Thursday, December 5, 2013

Why I Read So Damn Much

Why do I read so damn much? I think it's mostly because of the noise, that constant flood of stimulation in my day.

I have always taken in a lot of information. Each day's go-around just adds more to the pile, too. The podcasts I listen to as I putter around the house, most I can never miss as they're either anchored by adored friends or imaginary ones, and the constant presence of an audiobook I shift to in the car. The last six years and counting, have been an exponential explosion of noise. That's how long I've had both a smart phone and social media accounts, those insidious interaction simulators that reinforce their addictiveness with every exposure. "I have to check! I might have missed something!" That bumpy, constant flood of fragments in the feed that seem to be equal parts half-assed outrage and empty-headed banality, each one snagging your attention to create the faintest of reactions until it builds into a buffer-crashing crescendo of stuff. Every time I look at the phone, frequently while those podcasts also rattle away, it is to look for new email or the jagged flow of information, filling two tracks of attention in what I fear is a less than eight track mind.

That's all noise, and it adds up. Add in the occasional movie or, when time was made, a book and that's a lot of narrative threads to put together. This doesn't even touch on the hurricane of multi-tasking that is my day at work. It's no wonder I feel like my nerves are fried. They are.

Along with all that "noise," (a word that in ten minutes of writing I already form in my head like a nasty thing that must be dropped from revolted fingers that I'll then shake the slime from), came the "move." After ten years spent in a house and city I really didn't want to be in anymore but for a long time had felt powerless to leave, we moved to Columbus. It wasn't too far, but it freed me from some physical and mental structures that were a constant source of anxiety (which could paradoxically offer great and reassuring comfort). It spurred me to divest of a bunch of calm-shaking clutter and numbing routines.

In short, while good for me, it played havoc on my nerves. There's a reason why moves and job changes are cited as some of the most stressful events in life. It left my memory shot for about the two months of sale contract and relocation. One time, I walked away from a faucet I'd just turned on, already forgotten as it overflowed a cup in the sink. I don't think Chris ever got how much another occurrence frightened me, a misplaced sheet of stamps I knew I had bought but couldn't find. I wound up backtracking to the post office and getting rewarded with the stamps, returned by a kinder-than-they-realized stranger after I'd dropped them on the way to the car. I had to pursue that $7, you see, or accept that the Alzheimer's had shown up for a stunningly early onset. I was genuinely freaked out and mentally exhausted.

And during all that, I was using the "noise" to keep me distracted.

Now we get to the books, the question I asked myself that spurred the above observations. I have, since I first started this semi-tended blog, half-heartedly curated lists of what I was reading and watching. An inveterate reader from way back, I'm someone who also sees himself as a "self-styled writer" "if only I had more time," (in other words, an undisciplined one). I have felt like I've given the writing and the reading short shrift the last few years. As a youth, I read voraciously. My parents sensibly denied us many a bright and shiny toy, but never a book, for which I offer thanks every day. Smart enough to be under-stimulated in High School, and ahead enough to be saddled with two back-to-back study halls, I was blowing through about 200 pages of paperback a day for a while there. (Anything to avoid confronting adolescent realities, eh?)

In college you read as work and drink for sport. And after? The less probably said about my aimlessness, the better. But I always had a book going, even if the speed with which I read would ebb and flow. To not be reading a book, even if not actually reading it for a while, has always been unthinkable. As the interaction beasts grew to prominence over the last six years, "they who must always be fed" sliced off a huge fraction of the free time spent on things like reading and writing... and dishes and checkbook balancing, for that matter. It took a while for me to realize that Tweeting and commenting is a poor distraction from what I'd call real "word-craft," for lack of a better term, but they do satisfy in quick hits. They're the "smoking" of writing, and just as detrimental to your long term health.

Back to those lists. 2012 was a disappointing showing. 30 Audiobooks were good, but only 25 books? A pity. Along with the urge to keep lists, comes one to give weight to numbers. I wanted, at the start of the year, to top that. By December 4th of this year, I was finishing book #115, while on disc 4 of 6 of Audiobook #28. So how did I go from famine to gluttony?

Well, in keeping the lists I have a few mental rules. Books and Graphic novels count. Full Audio plays count, but when I'm listening to old radio shows, those don't. Loose comics and magazine articles don't count. I dropped TV shows from my counting a couple years ago, so really, only full movies (and TV documentaries) qualify for that list. (I might make an exception for the delicious first season of "Thriller," the ten episodes of which I've been peppering over the last month, each a treat.)

