Confessions Of A Compulsive Reader
The words blur together on the page, becoming one long stream of fast-moving letters…
Oh, no! My life has become a cliche!
On New Year’s Eve, having failed in previous years to reach my goal of becoming perfectly thin, I decided to set my resolve in a new direction: in 2005, I decided, I would read 365 books, one for each day of the year.
I’ve always been a big reader. Since the age of 10, 32 years ago, I’ve averaged 100 to 250 books per year. I read widely, I read everything. Since my first novel, The Thin Pink Line, was published in 2003, I’ve given a lot of talks as well as receiving a lot of mail from readers, and often the question arises: What makes a good writer? I always answer that, to me, the most important thing is to be a big reader. And it amazes me how often, when I ask a would-be published author what they’re reading at the time, the response comes back: “Nothing. I don’t have much time for reading.” To me, this is like saying, “I want to be a brain surgeon, but I really don’t have time for med school.” A.O. Scott, reviewing Joyce Carol Oates’ Uncensored: Views and (Re)views in the NYTBR on April 17, wrote, “Of course, every serious writer of fiction must also be a serious reader; the only way the art can really be mastered is through a compulsive, self-administered pedagogy of worship, derision, imitation and intimidation.” While I find myself, these days, disagreeing with much that gets written in the NYTBR, I believe in Mr. Scott’s sentiment wholeheartedly.
Once upon a time, very early on in my writing journey, the dying novelist Lyll Becerra de Jenkins, mother of a writing friend, heard I’d made the statement, “The only thing that ever bothers me about my own mortality is that I know I’ll never live long enough to read all the books I want to read,” and she asked to meet me, a meeting I still treasure. Since then, I’ve grown a bit older and had a child, so naturally there are now a few other things that bother me about my own mortality, not least of which is that I now know I’ll never live long enough to write all the books I want to write either. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with me, but the list of titles on the storyboard in my basement of books I want to write is long and vita is all too brevis.
But no matter how burning the desire to get those books written before I turn my toes up and they cart me away, the impulse to read remains. In my life so far, I’ve read nearly all of Shakespeare, for example, not because I plan on spouting iambic pentameter at the next turn, but because it informs, if only marginally, the books I create.
It is the impulse to inform that writing, and inform it as quickly as possible, that I think led me to begin this insane yearlong journey. My original intent was tied up, to some degree, in a desire to define myself as a writer. I am blessed – or cursed, depending on how you view it – with the ability to come up with ideas for high-concept books that I can then produce fairly quickly, if by no mean painlessly. Despite the state of near madness that breakneck pace induces in me, it is simply all too easy. It’s too easy for me to skate, too easy for me to say, “Oh, that’s good enough.” So I guess I felt that if I crammed enough of other people’s books into myself, I’d be in a better position to finally say, “This is what I despise. This is what I admire. This is what I will strive for.”
Thus far, this Sisyphean journey has proved thematically to be not unlike Book #134, Savage Summit: The True Stories of the First Five Women Who Climbed K2, by Jennifer Jordan, which I read last week. Currently 141 books into this insanity, I’m finding my reasons for selecting books is evolving. I’m finding the onus has turned away from my own previously obsessive-compulsive need to read every word: it is now the author’s job to fully command my attention or run the risk I will skim. And, finally, I’m finding sometimes I select a book for sheer brevity so I can get my daily quota in.
You probably noticed the next-to-last sentence in the above paragraph, which answers the question of how I’m managing to read so much – while still writing every day, while still promoting my books, while still keeping an incredibly bright five-year-old sufficiently entertained: I skim. Oh, by no means all the time. In fact, I’ve read every single word of every nonfiction book I’ve read since January 1, including Giovanni Caprara’s The Solar System, a book I scarcely understood, science being my weak point. But having once been a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, I am well versed in the art of skimming. I’d feel a lot worse about that admission were it not for the fact I’ve read articles in the Guardian about reviewers and blurbers who don’t read the books they’re assigned…at all.
