I was not a huge reader in school. I liked books and I read what was required, but I was not a bury-your-nose-in-a-book-at-all-times kind of worm. Not like some kids I see in my classes today. That is until my last year in high school, when our student teacher Mr. Schmitt walked into class with a bag full books he had bought with his own money and asked us not to tell anybody what we were about to read.
“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
Dr. Samuel Johnson
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold…”
That was all it took. That opening sentence. I was hooked on books. I’m still not sure what made him feel that reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with a group of seventeen year old was a good idea, but thank goodness he did. Because after that I started to devour books. I started by reading everything Thompson ever wrote. Following names and ideas from his pages, I read The Beats, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. I developed an insatiable appetite for books and ideas that I have barely begun to satiate twenty years later. In short, I love books. I have been reading one book after another since I was nineteen. I do not understand people who “do not read.” What does that even mean?
My point? Patience, I am getting there. During my lifelong stint with reading I have only not ever finished two books. (That I admit to, there are a few others Pale Fire and Dante’s Inferno should be on the list too) Not finishing those two books haunts me to this day, because I was three quarters of the way through both before some freak incident made me stop. I was 900+ pages in War and Peace when a move to Angola forced me to abort the book, and I just couldn’t pick up steam again. If I had to read one more fifty page description of a battle or a ball, I would have killed myself. The second book? Again 900+ pages into Don Quixote before a tsunami literary washed it away.
I hated both of those books, but I was determined to finish them. And the fact that they lay half baked in my reading repertoire bothers me to no end. I will, someday, go back and start from the beginning and finish them both. Because I want to be able to say honestly and wholeheartedly that I have never not finished a book. Making this declaration is important to me.
Why you may ask? Who cares? Life is too short, you may say. Why waste time on reading what you don’t like? I hear you ask. Well dear reader, reading what you don’t like and never putting a book down, no matter how boring or difficult is the point of this post.
At the start of summer I began to read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. After nearly two hundred pages I was still not sold. His scattered verbose meta-narrative style just wasn’t doing it for me. I complained on facebook and was told by many friends to stop wasting my time and just move onto something I would like. At that moment, the seed for this post was sown. A few days later I saw the film Liberal Arts in which the two main characters have this great conversation about reading books for fun.
Before I get started let me state that I know there is no one way to read. I am fully aware that my OCD with text is abnormal, and yes I know I too sound a bit like a snob. I can handle that. Here’s the thing– books for me are not entertainment. I have Master Chef and lame Hollywood super hero movies for brain numbing junk food. Books are my sustenance, my protein. They are my exercise. I am a bit nervous about pushing this exercise metaphor as I do not actually exercise, but conceptually I understand the concept– you push your body beyond physical comfort to force your muscles to exert extra energy, which in turn helps them stay fit and grow. This is the same reason I read. Books are dumbbells and elliptical machines for my brain, my heart, and my ideas.
I read books to help keep my intellect and imagination fit. I read books to help me write. I read critically, intensely and with passion. I seldom, if ever, will pick up a random book cause it looks fun or easy. I do research. I choose books that I hope will stimulate me. I choose books that I think will be a good work-out. So when I make a commitment to read a thousand pages of Rushdie over the summer I am not just going to stop because I don’t like it. Liking it has nothing to do with why I chose it. At this point in regime, I am forcing my brain to articulate why I don’t like it. What about it do I like? What is working in terms of craft and style. I read as a writer, not for pleasure. I return page after page, rep after rep like exercise in order to be a better thinker.
My point– as a teacher what do you tell your students who want to give up on books. As I mentioned earlier, I know that an unyielding commitment to books is my style and may not the best way to read for everyone. There are many ways to read. I get that. There are also many kinds of readers, and forcing a struggling reader to finish a book he hates may do more damage than good. I get that.But at what point to we ask our students to get on the bench and pump the weight.
In closing, by no means am I making a judgment on people who stop books or choose to read for fun. I guess I am looking for some well argued reasons why people read for pleasure or feel that it is okay to abandon books when they do not meet our expectations. I want to hear from you about what kind of reader you are and how you talk to your students about books. If you are a student, I would love to hear about your reading routines.
What kind of reader are you? How do you mentor the readers in your class? Am I crazy? Where do you agree? Disagree with what I have said?
For the record, I am now almost half way through the Midnight’s Children and things have changed! There is a bizarre magic realism plot forming (weirdly like the X-Men) and I am finally finding my groove. I am actually enjoying it. Glad I did not give up. Sometimes the best things are the ones that are the hardest to get to.