Sunday, November 22, 2009

words words words; or, the healing

Yesterday, I read Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. I started at six am and finished at midnight.  I didn't read all day, I also made apple butter, ginger muffins, cooked three meals, walked several miles, and cleaned the bathroom. But, in between things, in the hours of darkness that begin and end the day, I read. It was a good book, not great, but good. But for me, it was amazing, because I have stopped reading. This is a shock considering that I am ingrained in the culture of words. I am an english teacher, a writer, and a scholar. But, for years I have not read. A book here and there begun, but cast aside or read painfully slowly, yes; but for the most part, nothing. Recently, this has changed. Last weekend, I read Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero, a book given to me for my brithday two years ago, but until recently had lain unopened. Today, I have begun Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

Growing up, I read all the time. I always had a book in my hand.  I did not watch tv. I played outside. I rode my horse: and I read. As a child I was obsessed with reading whole series' of books. I read the entire Wizard of Oz, Bambi, and Narnia series (twice) by the time I was 8 years old. In high school I was obsessed with high lit, Harlequin romances and Louis Lamour. I read War and Peace in a weekend on a dare. I read the entire Louis Lamour collection in a summer. I read a book a day, at least. I would stay up late into the night huddled under the covers with a flashlilght reading. Books were my food and joy--I would eat books consuming them as fast as I could and then suck their marrow. I would ingest them. Swallow them in whole bites. Once I picked one up I read until I was done. I had no need for bookmarks.

In the past 20 years, as I finished two degrees in English, and embarked on a third, the University was killing my appetite for reading. As I became essentially a professional reader, I lost my desires for them. My early habits had taught me the discipline that I needed to get all my reading done quickly, and for that I will always be thankful, but the joy was gone. Turned off by encounters with bad books, the pressures of seeing the books in a predetermined light, by reading them through academic eyes, and by the knowledge that I would be expected to write about them my passion was still present, but definitely cooled. The death blow came with a mentoring relationship that killed my joy for books, and nearly destroyed me. In the last years of grad school I read nothing that was not assigned, (and sometimes not even books that were). I lived in a book culture, but I was not interested anymore. I read less and less. Books disappeared from my life. I boxed them up. I gave them away. I smiled at friends as I slid great and wonderful books from birthday and christmas wrappings knowing that they would go unread.

Eventually, it all became too much. I left grad school physically and emotionally sick and tired. Too exhausted to think, read, or write. Televsion became my solace. I didn't have to think. I didn't have to explain what it meant. I could just sit and let these stories roll over me with no expectations or accountability.  I associated books with a litany of professional and personal failures. Books were accomplices with personal disasters that were so painful that even the slightest allusion was a virtual dismantling. Moby Dick, Country of the Pointed Firs, anything about the sea, anything from the 19th century, anything with words, flayed me like lashes. Opening certain novels tore into unhealed wounds, and I was tired of nursing all those sores. It was easier not to. I turned my back on words.

In retrospect, I am grateful to those hours of television. The numbing healing power of TV's nothingness kept me from picking at those sores and allowed me to erase myself for a time. But now, I am ready to return to books. I have unpacked my boxes. When my nephew picked up my copy of Moby Dick and looked excitedly at the pictures of whales, ships, and ambergris I was able to tell him a story about each picture without much more than a twinge. I know now that I am ready to return to grad school. It will not be easy, this I know. I will always have the scars. But, with time, and with a returning to the innocence of words I am healing. I have not read The Country of the Pointed Firs or anything associated with my dissertation yet. For now, I am reading the fun stuff. Chick lit, decadent novels, pulp, I am eyeing that giant stack of Louis Lamour in my garage. The important thing is that I am back. I am reading.


  1. Yea!

    This I know, have felt and lived so much of what you have shared here. I went through that dry spell right along with you and it was something completely non-serious, definitely non-academic, that brought me back to reading books. (Lemony Snicket, anyone? For whatever reason, it worked for me.)

    And, reading books/articles/plays, knowing that I would have to craft an argument and write about them always led to me losing interest, and losing energy. Part of that is not yet having found my passion, but part was the exercising and molding and having to assert things I didn't actually believe, or fully believe.

    (I have begun taking over your comments space.)

    Best of luck, Ms Kat.

    (Pic says 'hi and hello!')

  2. Hi and Hello to Pic too!

    I thought you might understand this.

    Do you know I have never read Lemony Snicket? Did not even hear of it until the films came out. I am children's book deprived. There is a huge whole in my literary experience. Well, more than one, but that is one of them.

    We should have a book club. A fun one. Maybe when I return to Reno we can do it right with snacks and meetings and whatnot. (and yes, as I am sure you have heard, a return is in the works)

    (and please comment all you want. I like to think of blogs as conversation spaces)

  3. I think all of us who have suffered through literature degrees can relate to this post. After thousands of stanzas of The Faerie Queene, I just wanted to sit there and do nothing. Even TV was too stimulating.

    However, I kept reading, but for a much sadder reason. It was an escape from an unfulfilling relationship, a distraction from something I didn't want to face. While my love for reading has survived grad school, my reason for reading has changed (thank all the gods) and with a more fulfilling relationship comes less time for books.

  4. What a wonderful post! Full of feeling, and it made me think a lot.

    I hadn’t thought that, but whenever I do something I like for school, I don’t like it anymore, I lose my interest. I think that has to do with the fact that I no longer do it for pleasure, but because I have to, because it’s an obligation.

    I will study something like Literature, but with another name (I don’t know how to translate it from Spanish, but it’s called “licenciatura”), and I do wish it reading doesn’t turn boring or dreadful, as it did to you.

    I also think tv provides a great escape to reality, helps you forget stuff for some time, as you mentioned, it makes you not think. I have used it on some occasions for that purpose, but I prefer leaving it off.

  5. Actually, I gleaned from this post that you were coming back.

    There's a lot of children's literature I've never read either and I don't think that I had heard of A Series of Unfortunate Events until the movie(s?) either. I haven't seen the film and I don't plan to. I wasn't really that excited about the books, but I was definitely reading again.

    I've decided now is a good time to read some of the 'chapter books' I missed earlier in life. They're quick and I love being able to finish a book in a day instead of having one drag on until I give up on it (The Other Boleyn Girl...ugh, I guess historical fiction is so not my genre after my first few attempts at reading it).

    Coach J: Oh, god, yes. Faerie Queene equalled something of a complete drain. I totally agree that I didn't even have the energy for tv. Although, I did like it and I might read it again one day, in a much less condensed amount of time.

    Oh, I almost forgot. Book club? I'm in. I'm just requesting we don't read any version of Arcadia.

    Finally, Kat, have you read _Ship Fever_ by Andrea Barrett? I haven't, but my Book Lovers calendar (from 2006 or 2007) says that she's a great short story writer and, well, ships in literature always make me think of you. Actually, I have no idea if that title means there are actual stories about ships or not. Hmmm. I have it on my list of books to eventually check out.

  6. J-- I am glad to hear that you are building a more fulfilling life. I have a lot of women friends around me right now who are considering change, but finding it really difficult. I admire your courage.

    Makita--Thanks! The fatigue I am talking about didn't hit me until grad school, so a couple of literature classes will prolly be really fun for you. Do you read in English and Spanish?

    V--Two things. Okay, three. 1) I have not read--or heard--of Andrea Barret, I will check her out. 2. I am going to re-read all the Jane Austen's if you want to join me. I am reading Sense and Sensibility right now. We can have a vitual book club. 3. How is the teaching?