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Rushing Literature

Last week I went to a great books discussion group where we discussed the satires by Lucian. As it happens, the meeting was scheduled on the day after the election, so I could not concentrate at all on Tuesday, and on Wednesday I was in numbed by disappointment. Actually, we were only to read about 150 pages of the 250 page book, so it wasn’t a massive amount of reading. But I didn’t get around to finishing until 30 minutes before the discussion and had to force myself to rush through the material for the last day or so.

That turned what was a delightful Greek satire into a tiresome obligation. I didn’t read as closely and I didn’t enjoy it as much. I didn’t bother to read the footnotes or to highlight passages for discussion. And parts of the story slipped by me; I had to read these passages more than once with minimum levels of comprehension. The discussion itself was delightful, and despite my inattentive reading, I did have a few insights and delightful things to say. (I even had the sheer delight of boasting of my recognition of the reference to Erostratus (which I had written about over a month ago) . Surprisingly, whenever a dozen or so reasonably well-educated people come together to discuss a literary work, we can bounce insights off one another and have a delightful time (and cover a lot of territory). It reminds me about the brainstorming insight that the diversity of people who brainstorm together is just as important as the number of participants. We all have our biases and expertise and histories and separate literary tastes; all of his have our antennas focused on different parts of the story, and yet none of us quite gets it right. (And I should add that there’s a sexy element to literary discussions on the college campus: people are revealing their personal truths and emotions and letting their guards down;I’ve gotten to know many a person of the opposite sex this way).

So we all agree that in-person literary discussions are valuable and fun even as we also agree that these occasions become rarer as time goes by and machinima storytelling replaces literary storytelling. In pedagogical parlance, these are “synchronous learning events,” and actually they are good because they put peer pressure on me to actually finish stuff.

On the other hand, this feeling of being rushed and forced to have something to say detracts from literary enjoyment. When I was 25, I remember taking a year off to do nothing but read the classics (and read them slowly and carefully). When I was done, I decided to write about each book (this project, Book Notes will reach the web slowly, but you can preview one sample by reading my essay on Hans Christian Andersen ). By the time I got around to writing, I had forgotten what I read, so in many cases I ended up rereading half, sometimes even all of the book. But I was reading deliberately and discovering really interesting things (and I should add that I stopped the practice of reading literary criticism; it really tends to hamper both your enjoyment and your ability to have original insights).

The problem is that I’m slow. Without a deadline, I read and wrote more slowly. I was more careful. And yes, the quality of my writing was much better. And rather than sharing the responsibility of figuring a story out, I was on my own (and because I was going to write about it later, I had to make sure I understood the story well enough, or else subject myself to public humiliation).

Some stories need to be read carefully (Chekhov, Baudelaire, Forster), while others can be read quickly (Bellow, Updike, Dostoevsky). In an age of more entertainment options and less leisure time, a writer needs to adapt. We can no longer take for granted that a literary reader will be able to plow through a 300 page novel, however well it is written. As time goes by, I find myself reading more “incidental writing” (stuff requiring a small amount of time or minimim levels of concentration) than anything really profound. Politics is interesting, but I have to force myself not to read about topical stuff anymore. I can read a Petrarchean sonnet here, an essay by Mike Royko, an easy to read biography by Boccaccio. Nowadays I nibble on literature and I do it very slowly. I am only 38, but I have to wonder if my inability to pay attention for sustained periods of time to book-length works is in fact a sign of mental deterioration. Perhaps the only cause for hope is that I have a comfortable reading chair that is easy to settle into when I want to read. When I want to.

(One overlooked fact about being a web geek/fiction writer is that you allow yourself less and less time for leisure reading anymore, however much you need it. Reading great books now becomes a luxury only the privileged are allowed).

Up until my recent job, my most productive reading time was lunchtime at work, where for an hour I could concentrate intensely on some book to help me escape the tedium of business and meetings. Now, for some reason, I no longer am able to do this. I want to check my email, check the weblogs, and listen to CNN (the corporate lunchroom pipes in CNN headlines, truly a recipe for insanity). Hey, the Internet is great, and so is the ability to read emailed articles from around the world. But sometimes I wish I return to the nice reading chair (actually a Lazy Boy) and get around to the books I keep buying, but never having time to read.

My notion of heaven is a big library where you have all the time in the world to read whatever you want.

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