Reclaiming / Re-In-Habiting Reading

A couple of years ago, a colleague gave me a book as a gift, and her note said something like, “You’re such a good writer, you must read a lot. Here’s a book that has inspired me, I hope you like it too.” I did appreciate the book – as a source of brief inspirational readings and poems to read as openers for meetings at work. But I didn’t actually read the book. And I felt a familiar, nagging combination of guilt, shame, and defensiveness in response to her note. The truth was, I didn’t read a lot, for many, many years.

I loved to read as a child, starting at age 4, when my big sister Rachel, who was in first grade, decided to teach me. I still remember the first book I ever read all by myself – Ten Apples Up On Top!, which, though I didn’t realize it at the time, was written by Theodore Geisel of Dr. Seuss fame, under the pseudonym Theo. LeSieg (Geisel spelled backwards). Though I associated it with the other Dr. Seuss books we had, I believed it to be written by someone else, and this impression was supported by the fact that it was illustrated by someone other than Dr. Seuss  (Roy McKie).  (Hey apparently I could purchase the original edition of this book for a mere $1500!).

For years I read mostly the books Rachel suggested. Later, she would also read ones I suggested. Sometimes Rachel and I would even try to read the same copy of the same book simultaneously – the person who was ahead sitting on the right, the person who was behind sitting on the left, leaning over/craning our necks to be able to read the page that was vertical in the middle. Sometimes our younger brother Ari read with us too – or pretended to, before he knew how. I think we once even tried to all three read the same copy of the same book simultaneously, but gave up after a while.

As we grew up, Rachel, Ari and I read a lot. We read so much that our Rabbi, who was also a family friend, would tell us we read too much, and we should go outside and play. We read the backs of the cereal boxes during breakfast as hungrily as we ate their contents. I read the novels my mom kept in the bathroom for reading just as she did, in small installments, on the toilet. We used to read to ourselves in bed, and after we were supposed to have lights out, we would read tensely, listening for our parents’ footsteps when they came to check on us and quickly turn out the light and feign sleep. A few times we even read with flashlights under the blankets, I think.

Our Dad read aloud to us for many years, many long books and series. They were mostly science fiction and fantasy, with the books getting more sophisticated as we grew older – Dr. Doolittle, Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Dispossessed  and The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. As we grew older we would take turns reading aloud as well, though he was always the best at doing cool voices for different characters. These were very special times with our Dad, and I, at least, developed a lifelong love for this genre. (The first books I picked out to read for myself but that Rachel refused to read were science fiction, and one about kids hunting for dinosaur bones. I still remember the feeling of shock that someone so close to me could have such different reading preferences).

I’m not sure exactly when I stopped reading so much – when I stopped treating it like it was as natural as eating or breathing. I do remember being overwhelmed by the amount of reading assigned my first year of college. I tried to sign up for a course in speed reading, because I felt desperate. I went to the introductory session and became convinced this would save me. But when I asked my dad to pay for the class, he refused, telling me that they used gimmicks to convince people that it worked in the intro session, but that it didn’t really work, and would reduce my comprehension. Since I was completely financially dependent on him at that point, I gave up, in frustration and anger.

I never really learned to skim. I felt compelled to read every word carefully, so I wouldn’t miss anything, yet my mind would wander and I’d have to go back and pick up where my attention had left off. I was a slower reader than many people, and I struggled to finish (or even do a barely adequate amount of) the assigned reading in almost every course in college and graduate school. The marked exception was my History of Science survey course in college, taught by a man who felt students were overburdened by academic reading and should be left time to read for pleasure also (alas, had every teacher been as kind and insightful about this issue, perhaps I wouldn’t need to be writing a blog about reclaiming reading!)

