I recently read the results from a survey which revealed that, over the past year, one in four Americans did not read a single book. For the people who did read books, seven was the average total for the year. My initial reaction was shock; the reflex I struggled with was similar to when a friend indicates their favorite album is by someone like Creed or Toby Keith. It makes me want to step back and ask, “What is wrong with you?” Seven books I can deal with, but zero?
I don’t intend to analyze the results of the survey; as a reader I can exist knowing I’m in a demographic comprised mainly of women and senior citizens. I’ve read comments from some people who are quite angry with folks who don’t read, but I’ll do my best to rise above. If you are a philistine who would rather do a word-search on the plane, more power to you. I won’t even sneer behind my trade paperback if you are unpacking your mini-DVD player before the flight attendant has the words, “you may now use your portable electronic devices—” out of her mouth, just so you can watch “Under the Tuscan Sun” for the nth time. I’m not even taking this opportunity to point fingers and laugh at TV watchers. I just want to speak on behalf of books, and the people who write them, while sharing some thoughts on my relationship with reading.
I love to read, and writers intrigue me far more than rock stars. Of all the passions I have embraced in my life, reading has always been the one I never surrendered. I was hooked from the moment I learned how it all worked. Some years I’ve read more than others, and my tastes have evolved, but I’ve never had stretches where I stopped reading altogether. I’m guessing it comes from my mom, because she reads all the time too. My dad isn’t a book reader; I don’t think I’ve ever seen him read anything that wasn’t a newspaper, the crossword puzzle dictionary, the J.C. Whitney catalog or a Chilton auto repair manual. That’s fine. I can quote Thoreau, he can rebuild trucks and tractors and hot water heaters. You tell me who has the more valuable skill set.
I associate periods in my life with books discovered. Books about dogs governed my youth; The Call of the Wild, Big Red, and Where the Red Fern Grows (I wish I’d listened to my sister’s warning before I read that one) are titles which come to mind. I still have the little blank book I received during my 8th grade graduation as a reading award; that particular teacher turned me on to Frank Herbert’s Dune series. I can remember the exasperation on my high school English teacher’s face when he would say, “La Tray, you are a great reader, but I wish you wouldn’t read this crap!” as he’d push the Robert E. Howard-penned Conan novel back across the table at me. Me and the Cimmerian, stickin’ it to the man.
By my teens I was a total geek for fantasy. I devoured the “suggested reading” list that was printed in the original edition of TSR’s Dungeon Master’s Guide (I read that too, cover to magnificent cover). Tolkien? Oh yeah. My sister gave me a hardback set of The Lord of the Rings when I graduated high school, and it has held a place of honor on my shelf ever since. The first time I encountered a celebrity was when I happened upon a Waldenbooks in Washington while Terry Brooks, the author of the Shannara series, was doing a signing. I’m surprised security didn’t haul me away for just standing there staring, slack-jawed and mouth-breathing.
I still have a soft spot for fantasy, but it is no longer where my reading begins and ends. If I see someone at the airport reading a George R.R. Martin novel I’ll feel the same little surge of connection that I get when I see some hessian wearing a vintage KISS t-shirt, but I’d get more pumped over a Naomi Klein appearance these days than I would for a Terry Goodkind reading. And don’t dare to suggest it’s because I’ve “grown up” or anything silly like that; fantasy’s place (and science fiction, since they get lumped together) as a literary backwater is, in my opinion, bullshit. There are some great writers in the genre, particularly women. Ursula K. LeGuin? Margaret Atwood, anybody? Laurell K. Hamilton? Okay, that last one might be a little bit of a stretch, but you get my point.
Say what you want about Cormac McCarthy’s style, but he did get the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and if The Road isn’t sci-fi/fantasy, then I’m a Republican.
I take reading seriously. Over the past couple years I’ve gotten downright anal about it. I can tell you what I read, who the author was, and even the date I finished it. I know because I created a spreadsheet to keep track of the books I have on the shelf that I haven’t read, as well as those books I did read. So far I have two years of data (I swear, in all my years in and out of IT, this is the only thing I’ve ever chosen to create a spreadsheet for), and I have expanded my approach for ’08 by actually moving a stack of books into my office to serve as my “reading queue.” I schedule what I read around my travel. If I have a long trip coming up, I might schedule a big, thick book that would take longer to read at home. Or, given the unwieldiness that some hardbacks can offer, I might schedule two or three smaller trades to set up the hallowed “3-Book Trip.” I’m not out to set any records, mind you; I don’t read fast enough for that. I read purely for the pleasure of living in someone else’s thoughts in the hope they will stimulate my own. I do strive for a healthy through-put, however.
The problem is that, despite my best efforts, the books (and magazines, and graphic novels, and . . . ) pile up faster than I read them. When someone first explained to me that “Waiting For My Man” by the Velvet Underground was a song about addiction, my response was, “Hmm, I never realized Lou ‘Reed’ was a clever stage name.” I skipped 2007’s Montana Festival of the Book because neither my wallet nor my bookshelves could support the influx of books I knew the festival would send home with me. I’m powerless not to find multiple titles that I simply must have immediately, so I avoid the encounters if I’m in a particularly vulnerable mood. Like on payday, for example. Or in the same town as a bookstore.
My tally for 2007 was thirty nine books read; seven of them were fiction. That doesn’t count magazines or graphic novels, though I did create a separate column for the graphics in ’08. I went into December realizing forty books was reachable, so I upped the intensity to get there. Unfortunately, I was distracted by a new book I saw (okay, bought) that looked cool (Niall Edworthy’s The Curious Gardener’s Almanac) and left two other books half-finished when the year rolled over. I almost convinced myself that two halves make a whole, but couldn’t quite talk myself into it.
Highlights for me included books by Hampton Sides, Michael Pollan, and Naomi Klein. The Lappe family made a strong showing – one by the mother (Francis Moore), one by the daughter (Anna), and one by the two together. The son/brother (Anthony) now has a graphic novel in the queue for 2008 (called Shooting War; it’s really, really cool). Stephen Marshall wrote a political book I enjoyed called Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing. I even ventured back to that old DM’s Guide reading list for the classic Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber; it was as cool to me at 40 as it was at 14. If I had to pick a favorite, which I don’t necessarily like to do, I’d say I really loved Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus. Maybe not the best book technically, but it really smacked me in the brain pan, and when I close a book that is how I want to feel.
What’s up for 2008? 2007 was a nine book improvement over 2006, so for this year I am aiming high: 52. That’s right, a book-a-week. I’ve been training hard, and I think I can do it. My suggestion to others would be the following: if you read, keep doing it so long and hard you feel like a cigarette and a couple slices of cold pizza when you stop. Just avoid the chains and support your local booksellers. If you aren’t a reader, go ahead and buy books you’ll never read – they’ll at least make you look smart when visitors see them on your shelves.