I have been, until recent years, a voracious reader. This is attributable to my mother who read to me from a very early age. Later, comic books, but mostly I was interested in storytelling as imagination--fiction. By the sixth grade I had penned a fifty-page story in longhand about DC's Justice League super heroes. The reading load in college and graduate school as an English major was almost too great (one professor said as much to me). And yet, I found time for more unassigned reading, especially when I worked summers. 1984, Slaughterhouse-Five, Catch-22, Invisible Man to name a few.
" I have of late--but
wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours"
It's more like Prufrock: "I was never Hamlet nor meant to be." I am retired and have plenty of time for reading but I do it for shorter durations, my concentration lax, and easily distracted. Some days I skip completely. I just finished Bram Stoker's Dracula and it has probably taken more than six weeks. Officially retired back in January, I queued up an eclectic mix of fiction and non-fiction, even some poetry and philosophy, the latter barely scratched.
What is happening? I wrote fiction for decades part-time in the evenings and on weekends. I managed to complete four novels and dozens of short stories. I was fifty pages in on a fifth and hit the wall and that goes back as far as the mid-90s. While I was teaching I had little time to write or read for pleasure. Here's the issue: I can give up the writing. A wise friend once said, "Writing's not a bad thing to fail at." I certainly don't have the drive to do anything on a scale of a novel. But a diminished reading capacity is unacceptable.
Back in those decades when I worked as a technical writer, something in which I had little interest and only offered marginal creativity, I had a ritual I employed a good deal of the time: I would take the novel I was reading and go to a park or some such secluded spot for lunch. It was a nice break from work days that consisted largely of drudgery. In more recent years I have started reading more non-fiction.
Another quirk was that it was important for me to finish every book I started whether I liked it or not. Not to finish was like breaking some scared trust. As far back as the 80s, I remember slogging through Frank Herbert's Dune, not enjoying it much. I am pretty sure I did not finish Tolkien's Silmarillion. But this "difficulty" has increased in recent years. Several years back I was particularly disturbed when I could not finish John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River. For years I devoured everything he wrote.
There were others. I thought with more time on my hands I could tackle some of the classics I never got around to. Two strikeouts with Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. I thought of writers like Jules Verne (Mysterious Island) and H. G. Wells (The Time Machine). I made it through both but Verne's novel is 700+ pages and doesn't pick up the pace until the last 50 pages. The latter is a slim volume which I finished but didn't really like. I could not finish Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year. I then chose another slim volume (which I had read, unassigned, during college), Voltaire's Candide, which took longer than it should have. I remember reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in college and really liking it. I went back for a second go-round and I was bored stiff. And I realized one book I had missed out in college was Kerouac's On the Road. Solid prose, but I could not like any of the characters. On my shelves I have, unread, Steinbeck's East of Eden and it's unlikely I will pick it up.
I can turn away from writing. The beauty of it is not fame, fortune, or even recognition. Its value is best realized within, the journeys and joys of self-discovery. What writers can learn about themselves. I've done my share and it was...fun. But if the passion for reading wanes, that's a big gaping hole and I want to conclude the fault lies within which I must endeavor to discover.
There is an alternate way of viewing this. With much less years ahead than behind, maybe one should abandon anything that does not enthrall, where you hate to put the book down, but do it and move onto something else. I'd really like to get some opinions on this.