When I first started reviewing books, I read every word, just as I had compulsively read every word of every book I’d read up to that point in my life. But somewhere into my 292-book reviewing career with PW, I discovered something: if I could tell by page five that a book was not going to be to my taste, that I would in fact hate it, the resulting review was about as nasty as it could get. After all, I’d suffered. Why, then, would there be any grace left in me? So I learned, in those cases, to skim judiciously. And I discovered that I could still review a book both descriptively and analytically, and yet the resulting review was fairer, because I was no longer bitter. There was no longer a need for me to be cruel and I cannot help but think the world a better place with a little less cruelty.
Some people, knowing about my project, have wondered if it’s true what they say about quality, that after a while it jumps out at you. The answer is simple: yes. For while I may skim, sometimes, I never do it when an author commands my attention, not when someone is good enough to make me slow down and savor every word.
The following is a list of the books that, so far this year, have made me sit up and take notice:
The Queen of the South, Arturo Perez-Reverte
Something Borrowed, Emily Giffin
The Kreutzer Sonata, Margriet de Moor
Eleanor Rigby, Douglas Coupland
The Autobiography of God, Julius Lester
The White Rose, Jean Hanff Korelitz
Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami
Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin, Marion Meade
Will They Ever Trust Us Again?, Michael Moore
Strange But True, John Searles
The World Still Melting, Robley Wilson
The Pleasure Was Mine, Tommy Hays
102 Minutes, Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn
The Falls, Joyce Carol Oates
Lighthousekeeping, Jeanette Winterson
The Bones, Seth Greenland
Savage Summit, Jennifer Jordan
Windows on the World, Frederic Beigbeder
I look at the above list and try to see the common ground in the books I’ve felt passionate about so far this year. On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be any. Certainly, you can’t find books further apart than Emily Griffin’s Something Borrowed, with its uber-pink cover, and 102 Minutes, by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn, which follows hundreds of lives and deaths during the time it took for the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center to collapse after being attacked. And, indeed, they have nothing in common, save for the fact that both books moved me for different reasons: the former, for taking a seemingly unsympathetic situation – a maid-of-honor sleeps with her best friend the bride’s fianc� before the wedding – and artfully exposing the flawed humanity in us all; the latter, because despite the sadness and frustration in reading about all of the mistakes that were made on that most awful of awful days, there are some shining accounts of bravery, in particular those enacted by Frank DeMartini and Pablo Ortiz, that will remain indelibly in my mind for as long as I have memory.
Really, though, when I look at the nonfiction on the list, there’s no connection: an account of writers in the ’20s, the letters of soldiers to Michael Moore, an account of September 11, an account of five female mountain-climbers who summitted K2.
It’s when I look at the fiction – moving past the fact that it’s comprised of both literary and commercial, since I could never abide a diet of just one or the other any more than I could stand to eat chocolate mousse for every meal of the day – that I see the common thread. All of those books achieve the blend I find most pleasing in fiction: the books that are mostly heavy still have a trace of irony or humor to some of the proceedings; the books that are seemingly light all have some sort of serious social commentary underlacing the whole. They are the kinds of books I like to read best, perhaps because they are also the kinds of books I like to write best. I see myself – surely not in the actual writing; no, I have no pretensions of that – but in the intention and the palpable love of creation. So that’s where the journey has brought me thus far: to a place where I can see where I’ve been and where I want to go deeper.
Who knows where the next 224 books this year will take me?
I do know that a friend has embarked on a similar journey, in his case tackling a short story a day for the entire year. And maybe at the end we’ll collaborate on a joint tale: The 365-Book, 365-Story Year, detailing in fuller form our individual motives, experiences, and where the journey finally washes us up. Regardless of the future, right now I hear Book #2 calling my name, Ginger Strand’s Flight.
Looks like it’s time for me to go read.
Lauren Baratz-Logsted is the author of The Thin Pink Line and Crossing the Line. Her third novel, A Little Change of Face, will be published in July 2005. Her essay, “If Jane Austen Were Writing Today,” is collected in Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, edited by Jennifer Crusie and due out from Benbella Books on September 1.