One of my great regrets of all time, that is all time leading up to today, is my lack of proper time dedicated to reading. While I’ve wasted countless hours of my life transfixed in Jezebel articles, Facebook posts about hilarious dogs and babies being successful or unsuccessful babies, and magazine articles sunk into overflowing bathtubs with their wet pages stuck together before completion, the number of full-fledged novels I’ve read in my life – is something I regrettably can count on my own two hands.
Yet language and writing has always been a passion of mine, more than the drawing and painting my parents had pushed my talents towards. While as a child I stayed up late at night to read trashy childhood series such as Sweet Valley Twins and The Babysitters Club: Little Sister editions, I refused to read actual serious books. Why? I’m not sure where my rebellion of all things “adult” and “responsible” came from, but it sure started early. My father, with his stern aggression and judgement around my own interests, made me hate authority and turn against it at all costs. Although my father was a man of physics textbooks and oft right-wing historical non-fiction and editorials, for some reason literature got mixed up into the world of authority, my arch nemesis, the land of academia and maturity, of all the things we should do with our time when we have it in between hours staring at the second hand of the clock hung above the school door and the darkness that is our daily rest.
It really is a shame because literature — and learning in general — should not be confused with rigid authority. Yet in my mind giving in to learning what the powers that be wanted me to learn was admitting defeat in somehow coming to all the answers out of my own natural intellect. My education tenure thus included a long series of fiction authorship as I oft wrote essays about books I hadn’t read — or only skimmed the first and last pages — which I would receive comments back from my teachers, curiosity piqued by the proflific creativity, apparently willing to barely pass me for my effort (which some appreciated more than others, clearly notated by smiley faces next to grade markings of B-, C, or D+.)
My own entrancement with the written word came much later though, in high school, once I had access to a computer and a somewhat private server to store my thoughts. In fact, up until then, diaries given as gives lay empty with one or two pages scratched in some crazy hormonal blather about my latest crush and some other obsessed nonsense, often complete with a few doodles in the sidebar and empty pages surrounding ink, sentences packed tightly into tiny rows in between rows as if I’d have the energy and dedication to fill the rest of the book with so much content in the near future. But by my teenage years my raging hormones and undiagnosed bipolar disorder led to writing what I then called poetry, though it was pure muck, but beginning to explore language not as the great enemy of authority but instead my friend in escaping and philosophizing on the rigid order which every inch of my being naturally repelled.
Yet reading never came naturally once I past the days curled up in my eyelet blanket-covered twin bed with my literary BFFs Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield along with the adventures of Karen Brewer. Any book assigned to be read was immediately the enemies’ copy in my mind, and each novel or poem or textbook short story was dredged through with such antipathy and repulsion I might as well have been reading detailed descriptions of excrement. My father, while not a fan of fiction, attempted to read to me the Nancy Drew series as a child, but his voice was not allowed to settle in my mind and I’d use the detective tales to lure myself to sleep on our living room couch.
Perhaps if I had not feared reading so much as a child I would have found some fictional worlds to connect with or inspiration to begin writing my own non-drudge content prior to embarking on my life as a corporate drifter. But even after I found that fiction itself was not the enemy of intellect, I still struggled to read. My mind, torn to bits by its chemical imbalances tainted by ADD, anxiety, narcissism and manic depression, leaves little time or space for the calm required to focus on reading. For every other page I read I find myself having to go back and repeat its absorption at least once. My mind shifts quickly like the wind, either to something entirely unrelated, some self-defeating thought, some to-do list item of something I should have done last Thursday, or even daydreams of how I should be writing my own novel while instead I’m reading someone else’s book, or how I should have been born in the time period of the book as maybe I wouldn’t have such a delusional, distracted and disenchanted spirit.
