My friend Liz wrote a lovely post yesterday, noting the passing of poet Mary Oliver. It’s an eloquent acknowledgment of the power of words, and the joy known particularly to active readers.
I don’t know how else to qualify that. Voracious is overused. And we all read, or most of us, have to, can’t live without reading every day. It’s just that we all know what she means, and especially in this era. There have always been people who are passionate about reading. We just see more memes and other stuff, and who knows how much truth there is in those anyway?
I recognize Liz’s experience because it’s similar to mine. I grew up with parents who were always reading, and it felt perfectly normal to spend hours as a kid with books. My mom started subscribing to the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books series in the 1950s (I think), and as much grief as that concept has taken over the years (you know what? It just now occurred to me that there’s probably plenty of websites out there devoted to those condensed books, and that I have no interest in looking for them) it provided me with an instant library in my home (for those who don’t know—condensed books were edited versions that shortened the contents so that a single large volume could contain several novels, for example). I read some classics that I later revisited in school, although the only one I remember as having previously unread material (i.e., they cut it from the condensed version) was To Kill A Mockingbird. Most of the condensed books I read were just popular novels. I remember a lot of James Michener.
But that was just to whet the appetite. We had actual libraries, and weekly runs. I read what every kid should read along with everything else, from Tom and Huck to Little Women, with odd little gaps I notice now (I never read any of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and only read Tolkien, other than The Hobbit, in college because everybody said I should; I found it a slog and never re-read, and it took me years to see the films, too).
There are a couple of interesting things about this, to me. One is that my kids, who were both early readers and read a lot, the way I used to, grew out of it. It mystified me for a long time; now I’m sort of assuming it’s a generational/cultural thing, although I’m not sure of the cause, and I wonder if eventually they’ll return.
And the other is that I also stopped, although in a different way. I just lost interest in fiction. I still read it, occasionally, because people keep giving/lending me books, and enjoy getting lost in the story, but there’s too much out there I really want to read, and that’s of a different genre now.
When I think about all of this, though, my habits and what I infer about others, I think about this notion that reading is an absolute good. It comes through loud and clear; I see people who relentlessly post memes and other material indicating that there will never be enough books or enough time to read them all, and they don’t seem the least bit embarrassed.
I don’t want to suggest that they should be. I just think that moderation is a thing worth noting, and moderation doesn’t seem to come up with these folks. Again, who knows what they really do with their time (most of them seem busy), but they seem to yearn for nothing but hours to read, and have no problem sharing this yearning.
And reading is a sedentary, passive activity. If I dreamt publicly of having enough time to watch all of these great TV shows that are apparently out there, just 12 hours a day to luxuriate in the stories, you might raise an eyebrow.
There’s a difference. I just have trouble with it. Not with the people who claim to want it; again, I imagine they all are super busy and are just imagining a pretty fantasy. It’s more about me, and guilt.
I feel guilty all the time. This isn’t a good thing, and I talk about it a bit, sometimes, with my wife, just keeping her updated about my mental health. I feel guilty about reading too much, sitting here at the monitor, going through long-form journalism and just ordinary journalism, diving into a biography and not coming up for air until I reach the last page, re-reading science books because I think maybe this time I’ll understand.
My relationship with food, if you’ll forgive me that, is really screwed up, and guilt plays a part. Given my issues over the past few years, this might not surprise you but it’s guilt about eating the wrong food, or too much food, just like an ordinary overweight, over-eating person might feel. Weird. Fertile ground for a shrink, right there.
And yesterday, after a long, busy Thursday when it seemed I never stopped moving, with the weather looking dicey and not a lot on the schedule, I binged Grace & Frankie. The whole new season, which dropped at midnight (I assume; it was there in the morning). Short episodes, which begin playing in Netflix style about 4 seconds after the last one ends, one after the other.
I mean, I sort of feel horrible. I spent the entire afternoon doing this, while the wind picked up and it rained. Occasionally I forced myself up and out, washed a few dishes, took some trash out, and then returned.
I haven’t told my wife yet, although as I noted yesterday, our days of sitting down to enjoy something like this together are few and far between now. Last night, in fact, she finally got home around 8pm and immediately went online to score cheap tickets to three concerts coming up for us to see. That’s what we do together, now. She gets tickets to the symphony or the opera or a play and we go. I have no guilt about watching something without her.
I just have a little guilt over what seems like a lost afternoon. It wasn’t really lost. I was always going to watch those 12 episodes. I just got it over with on one sort of unplanned, listless day. And the season was excellent, nothing particularly new but still fun. I want to share all these tidbits, too, just spoil the hell out of it, and maybe I will. Probably on a secret blog page so that only those who aren’t going to watch and might be interested in a casual recap will read. Or not.
Now I feel guilty about writing such a long post about nothing. As I said, fertile ground here.