“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
– Dorothy Parker
This sounds like such a stupid thing to say, but it’s true: I’ve rediscovered reading. Well, that’s not exactly it, let’s say rather, I’ve recommitted to it.
When I was a kid I would wolf down novels by the bucketful, and my reading list was pretty impressive. The highlight of the month was getting the book catalogs that I would lovingly peruse and circle the tomes I wanted. And don’t get me started on the annual book fairs – those were heaven. Many were the days that I would scarf down my food between classes and spend the lunch period devouring one series after another.
As an early teenager and inspired by Emma (though perhaps she was not the best example) and Little Women, I took seriously the idea that I needed to read some books, whether or not I liked them, because they were important and were part of a well rounded individual’s cultural knowledge. At thirteen I trudged through Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War and a few of the other classical books that pack my parents’ shelves – because I was going to a educated lady, damn it!
At fifteen when the powers that be chucked us off to the Pacific, where the size of my school’s library – to say nothing of the school itself – was unsettlingly small, I trudged on. More of my parents’ books, and eventually trying to augment my conversationally-good-but-writing-challenged French with the literature (with my teacher’s blessing, while the rest of my class watched movies dubbed into French instead). It took weeks but I managed Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse – with the help of a French grammar book and dictionary.
University was a dream because I got my degree in European Studies with a minor in History, which meant I spent four years reading on subjects that fascinated me. Read this book on piracy in early America, do research on the last reining empress of China for a practice thesis paper, analyze The Beggar’s Opera for class, and get through the chapters on the Belgian Counter Reformation? Sir, yes sir!
But since graduating, the truth is I’ve gotten intellectually lazy. The media consuming culture around me requires people to take in information in short, truncated batches (which I truly think has started to rewire my brain to expect data in 140 characters or less). Much of public discourse requires participants to know the talking points and soundbites that back up their opinions, but seldom the deeper underlying issues and philosophies. I can instantly click to any topic I want from the comfort of my chair, instead of going to a library, talking to someone who knows about the subject, or otherwise physically engaging in any way with other people or the world.
None of this is an excuse, I know, but I honestly believe that being an educated and well-rounded person is paradoxically more challenging now than a decade ago. We are surrounded by more information than ever before, but people (or maybe just the university students I’m inundated with) seem increasingly incapable of carrying that information in their own head – since a smartphone is much easier. Or making connections and drawing conclusions. Or engaging in critical thinking. And if I’m honest, my own ability to do so is waning. And I think it’s because I’m reading less. There is no doubt in my mind but that I could not now manage an 18th century novel in another language – and I’d probably give up after a few days of trying.
But the other night, I got a book from the library that I’d been waiting for for weeks. I took it home, told J. that I was going to be busy for the rest of the night, shut myself in our bedroom, and took in all four hundred some odd pages in one sitting. And when I was done, I felt refreshed. Invigorated, even. And then I grabbed another book.
So, like I said, I’ve recommitted. One of my resolutions is going to be to regain some teenager enthusiasm and take charge of my own education again. Starting with more reading. And I’m back on track, I think.