I also noticed at some point that I tended to feel overwhelmed in bookstores and libraries. So many, many, many books to read – there was no way I would ever be able to read them all, or even a large proportion of them. For some reason – perhaps because of my love of reading, of the worlds it opened for me – this felt unbearable. It is interesting to realize as I write this now, that this anxiety about reading – about not reading fast enough, about not reading enough, period – is, in part, a kind of “time anxiety,” something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

I’m also remembering now that when I was much younger and still reading avidly, I struggled to read Hebrew, especially when I had to read it aloud. My parents tried to help me by having me read in time with a toy clock that ticked loudly and played “My Grandfather’s Clock. Apparently this was a classic toy for teaching kids to tell time – there are multiple YouTube videos of it like this one and lots of people saying nostalgic things about it! If my memory serves correctly, trying to read aloud in time with the clock didn’t work for me at all. Perhaps this, along with the tension of trying to avoid getting caught reading after lights out, may have laid down the initial “anxiety pathways” in my psyche about the pace of my reading that later became more dominant in college.

I never completely stopped enjoying reading. I continued to read science fiction and fantasy during vacations from school and since school. I love the escape into another world that it provides. During many periods in my life I would get hooked and stay up too late reading, and like when I was a kid, this produced anxiety (I was, after all, continually catching myself in the act, at some level!) Occasionally I have read other types of fiction, though rarely as avidly. There have even been a few periods in my life when I have read non-fiction that wasn’t “assigned” to me in a class. Mostly this has been professional reading related to a project I am working on, and I have avoided doing this at bedtime, because I haven’t wanted to have my mind stimulated about work, which could keep me awake. And mostly, I haven’t made any time for reading that isn’t at bedtime, so that has pretty much kept me from doing much reading that isn’t light and escapist.

For the last fifteen years, since Don and I got together, nearly all of my bedtime reading has been reading aloud or listening to audio books with Don. Our courtship began around the time the much-awaited 5th Harry Potter book came out, so we started there. The fact that Don enjoyed reading aloud, and enjoyed sci-fi and fantasy, resonated with some of my fondest memories of childhood and was one of the many reasons I felt we were right for each other. For many years he did most of the reading, since if I read, he’d fall asleep, and I’d still be awake and hooked on the book. Then we gradually started using Audible audiobooks more and more and setting it to “sleep timer” so we wouldn’t stay up too late. We have luxuriated through a whole lot of books together this way, and there is something very special about reading together in this way.

However, I felt some jealousy and frustration at the fact that Don was doing other reading as well, and I was not. I never seemed to be able to make time for it, except sometimes I would manage to get in bed 15 or 20 minutes before he would. For a long time, he wasn’t aware of how precious this time was for me, and he would arrive in the bedroom and start making small talk with me while he got his pajamas on and brushed his teeth.

For a few years, I gave up on trying to read on my own in bed. Sometimes I would draw or do digital art while I waited for him and we chatted, but eventually I got into a very hard-core habit of playing games on my iPhone. For several years, the moments while waiting for/being interrupted by him, and many other random loose moments – on the phone, on the bus, on the toilet – were filled with iPhone games. Usually not fast-moving ones, which I didn’t find relaxing, but slower, prettier and/or more puzzle-like ones, and most often right-brain ones I could multi-task on while talking to someone and more or less listening. Sudoku, UnBlockMe, Solitaire, FlowFree, Threes, Two-Fold, MakeHexa, Hue, Rings… each one would fascinate me for a while til I got the hang of it, then be a reliable way to partially occupy my mind in a satisfactory and relaxing way so I wouldn’t get too bored. Eventually (usually not til I’d been addicted to it for many months, sometimes years), I’d get tired of it and switch to a new game.

I’d been through a couple other periods of video game addiction in my life. “Centipedes” my freshman year of college, when someone rigged a video game in the basement of the dorm to play for free and it went undetected for a couple of months. “Tetris” while I was supposed to be working on my masters’ thesis: I’d sit down at the computer and promise myself just ten minutes, but spend 40 or more at it. This probably went on for a few months until one day in a fit of will power I deleted it from my computer and the problem was solved. After that I resisted ever playing any video games, for fear of getting hooked again. Oh, wait, there was “Bubbles” which I made the mistake of letting my nephew download on my first iPad. I eventually had to delete that too, because I would play it for way too long.

