Sitting in one of my favorite classes in graduate school with one of my favorite professors back in 2000, we got into a discussion of the woes of Reno (of which there are many.) In particular, Professor Randlett and I were discussing the reading habits of people we knew. She said, “I used to date a guy who only read the ads in the Sunday paper. I knew that was not going to work, I mean the ads? Come on? Those are cat box liner.” I laughed, and then had to pause. Shit. Shitshitshitshit. It hit me like a boot to the head. Ex#4 only read the ads.
The next Sunday I watched him very carefully as he stood at the kitchen counter flipping merrily through the ads alongside his giant cup of coffee tempered with a huge amount of flavored non-dairy creamer.
“What are you looking at?”
“Nothing. Did you read that article about —-?”
“Just wondering. Are you going to read it?”
“I don’t know, why?”
“Just asking. No reason.”
“Hey, look!, SportMart is having a sale, we should go check it out.”
So, there it was. The writing on the wall – or rather, on the page. Was there hope?
In that case the answer was a definitive “NO,” but there was admittedly more to it than reading habits. I think. Unless the reading habits really do just underscore a host of other tendencies, which I am starting to think may be true. Last year a good friend of mine from home sent me an article from the NY Times – she obviously reads beyond the ads – because we had been laughing about the compatibility conundrum. The article described the “Pushkin problem: when a missed – or misguided – literary reference makes it chillingly clear that a romance is going nowhere fast.” Yup. I was familiar. Whether this should be a deal breaker or not, I have no idea. Possibly ridiculous, possibly not. But then again, I read, therefore I am… Me.
Let’s review: I grew up in a television-free household. That is right. No T.V. A lot people used to really take pity on me, and I know my friends thought it was really strange – at first, but one of the reasons all my friends know my parents so well is because, well, we hung out. Interactively. It is not like I did not watch tv, I just did it at other people’s houses or on vacations at my grandparents and stuff. I am not totally devoid of the joy that was 1970s and 1980s situation comedy and serial drama. But, for the most part, I entertained myself buy doing stuff like, I don’t know, playing around, hanging with my parents, or reading. I read all the time. My parents were avid readers. We all still read all the time.
So, do the people I hang out with have to read? Probably not, really… but it certainly helps. And of course there is the issue that two people can love the same book but for totally different reasons and perhaps that shouldn’t really even count as a shared affection, but I think it does. As Donadio’s article says, reading habits “tell us something about [a person’s] level of intellectual curiosity, what their style is. It speaks to class, education level.” While this of course, is right about to slip into intellectual snobbery – let me remind you – I am an intellectual snob, so the segue should not surprise you. I like what the books I read say about me. However, I think the issue is less about the books a person reads than it is about their interactions with, and reactions to, the books that matters. I am usually more interested in how people think about books than which ones they are reading. I mean, I am certainly going to want to know why the hell you read The DaVinci Code, but I can only say that with the attitude I hope was obvious in the question because I did, in fact, read it. [And it was god freaking awful.] Lot’s of people read and don’t ever think about what they read and really, they might as well be reading the ads. I mean, you read The Invisible Man, and you don’t have an opinion on it? That is pretty much F.R. [Go here for abbreviation explanation.]
I don’t like everything I read, but there are few things I am actually sorry I read (Jodi Piccoult and Dan Brown, I am looking at you.) I like to be challenged or irked or confused or provoked when I read. I like to be able to talk about things I have read that really resonate with me for any of the above reasons… and so yeah, it matters to me if you read. In all fairness, the only reason I am even doing what I do for a living is because of two books I was assigned to read in 1989 in a European History class at UCSD: The Plague and The Tin Drum. One of them I loved and one of them infuriated me, both haunted me and both blew my mind.
Recently I have been reading a crazy variety of things: I am currently reading Shantaram; just finished Outliers; am reading Bring the Noise here and there while I dick around online at home; loved The Enchantress of Florence; after being nudged towards David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College address I am very much looking forward to Infinite Jest; I have Black Swan waiting for me and an Osho book – both from two of my favorite people so I will read them for sure; my cousin just passed on 2666 a gigantic book he says I should read, so I will; I am revisiting favorites like God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and The Stranger; I loved The Moviegoer and was troubled by The Road; Oscar Wao was brilliant; and I have been devouring (verb choice intentional) Palahniuk’s short stories via his website.
And there are so many more. I have gone through both the Time Magazine All -Time 100 Novels and the Guardian’s list of the same name and checked all the books I want to read. Not to mention the three lists of Ten Books that Changed the World on which I found a whole bunch more I want to check out. With all this reading to do, it it probably a good thing that I still do not have a tv. I don’t really anticipate getting another one either.
I live in a super intense place and so perhaps reading is as Marilynne Robinson said, “the encounter with a second self in the silence of mental solitude.” That sounds pretty nice to me. But I think it is more than that. I like that books can take me where the Wild Things are, that they can really show me things and above all I love how the more you read, what ever it is, the more connections you see in everything around you.
I love books and I buy them like I buy shoes: with joy and irresponsibility. I covet them, and I am remiss to let them go. However, in spite of my possessive nature towards them, I believe one of the best gifts in the whole wide world is a well-loved book from a friend…
Not to long ago a friend of mine whose opinion on most subjects I totally value, sent me a text saying, “A good reader, you are.” Yoda-esque speak aside, I was thrilled with his observation, which came after a fairly challenging discussion involving several others about a specific book. At that point it became clear that the intellectual snobbery and my inclination to use books as a social barometer were both totally real, and possibly unfair. But hey, it is what it is – and for sure there is a lot more in the Sunday paper than the ads…