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Reader’s Block 

So many books, so little patience

Wednesday, Mar 1 2000
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Illustration by Melinda Beck

Don’t read much now.

—Philip Larkin,

“A Study of Reading Habits

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Could I have become a symptom, or is this an entirely personal indisposition?

Either way, I find it increasingly difficult to read. This year I read fewer books than last year; last year I read fewer than the year before; the year before I read fewer than the year before that. The phenomenon of writer’s block is well-known, but what I am suffering from is reader’s block. The condition is creeping rather than chronic, manifesting itself in different ways in different circumstances. On a trip to the Bahamas recently, I regularly stopped myself reading because, whereas I could read a book anywhere, this was the only time I was likely to see sea so turquoise, sand so pink. Somewhat grandly, I call this the Mir syndrome after the cosmonaut who said that he didn’t read a page of the book he’d taken to the space station because his spare moments were better spent gazing out the window. Sometimes I’m too lazy to read, preferring to watch TV; more often I am too conscientious to read. Reading has never felt like work in the way that writing has, and so, if I feel I should be working, I feel I should be writing. Theoretically, if I am not writing then I am free to read, but, actually, I always feel vaguely guilty and so, instead of writing (working) or reading (relaxing) I do neither: I putter around, rearranging my books. Basically I do nothing — until it’s time to catch a train, whereupon, like a commuter nibbling away at War and Peace in 20-minute snatches, I plunge into a book thinking, At last I’ve got a chance to read. In no time, though, I’m like Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet, “torn, in a futile anguished fashion, between my disinterest in the landscape and my disinterest in the book which could conceivably distract me.”

Back home there are plenty of books that I’ve not read, and yet, gazing blankly at my shelves, all I can think is, There’s nothing left to read. Hoping to get to the heart of the matter in the course of a transatlantic flight, I bought — but couldn’t face reading — Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader and Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading. Having resigned myself to not reading them, I scavenged around for anything to read: the in-flight magazine, the duty-free catalog, the emergency-evacuation procedure. And yet, at the same time that I am ready to read scraps like this, I am an overdiscriminating reader. I am always not reading something in the name of something else. The opportunity cost of reading a given book is always too great. Some books, obviously, are a waste of one’s eyes. To feel this about airport blockbusters is perfectly normal, but I feel it is beneath me to read Jeanette Winterson, for example, or Hanif Kureishi. In fact, most so-called quality fiction that is story-driven seems a waste of time. This would be fine if I could transpose a reluctance to read the young English novelist James Hawes into a willingness to read Henry James, but I am unable to get beyond the first five paragraphs (i.e., four sentences) of The Golden Bowl.

The strange thing about this is that at 20 I imagined I would spend my middle age reading books that I didn’t have the patience to read when I was young. But now, at 41, I don’t even have the patience to read the books I read when I was 20. At that age I plowed through everything in the Arnoldian belief that each volume somehow nudged me imperceptibly closer to the sweetness and light. I read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Ulysses, Moby Dick. I got through The Idiot even though I hated practically every page of it. I didn’t read The Brothers Karamazov: I’ll leave it till I’m older, I thought — and now that I am older, I wish I’d read it when I was younger, when I was still capable of doing so.

Even at this late stage, however, some books do slip through the net and get read. I could make neither head nor tail of the first part of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea; normally I would have abandoned it, but, since the book was short and the end in sight almost from the first page, I finished it and realized that it was indeed the masterpiece everyone had claimed. Given that my faith in the canon remains relatively intact, why can’t I do that over a longer distance?

To an extent I’ve become, if not a child, then an adult of soundbite culture, unable to concentrate on anything that does not offer immediate gratification. I have succumbed to what George Steiner in his essay “The Uncommon Reader” calls “the near-dyslexia of current reading habits.” It is in this sense that I am symptomatic of “the fate of reading in the digital age.” The phrase is Sven Birkerts’, the subtitle — and all I’ve read — of his Gutenberg Elegies. Appropriately enough I look back elegiacally on my life as an obsessive reader, on my Bernhard phase, my Brodsky phase, my Camus phase, my DeLillo phase . . . I think of those sublime periods of lamp-lit solitude when, in Wallace Stevens’ phrase, “the reader became the book.” It can still happen, but it has something of the character of the occasional lovemaking of a long-married couple in that it reminds me of how things have changed, of how infrequently I am now consumed by a passion that was once routine. Losing myself in J.M. Coetzee’s Booker-winning Disgrace, I remember how I used to pass from one book to another in a tranced relay of imagined worlds. Looking at Andre Kertesz’s photographs of readers sharing — however precariously perched — in the repose of the text, I find myself wondering and remembering.

Specifically, I remember two pieces in The Hungry Mind Review, which asked a number of writers to select a single book from this century that they would take with them into the next. Reflecting on the way he had gradually lost interest in fiction, Gerald Early asked if “this is how one, by stages, loses the ability to read or the interest in reading altogether.” This in turn, he thought, might be part of a process whereby one loses “slowly but inexorably the ability to feel deeply about anything.” For his part, Sven Birkerts chose Rilke’s Duino Elegies because “it is there we find the most potent possible distillation of subjective inwardness, our most endangered attribute.” Is this lack of “subjective inwardness” the malady of which my — and Early’s — declining ability to read is a symptom?

Perhaps not. In And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, John Berger has speculated that the inability to remember might itself be a memory (of being a memoryless baby in the womb). In the same way, my declining ability to read is itself the product of having read a fair bit. If reading heightens your responses, shapes your idea of the world, gives you a sense of the purpose of life, then it is not surprising if, over time, reading should come to play a proportionately smaller role in the context of the myriad possibilities it has opened up. The more thoroughly we have absorbed its lessons, the less frequently we need to refer to the user’s manual. After a certain point subjective inwardness becomes self- rather than textually generated. Of course, there is more to learn, more to read, but whereas, as a teenager, each new book represented an almost overwhelming addition to what I knew and felt, each new book now adds a smaller increment to the sum of knowledge.

As an 18-year-old in Cheltenham, England, waiting to study English at Oxford, my experience was radically circumscribed. I’d never been abroad. Except for teachers, I’d hardly met anyone who was not from pretty much the same working-class, nonreading milieu as my family. On the other hand, I was bursting with the limitless imaginings of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Lawrence. A life devoted entirely to the study of literature seemed the highest possible destiny. No longer. Reading, which gave me a life, is now just part of that life, at the moment rather a small part.

Books played a crucial part in determining how I became what I am. That slightly ungainly phrase is derived from the subtitle of Ecce Homo, in which Nietzsche delivers the pronouncement with which anyone who has learned anything from books — from his at any rate — will agree: “Early in the morning, at break of day, in all the freshness and dawn of one’s strength, to read a book — I call that vicious!”

 

Geoff Dyer’s books include But Beautiful, Out of Sheer Rage (finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award) and the novel Paris Trance (all published by FSG).

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