The other day, maybe two or three nights ago, I was struck by this overwhelming fear that I might have be too remiss with my reading and that I have, somehow, become less of what I am supposed to be. Here I am, this cultural snob with aspirations for a certain quality of high-mindedness and an aspiration towards a sophisticated education and I have only read two or three books last year. I’ve really dropped my reading habit and I was worried.
I went to my Dad, who was sketching, and I asked him, “Dad, I haven’t read a book in months. I feel so inadequate. Am I still cultured?”
He rolled his eyes at me and continued drawing, saying, “Please!”
I realised his exasperation but I felt I had to articulate some level of distress and so I continued, saying, “Dad, I mean, I don’t read as much as I used to but I’m watching a lot more theater now. And live theater, not recorded stuff from abroad, like live theater. And I’ve been watching the ballet and I still watch a ton of movies. I’ve been going to art galleries too. And I’m reading a lot of plays. I mean, does that count? Can that substitute for the books I’m not reading?”
He put down his pencil and grit his teeth and chided me for having bothered him with this. He said I still was and that reading is not the ultimate indication of culture. Yes, I could read more but I’ve not been completely disengaged from the world. He was so annoyed, like he couldn’t believe I was dumb enough to ask that question.
But it really did scare me. I used to be a pretty voracious reader. My friend Morx consumes books with a passion and he plans to read 60 books this year and he’s going insane because he’s still on his, like, 12th book or something and, to him, it’s already February. And he reads really well-written, serious fiction.
I have only read fiction once in the past three years as I’ve opted to explore creative non-fiction lately. I really enjoyed Mark Haddon’s Swimming and Flying, which I read last year, as well as Jane Hirshfield’s Heart of Haiku and Seth Godin’s We Are All Weird. I never saw myself as a guy who read non-fiction. I read a lot of fiction, especially during college and afterwards. I was voracious.
Now, I’ve slipped somehow and I feel so jealous seeing people talking about the books they’ve read and wondered what happened to me. I feel like I’m slipping into this dangerous slope of complacency and I’m just glad that I’m filling my time with watching theater and dance and going to exhibits and still watching a lot of good movies (and bad ones too) and knowing the difference of each. I found a group of friends who talk eloquently and articulate the complexities of their lives and not just the motions but the motivations behind their actions. We like to get into the meat and bones of things and I’m hoping, at some level, that sort of makes it okay.
I’m a Literature graduate, for goodness sake! I saw myself as reading everyday, like I used to. Now it’s just news articles and well-written and well thought-out essays online and reading plays and watching shows and looking at art and I feel like it is inadequate. I’m trying to read The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, which my sister-in-law gave to me when I was visiting her in Lisbon and I haven’t even gotten through to page 20.
I just get so distracted.
I want to be voracious again. I hope my other artistic pursuits, including my own, is enough. I like being high-brow and I like to sound intelligent and profound and I like that I can juggle it with my being low-brow and banal. It gave me great flexibility when dealing with people of all kinds. I was of all kinds and I don’t want to lose that.
I think that’s the best quality that I’ve got.