Looking back over those 115 (to date, who knows how far I'll get yet in 2013?), I'm a tad set back in my idea of "progress" as I note 45 of them are Graphic Novels. The deeply-entrenched and, frankly (to my logical mind, at least), baseless idea that comics are somehow "secondary" undercuts my sense of progress. Another book, the massive, challenging, constant comfort of Gore Vidal's 1200 plus pages of "United States," was first cracked with a sense of purpose in 2012 (finally started, actually, as I'd been lugging it around and taking only occasional dips in since 1999), so taking that out of the running puts me at...69. 69 books I'd call "text only" is a fine showing (and again, this doesn't count the audiobooks). A finer showing as I look and see that 8 of the 25 read and listed in 2012 were Graphic Novels.

Looking further, I see many to most of them are mysteries. I've made lots of time with M.C. Beaton this year, along with taking up new authors, Erle Stanley Gardner, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Simon Brett (previously only experienced in audio format), and seriously revisiting Richard Stevenson. I also really started dipping into a collection of Hard Case Crime novels that fell into my lap. I've also caught up with two perennial authors in my life, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, each of whom I first started reading back in those double-study-hall days (sorry, ladies, for I fear that "dates" your careers. I assure you your works are both timeless and vibrantly "present.") and have kept up and caught up with ever since. I filled a few pockets of free time with James Patterson, the "writer" (I feel "producer" or "manager" is now a better term) whose production line moves so fast Lucy Ricardo is at the other end sticking Alex Cross product down her blouse to try and keep up. I mention him only to share my favorite observations about him:
1) that I read "Cradle and All," cover to cover, during a two hour flight.
2) if you shrink the type to a normal font and take out the dead white space between the bite-sized chapters, his books clock in under half the page count. This is why they're "page turners." You're not breathlessly racing through an adventure, you're just physically moving faster that with most authors to keep up with the flow of words... because they're spaced too far apart.
3) after seeing an author photo of him and one of his "co-writers," I picture it to be like a photo-op at the Con I go to. A line of people who're shuffled in to stand with the star, exchange a quick pleasantry, smile, and scooted out when the picture's taken. They sure didn't look like two people who'd met before. 
I have a bit of the same prejudice towards the mysteries as I do to the Graphic Novels. A "genre ghetto" guilt. Perhaps in 2014 I'll resolve to tackle the other works by Vidal and all the Nabokov I've added to my shelves recently. Perhaps I'll tackle all the other big books and writers stuck in the pile. Plato, Freud, Oates, Clancy, Mailer, and Mitchell are all there. More likely, though, I'll continue to follow the winds of my whims and read whatever I'm finding pleasurable at the moment.

The point is that, along with wanting from the outset of the year to have a better showing--to "do better"--in reading achievement this year, I've also read for comfort. After the move, those two genuinely scary months, I've really been reading like it's both respite and rehab. Reading re-purposes time I used to while away fiddling with the phone (which I still do too much of), or spent zoned out in front of the television. I've raced from book to book, most a short-to-the-point-of-bite-sized 150-200 pages, and gotten cozy with each cozy mystery.

I have this worry that Chris is going to think I've been reading so constantly to avoid him. I think the truth is more that I feel comfortable enough--warm and safe enough--to spend so much time at it. I've needed to be quiet and regain a sense of calm in my head. To follow a long line of words as they build to the end and reacquaint myself with this attention span I used to have. I need a novel's continuous flow and piling of events to re-order a mind that feels permanently jumbled after years of flash-spiking with artificially-induced (via Facebook, mostly) amusement or irritation, shaken up at a mile a minute for years. This isn't just catching up on my reading, it's a damned zen exercise.

He gives me the space and time to do that. He's let me fill our new home with books. I've always taken comfort from being surrounded by them. A big pile achieved, another promising new adventure, now growing in about each room that lacks a faucet. I take comfort from his steady presence, which encourages me daily to come out of my shell and be a better person, even when I don't feel I'm yet achieving all I can. I improve myself with him, and I improve myself as I sit next to him, enjoying the next book and the comfort of our home.

So that's why I read so damn much. Because it's good for me.

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