Another challenge of the chemistry of my mind is its inability to store data. While language is musical and the sound of words flowing through a sentence seems to be stored in a separate, soothing part of the synapses firing aimlessly behind my skull, the part set aside for both focusing on absorption of information and storage of details is a big mess of starved, disabled workings. For when I begin reading a novel I know quite well that by the end of it I would be hard pressed to recall what happened chapters prior unless I happened to read the entire book in one sitting of super focus. Only then can I potentially remember details as part of a much larger, complex pattern with occasional visual cues which etch themselves into the side of my brain. In fact – visualizing words – surprising to some who know me as a once artist – is the most challenging of all. I long for the ability to read a descriptor and see vivid worlds and characters in my mind. However, I rarely get so much an ink sketch of the author’s depiction. Characters go faceless which leaves them hard to relate to and hard to get to know. Then my narcissistic, or perhaps practical self, screams out regarding the silliness of inventing worlds for fiction to live when the real world has so many stories which already have actual faces, architecture and landscapes to fill books for days. And given my memory with reading is so poor I find it hard to dedicate the time needing to this slow, arduous process.
Yet when I succeed at completing a book, since it happens so rarely it’s a bi-yearly phenomenon at best to date, I have a quiet celebration at my victory. I try, for a few moments, to recall the story and cement it in my mind, yet within moments it fades away and all I remember are the feelings I had reading it – oft boredom, or interest, or curiosity – at at best some storage of general theme, but the story is gone. Since graduating college I have read one complete book — The Kite Runner — which I enjoyed enthusiastic and devoured within two days of serious bathtub reading yet if you asked me I couldn’t tell you anything more about its story beyond that it was about an Islamic culture at war where kite competitions were taken quite seriously.
Sometimes I wonder if I need to read novels twice or thrice to cement them in my mind, but who has time for that? Instead, my goal now is to train myself how to read – not for the sake of absorbing the minimum amount of knowledge to pass an English course with my own telling of how character A ended up in some half made up conflict with character B, but instead for my own recreation and enjoyment. Deriving pleasure from such activity is perhaps a skill one must hone if not learned as a natural instrument of life at a young age. Deriving pleasure from anything is something that I do not know how to do.
Pleasure, in the state of solitude, is a novelty. Busy-ness replaced pleasure in my childhood. Art class, school plays, dance instruction, hebrew school, television programs not-to-be-missed, saxophone lessons, eating endless amounts of sugar and constant trips to the shopping mall replaced any semblance of equating stillness to satisfaction. I began this fight against time where if I had any of it free I would sit and stare at the wall or drift off into the sea of the early internet for entertainment without finding pleasure in any of it. This is not surprising as my parents also found little in life that reflected satisfaction — both clearly out of love with each other and fighting constantly, my hoarder mother worry-worting around the house that there was never enough time to do anything except clean while she refused to throw anything away, while my father, tired from his daily trips to work in New York where as an actuary he mapped out the likelihood of a business’s workforce dying in any given year for a living, and miserable due to his own defeat and subsequent dropout as a physicist at Cornell’s graduate school along with marrying a woman who liked to quickly spend all the money he made. Happiness, in our household, was equated to busy-ness and stuff, and if busy-ness and stuff were the makings of happiness then all of my education and anything related to it had more to do with the busy-ness requirement and little to do with any pleasure derived from actual learning.
Today I want to change that, but it’s a change that takes great gravitational forces that are at times beyond my mortal ability. I imagine myself a decent writer, somehow prolific in my personal narratives of psychological complaint, yet not the best learner or sponge of information. Yet the world of business is not the one I wish to live. It provides me with all the busy-ness and stuff my little deceived heart desires but it does not actually provide any pleasure. Where I once looked down upon those who choose not to work all the time, who live simpler lives for the sake of not wanting more and instead being satisfied with less, today at the very least I acknowledge that everything I was taught about happiness by two very miserable people was a lie.
It is up to me to reteach myself how to love all that matters in this pointless little world of ours. That varies from person to person, but for me it’s sharing all of my thoughts on the world and its future through some sort of writing. If I die poor but having published numerous novels and perhaps raising a pair of well-rounded, calm, and unspoiled children, I should think I’d be happier than dying buried in any great wealth. In fact, I’d want to look back on many stories of my life, and stories of life are much more poetic throughout one’s years of courting only to be turned into stable, beautiful, yet uneventful love if you’re lucky for the majority of your years and remaining flashes of youth. Thus to have really good stories you either have to do amazing things or create them on paper. Either works and both is not out of the question. But of all the people in the world not everyone is slaving away at a corporation or small business in order to take home a regular paycheck and buy a new couch from the local furniture store advertising on television with some horrid jingle. Stuff, despite my appreciate for aesthetics and design, is mostly a cauldron of distraction from all that is destroying our simple little world. Given the horrors and atrocities of the animal kingdom, with the worst of offenders being those of bore of human mind and flesh, sometimes it’s nice to turn to our Amazon shopping cards and revel in two day delivery. It’s easier that way for sure.
