I pick up a book that is full of facts, dates, and reference, and I have to look up every other word just to figure out what the author is saying, I will probably only pick that book up again, to dust it. The holy grail of writing for me, is something that gives me a well-designed plot and storyline, well-contrived characters, a little wit and poetic articulation, and a philosophy that challenges my beliefs or every-day thinking.
The book that really changed my bad habits, back to the earlier mentality of my youth, when I would read feverishly from cover to cover, was Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. I had been stranded in an airport in Philadelphia for a good 3 hours and I had picked up this book in a newstand to keep myself occupied during the layover. I was so absorbed in the book, I almost missed my boarding call. I continued the book on the plane and by the next day, I was finished with it. The writing was so beautiful and passionate, and it made me fall in love with reading all over again. I then moved on to the works of Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Identity.
I eagerly began taking recommendations from friends and family who also enjoyed reading, writing them down in what I call "My Book of Lists" (which is literally just that, lists of everything that intrigues me and fuels my creativity). My "Book List" has grown so much in the last year (and still adding), that it will probably take me a good five years to get through it, if ever.
Recently, I decided that I wanted to have three books going at a time: A fiction work, a non-fiction work, and a writing guide. That way there would always be a variety and I would have no excuse not to be always reading. I swore to myself that as I finished each book, I would substitute a new work in the same genre, so it was a constant rotation.
For example, when I finish the Fountainhead (if that ever happens), I would like to start another piece of fiction, perhaps a novel by Wally Lamb (or one of the many recommendations I have received from friends and family). In this rotation, I also make sure that one book is going to be challenging me, one is teaching me, and one is entertaining me. This way, all parts of my brain are statisfied (again, no reason for excuses).
Just last night, I was asked by a coworker who had started some nature literature, if it was typical to struggle through a book loaded with facts, dates, and commentary? He said he had started the book at nine at night and not even a few pages through, he was lost. And it made his eagerness to continue his new book, wane. My advice to him was: Don't read your "challenging" books before bedtime. Your brain is tired from the day and wants to unwind, not go into overdrive.
Timing is everything. I have found in my own experience, that I begin my day with light reading (daily/weekly/monthly publications i.e. NY Times, NY mag, Food & Wine, BBC.com, etc.) Then mid-day, when I can take a break from work and errands (usually around lunchtime), that's when I pick up the "challengers". My brain is wide awake, well-fed, with a little adrenaline pick-up from work. And I find that sometimes after that hour of a little tougher reading, it really opens my mind up for the rest of the day. I finish the day, with a light, entertaining novel.
Of course, everyone is a little different when it comes to reading habits. But it seems like, more and more often, I am coming across adults who just do not enjoy reading. And when they tell me this, it's just so difficult for me to comprehend, I find myself asking them "why" out of curiousity. Ninety-percent of the time, it is because they didn't enjoy reading as a kid and therefore never gave it a chance again. The other ten-percent, it's a matter of selection and time; they can't find reading they enjoy or they have better things to do with their time. This worries me on another level too, other than my fear for an illiterate society.
I want to enter the field of publishing as a writer, a teacher, and critic. But with a decline in audience and market, we are finding the publishing world suffering like they never have before. Newspapers and magazines are going under, publishing houses are becoming more selective in genre (they only want what sells), and aspiring- writers just can not live the creative, avant-garde lifestyle they had imagined, without worrying about their financial future and working another job. It's a trickle-down effect. And if it continues on this path, we are going to have nothing to read, but advertising.
So, my advice. Fall in love with reading all over again. Learn what you want and need out of this relationship, between you and the written word. Discover what fuels your imagination and stokes your passion, and read, read, read. And pass this love on. Recommend that book or article. Read to your children. Get a library card! (If one thing there is a shortage of, it is library cards. It has become a prerequisite in my dating life and you would be surprised how many people that eliminates from the pool).
Until we meet here again. My words and your thoughts.
RECOMMENDATION: For the challenge seekers,
To fall in love all over again,
"In Defense of Distraction" by Sam Anderson, NY Mag 5/09 :