Reading, Again and for the First Time

2013-09-05 12.30.40

As is clear from the date of my last post, I haven’t been blogging much lately. It’s not that I haven’t had thoughts. Some of them are even decent enough to be bloggable. Life, though, has intervened in many ways, none of them really bad, most of them very good. The summer was a blur of activity, and now that the fall and its routines are beginning to take hold, my thoughts are turning to the stretch of time between now and the new year. I made no new year’s resolutions this year, and I didn’t set any specific goals, but still it would be nice to make this year count somehow. The year is two-thirds gone, after all.

Part of the blur of the summer involved teaching. I taught a summer class, Introduction to Ethics, which involved a whole semester’s work in six weeks. On top of a day job, that was difficult. However, I survived it, and by late June, it was done. I then set my sights on preparing to teach a great class this fall– an undergraduate religious studies seminar, Topics in Gender and Western Religion. Sadly, though, I was late in promoting the class, and it ended up being cancelled due to insufficient enrollment. I am hoping to attract enough students to teach it in the spring.

Now that I have more free time, I have been reading a lot just for pleasure. This is a huge development for me. I spent 1996 through 2002 in a Ph.D. program in philosophy, and that experience very nearly destroyed my ability to read for pleasure. I have spoken to others who had a similar experience. My research demanded a very intensive, very close style of reading for fine shades of meaning and narrow distinctions, and a keen eye and ear for what is being said and what is very pointedly not being said. This kind of reading is to pleasure reading as professional race car driving is to a meandering tour through the country. It is a discipline that is at once mental and physical, like a kind of exercise, and, like muscle memory, it has a mind of its own and is hard to turn off or unlearn.

After I left off the search for a tenure-track philosophy job and decided to see the wider world, I at first rejoiced in the prospect of being able to read what I want, just for fun. But I couldn’t simply turn off the way I was trained to read in my academic years. It was like driving at 180 mph to the grocery store, which is only fun if you are Ricky Bobby. For me, it was painful and unpleasant. I had lost my ability to enjoy language and words for themselves, to get caught up on the surface level of writing and to draw conclusions, if any, later, or on a second reading (if the book was good). I soon stopped reading altogether, and my life was worse for it. There was a literary hole in my life, and there had been for a long time. I barely read anything longer than a blog post or a Facebook status for three years.

I am beginning to change, though. Right now I am reading, or have recently finished, all sorts of informative and fun things, none of which have any specific relationship to my teaching or my work:

  • The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.
  • 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami.
  • Salsa Nocturna, by Daniel José Older.
  • March, Volume One, by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell.
  • Vathek, by William Beckford.

Plus I have so much more in my queue that I want to read:

  • Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi.
  • So Far From God, by Ana Castillo.
  • Naked Lunch: The Restored Text, by William Burroughs.
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz.
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess).

Those are, of course, just the most proximate items on the list. I have a lengthy list of stuff I want to read. None of this, moreover, includes any of the reading I am doing as research for my prospective course on gender and religion in the spring (this will likely be the subject of another post).

Wide reading used to be a constant feature of my life. I lost sight of it in my early thirties, much to my detriment. How did I find my way back to books? There are three main reasons. The first is, quite simply, time: My life as an academic continues to recede further into the past. So many things have changed for me since then, much of it in the last three years. True, I still teach, but it is different now: I teach on the side, just because I like it (and the small supplement in income), and it isn’t my whole life.

The second reason is my significant other. Yes, I have one of those. She is a sometime book editor and still reads widely with childish delight, a keen critical sense, and an editor’s eye. (She is pretty amazing.) She enjoys reading and her enjoyment is contagious– both the general sense of joy she has in it, and the specific titles she recommends to me. Books and writing are a constant feature of our conversations, which is perfectly delightful.

The third, and not least important, is that my six-year-old son is beginning to learn to read in earnest. He is not quite ready for chapter books yet, but he is close. His reading and spelling are quite good, and what’s more, he seems to enjoy it. It is so amazing to watch an entire universe of new ideas and new vistas for the imagination slowly open themselves to him, bit by bit. We have been reading books together at bedtime pretty much constantly since he was four. His current favorite is the Captain Underpants series; together, we have read eight of the ten current books, and we are working through a ninth. My ex-wife, his mother, also reads to him, and her choices are even more ambitious: C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series and Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. He is clearly chomping at the bit to read independently and to read more challenging things. As his ability grows, I hope he continues to find books that capture his imagination and enrich his mind and his heart.

I haven’t written anything about the reading I have been doing, and that might come later. For now, I am reveling in the sheer joy of good, entertaining, informative writing. If you have been meaning to read a book, go do it! Do you know an author? Thank them for some writing they have done that you have enjoyed. Go to the library; go to a local bookseller; go and read.

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