I just can’t go on like that much longer. Perhaps if my significant other was a raging capitalist I’d find a way to stodge along in tempo with modern American society. I’d lust after the newest model of car and dining at only at restaurants with four dollar signs and unblemished record of five star Yelp reviews. I’d be some impressive something and have all the impressive somethings to make everyone look on with some sort of envy and awe. While I didn’t even think that was possible when I graduated college somehow I found myself moving up quickly in a field that sucks all of your time away in exchange for a sizable salary and stock which could in fact one day equate to riches and more stuff. So here I am, fired from a job where I was taking home $6000 a month post tax, potentially able to fool someone else into providing me a similar opportunity, telling myself I can fake it for just a little while longer, save $500,000 which seems to be a threshold where I can feel at ease to explore less profitable avenues, and instead of scourging the internet for job opportunities or reading business books to become better at my career, I’m lost in this fantasy of reading – really reading – fiction.
At random I’ve begun this journey on a book I downloaded into my Kindle at the suggestion of an Amazon advertisement over a year ago: The Daughters of Mars. Since yesterday afternoon – which I spent floating in my apartment complex pool on a raft with my waterproof case-covered kindle – and staying up into the wee hours of the mourning – I’ve read just 33% of the book. The story is about two sisters, both Australian nurses, who aren’t that fond of each other until they both go to war and find themselves fighting for their life and the lives of the many soldiers they treat across oceans far from their home. So far the book is ok, though it doesn’t seem to have the depth to gain itself a spot on my “favorites I need to read again to remember” list. I do enjoy historical fiction because while I can’t keep a story together in my brain upon completion of reading it, somehow the actual factual events which take up the book stick a bit more firmly than they would have if I read a typical history textbook. I do adore history coming to life, understanding how, for instance, the first world war greatly changed war in general, with the technologies beginning to cause much greater casualties than weaponry of previous wars. I’m less interested in the feel-good story of the two sisters who become friends again at sea, but maybe that becomes more interesting as the plot goes on. I can’t help but think the book towards the end really needs to kill one of them off for it to hold my interest at all, as happy endings, even those following years of wartime, aren’t my cup of tea. Lucky for me most writers like to use death to conclude their stories cleanly and with a thud, at least of one supporting character, so I may get my wish.
For my own potential novels I want to write science fiction, I guess, though I want it to be quite believable and a commentary on the progression of science, disease and our own technological destruction of ourselves. Now that I’m a bit obsessed with the politics of the world and how history has led to present day there’s much to comment on. I doubt I’ll ever be a lauded writer but at the least if I could put out one work of fiction and have it published I’d call that a victory over my deceived childhood, a punctuation of my new life. If, in fact, I find I’m actually good at it, and I’ve caught up enough after years barren of book, maybe I could go off to some established MFA program and hone my skills, taking up writing a range of literature from children’s novels to horror – detailing all the improbable or impossible many things I’ve found myself terrified of since childhood, starting with my room floating away from my house into space and unable to return.
Today I hope to finish reading this book and move on to my next read. I have hundreds of titles I’ve stored for myself on GoodReads ranging from top classics (including books I was supposed to read back in school) to well-regarded science fiction to contemporary authors and popular literature. It’s hard to pick a next where there are so many nexts to be plucked. I’m trying, though, to not get stuck on the next book until I finish with the one I’m on now. If I can read one book a day of my unemployment I won’t get through all of the books I want to read in time (unless my unemployment lingers on for years) but I’ll be much better read than I am today, and maybe my spirit will open up itself to accept the dull hum of focus required to dive into the pages of a book so deep its adjectives paint pictures visible on the back of my eyelids while I sleep. Wouldn’t that be nice.