But the iPhone games were different. I’d picked ones that didn’t move on their own, so I didn’t get as hooked. I mostly wasn’t playing them for long periods of time when I should have been doing other things. They were just filling random small moments or accompanying moments when only part of my brain was occupied. Or occasionally acting like a pacifier in times that would have been agitating. When people would have conversations about addictions or bad habits they wanted to change, I’d think about the games, and honestly assess that they weren’t doing me any harm. I was mindfully choosing what to mentally consume, and it seemed healthier than a lot of the social media and news (fake or not) that I could be imbibing.

Well, they weren’t hurting me. But were they doing me any good? For a while I tried to replace the game habit with “Lumosity,” a set of games that were supposedly designed and proven to improve brain functioning. While this was somewhat entertaining and perhaps more edifying than the games I’d picked, it was also less relaxing, and cost a monthly fee! I gradually reverted to the more fun games.

One day a year or so ago, on a visit with my sister Rachel (yes, the same one who taught me to read), I noticed that she was reading a book on her iPhone. Her phone was just as small as mine (5s), and this seemed a bit crazy to me. How far could one get in a book being able to see only one paragraph’s worth at a time?! I’d tried it once and compared to my iPad, it was frustrating.

Meanwhile, I’d started writing more and making more time for writing. After a few months of “Morning Pages,” a book project emerged that, I felt, was going to require me to do some significant amounts of reading.  Reading about the physics of time, the biology of time, the psychology of time, the anthropology and sociology of time, to mention just a few topics on my ever-growing reading list.

So, I started reading – and listening to – some of these books on my iPhone. I resolved to try to fill many of those little moments with reading of my choice, rather than random news, incoming email, or, games.  I found that reading a book on my iPhone wasn’t that bad. It is, after all, almost always with me. In my Morning Pages on April 5th I wrote:

I’m grateful & happy that I seem to be re-establishing a habit of reading more again – using Kindle mostly, on iPad and cell phone. Lots of books in progress… which is new for me – usually I do one at a time or forget about the ones I’m not currently reading… but I seem to be remembering to go back to others…

And, while reading one of the books, World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen, I noticed my tendency to rush while reading, and how reading this book encouraged me to slow down while I was reading. At some point, though, I backslid into playing more games for a while. Games were so much more relaxing! Plus, a habit is a habit. A deep groove of comfort. And Don didn’t even realize he was interrupting my reading in bed, because as far as he knew, I was still playing games!

In a fit of will power, on May 6th of this year, I deleted all of the games from my phone!!! After Don interrupted my reading a bunch more times and I built up a sufficient amount of resentment about it, I finally resolved to make a clear request that he honor this time and not interrupt me when I was reading. He agreed, and after a few reminders, has been able to mostly respect that boundary. Sometimes I’ll pull out the iPad, but more often than not, I read on my little phone, and it seems to work very well.

One screen at a time, plus some listening time, I’ve read about 15 books since May, plus parts of about 4 others. Maybe it’s like Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s cure for the “Slow eater tiny bite taker” – a child who refuses to eat more than a few bites, is given progressively smaller and smaller plates and utensils, until the plate size matches the size of the bites. Maybe my brain that gets overloaded by wanting to read it all can relax when the portion size is small.

This is also an interesting example of something I learned from one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books, which I did consume via audiobook in the past few years, Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. (For some reason I still have a hard time using the term “reading” to describe listening to an audiobook! Yet I wouldn’t apply that double standard to someone who was vision-impaired….) I super-highly-double-plus recommend this book, in whatever format! Duhigg lays out how to mobilize the power of habit, to develop desirable new habits or to replace bad habits with good ones. His argument in a nutshell is that habits are made up of three parts: a cue, which triggers a routine, followed by a reinforcing reward. If you can identify the cue and the reward associated with a habit you want to change, and figure out how to replace the undesirable routine with the new, desired one, then you can change much more easily. I deliberately used this model in this case – using the “cue” of having my phone in hand during idle moments to trigger a routine of reading, rather than playing games. The reward was initially feeling like I was accomplishing something on my to-do list, though I eventually came to realize that the reading itself is often its own reward, because of the intriguing stories and/or new worlds of information that it opens up to me.

