Off the Books

Something strange happened to me around when I started college: I stopped reading books. Not "I stopped reading." Not "I stopped reading stories." Not "I stopped reading for long periods of time without interruption." I just, specifically, stopped reading books.
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Something strange happened to me around when I started college: I stopped reading books. Not "I stopped reading." Not "I stopped reading stories." Not "I stopped reading for long periods of time without interruption." I just, specifically, stopped reading books.

I would estimate that I spend at least an hour reading every single day. I read online and in print. But I mostly read articles, whether it's the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, or Gawker and Buzzfeed, whether it's straight news or editorial, and whether it was published a minute ago or a decade ago. I spent tons of time clicking through links embedded in the article I'm reading, and then I read those articles too.

I listen, too. I can't stand walking, running, or driving alone without talk radio or a podcast to keep my mind engaged. I listen to NPR, or if they're talking about wine pairings (again/still), sometimes I listen to one of the 20 hours a day that Rush Limbaugh is on the air, just out of morbid interest. I can almost feel my synapses firing and making new connections when I listen to RadioLab. Or I go to some of my favorite comedy podcasts, like Writers' Bloc, or The Flop House. And a few audiobooks have sort of maintained my frayed connection to reading books. But actually holding a book and reading it? Recently, I've read maybe five actual books, assuming I can count ebooks, and most of that was done on a plane.

It took me a while to realize that I wasn't reading books anymore. For months after it ceased to be true, I continued to think of myself as a three-books-per-month pleasure reader. That had been true since kindergarten, and through 12th grade, I read voraciously, both in and out of the classroom.

In first grade, I remember looking up from the book I was reading, startled to find that the entire class was lined up to go out to recess and were exasperatedly calling my name to get my attention to put my book down and join them. I was so immersed in my book that I hadn't heard them. I asked to take the book outside for recess, but was told I should play instead.

In third grade, on a family vacation, I read Jane Eyre into the early hours of the morning with a book-light, trying to turn the pages quietly in the shared hotel room. When we were offered a selection of four books and told to read one over winter break in my 11th grade honors English class (which I took in 10th grade), I read all of them. Even one that I detested immediately, to the amusement of my teacher, because I always finished the books I started. I even occasionally read nonfiction, mostly about historical periods and/or people, finding that just as we know that history provides many compelling stories, real people make excellent characters. Reading was so much a part of my identity that everyone asked me for book recommendations. I never went anywhere without a book. I read like a chain-smoker smokes.

So how could I possibly have stopped reading? It must be partially that I didn't have time to read for pleasure and keep up with the assigned reading for my classes. Maybe, feeling stressed and overextended a lot of the time, I couldn't justify it. Maybe I am also a little obsessed with productivity, and though I grew up holding books aloft to keep them dry while I was in the bath, or propping them up against cereal boxes so I could read while I ate, you can't do much while you read. And maybe also because nobody else is doing it, and mourning the loss of a character or the end of a book alone is hard. I moped for three weeks after I read the last Harry Potter book, but at least I wasn't alone in that, although I had to wait several hours to talk to anybody about the ending because I got it at midnight and was done before it was light out.

No matter how or why it happened, though, I realized that it did at the same time and in the same manner that I realized I was getting out of physical shape. I saw some sneakers in the corner of my closet, and found a novel under a stack of glossy Career Services pamphlets. And I realized that, just like starting to exercise again was hard and had to be eased into, I'd have to build back up to reading like I used to. I'd have to start with the kind of books I liken to junk food because they are easily and enjoyably consumed, but without much nutritional value. They don't make you think, you don't have to read any paragraphs twice, you don't have to let a sentence reverberate through you before you can keep reading. It feels more like watching TV (which I absolutely love and do lots of; this is not an indictment of TV).

It's hard because it seems objectively bad to lose any skill, especially one so beneficial as reading, like allowing a muscle to atrophy out of pure neglect. But it's a real shame, too, because it's something I so used to enjoy. I miss that feeling of being gripped by a book to the point that I was unaware of my surroundings. I miss wanting to get home to my book in the way that some people want to get home to their spouses. It's scary to think you might never feel something again.

So every day, I run or bike a little more. And then every night, I read a little more. I'm almost done with A Pigeon and a Boy, by Meir Shalev. In fact, I think I'll get back to it now. There's nothing like a rainy day for joining your dog on the couch with a good book.

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