The pace of my reading picked up when, in early July, I learned that I had gotten in off the waiting list to Natalie Goldberg’s “Sit, Walk, Write” retreat in mid-August. I had 4 ½ weeks to try to read 3 required and 2 recommended books! Somehow, with the combination of iPhone, iPad, and audiobook, and falling back into my habit of rushing some, I managed it, including some challenging/”unpleasant” reading, a book I never would have chosen for myself, about warfare between the Comanche Indians and the European settlers in Texas (Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne). In my July 22nd Morning Pages I wrote:

Feeling good about doing so much reading – though I’m reading a lot of books! Feeling… eager? Motivated. Interested. “Joyful effort.” To a degree I don’t remember having with reading much. Not fantasy/sci-fi where the story compels me. Not fear of bad grades/striving for good ones – though I don’t want to show up to the writing retreat unprepared. I think it’s partly that I’ve managed to replace the game habit on my iPhone with a reading habit, which is its own reward, because it’s interesting. Yay! Want to keep it up!! So many more books I want to read… somehow the hopelessness I developed early in adulthood because there are so many, many, many books, has eased… maybe I am more comfortable with how tiny and limited this one life is? And I still want / get to read what I want?!

I also noticed how I enjoy being “lost,” or swept up in a story (reading or watching a movie) and dislike interruptions/ discussion /analysis of it.  As a writer, though, I now feel motivated to pay attention to that meta-level, of how the story is being told. At the writing workshop Natalie told us sternly that we could not be writers without reading, and reading with that meta-awareness: “Part of being a writer is reading. Authors are our teachers. It’s how we learn to write. Study their mind, and how books are being built.”

With a breath of relief, I went back to reading for pleasure after the workshop – Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore. Yet, when I finished it, I wrote about it, and found myself analyzing it a bit as Natalie taught me to – what was the structure of the story? What was gained and lost by the choices the author made?  I am also getting back to reading more of the nonfiction background for my time novel.

Somewhere recently I came across the phrase, “She Who Cannot Be Rushed.” I can’t find the reference now, perhaps it was as I was researching Rep. Maxine Waters for my April post on Reclaiming Voice, Reclaiming Time. I still can’t skim when I read, and don’t particularly feel a need to. As I reclaim reading, my aspiration is in the opposite direction – to become “She Who Cannot Be Rushed” in reading, as in other things.

4 thoughts on “Reclaiming / Re-In-Habiting Reading”

  1. love love love this — as always! I resonate with not reading as many books in the last 10-15 years, although I love reading. For me, it has to do with doing so much more online, with teleclasses, webinars, news, etc. I share your sense of being overwhelmed by how much there is too learn! I am recently asking myself again — what do I WANT to read? What would be JOYFUL to read? (Instead of — what do I think I should read because it is an important topic?) What I notice is that when I do allow myself to read for hours, the way I used to, it seems to settle my nervous system. The process of sitting with a book is soothing in a way that being on an electronic device simply is not, especially something like a computer where there is so much stimulation. Hooray for re-discovering something that was so important to us years ago! Thank you!!!

  2. Although I probably read too fast and skim rather than enjoying the words, I share your old anxiety about time. Right now I am at a friend’s cottage in Connecticut and enjoying the wonderful leisure of reading when all the tasks of home aren’t call to me. Edith Wharton’s “The Buccaneers” is delicious.

  3. Pingback: How is the novel going? Tracking words, hours, and books, oh my! – towardanakedheart

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