Posted in On Writing

“Hey, Have You Read…”

I have been devouring books lately. 

While I always was a reader (save that anomalous period in my twenties), it’s hard to remember a time when I read quite like this. 

Maybe when I’ve been involved in a series; Brian Jacques’ Redwall comes to mind, as do the first five books of a most famous series involving an English wizard student. During my early teenage years, I read everything by Patricia Cornwell that I could get my hands on, about the forensic pathologist whom I hoped to emulate at the time. Prior to that it had been Lurlene McDaniel, the tragic romances of (some terminally) ill teenagers; after that it was Nora Roberts and the approximate six thousand books she’s written, as well as under her pseudonym, JD Robb. By these five authors alone I must have read somewhere between 200-300 books, and that’s not an exaggeration. This is also not to mention the everlasting Babysitter’s ClubBoxcar Children, and Judy Blume volumes that pre-dated any shred of romance or shadow of puberty. OK, so I totally read like this when I was a kid – or at least before college. 

I fell in love with public health reading my assigned incoming freshman book, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. Paul Farmer remains an inspiration to this day. That’s the last book I remember before schoolwork took over. I had ideas of being an English major on the pre-med track at that time. That first semester I took two heavier reading courses, one mandatory and one for adolescent lit, which introduced me to entire worlds – the ones that stick with me are Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials. Those books still take up residence in my soul and influence my daily thoughts, that there is something under the surface of everything we see. The next semester, however, I took a class on the American health care system, and that beckoned me on to major and get my degree in public health. Luckily, it meant I got to read a whole bunch of other books – memoirs and sociology alongside the drudgery of biochemistry. I didn’t realize that the accounts of folks living with Downs’ syndrome or paralysis would be some of the last things I would read for a decade.

The dropoff was steep; I struggled with my mental health in my senior year and ended up spending some time on an inpatient psychiatric unit. I can look back now and have compassion for the young woman who was scared and alone, both vulnerable and stubborn. After that, reading was largely missing from my life. It was a combination of the medications (which I definitely needed) and major upheavals in my life: getting married, moving to Buffalo, and knowing almost instantly that it was all a mistake that I couldn’t make right. For the first time, I was watching TV regularly. I’ve seen more CSI, NCIS, and other various cop drama than I care to remember sitting on the couch in my husband’s grandmother’s house. I was still very depressed even if I couldn’t articulate it then. Finally I transferred my EMT card and got a job with the local company on overnights. It took two semesters to finish the few credits I needed to transfer back to actually finish my degree. The year of school days and work nights pushed me to the brink of exhaustion. I’d sometimes pick up one of my Nora Roberts for a bit of comfort, but reading was something, like writing, that had largely disappeared from my life.

Later, in the early days of our relationship, Hawthorne and I didn’t exactly spend our time together turning pages. We talked about it, though, extensively. By the time they left the field to go back to school and I changed companies to be outside the city, we were an official couple. I had a brief window where I’d always have at least one paperback at the ready.

Hawthorne knew I had not been able to indulge in books and reading the way I wanted, the way we talked about doing one sunny day. They wanted me to read more than romance, which I wholeheartedly agreed with, though it has always remained my comfort food. I had felt so stymied that I was intimidated by the sheer number of possibilities of “what to read next.” I will forever be grateful to Hawthorne for gently opening the doors to whole new worlds and drew me back into this beautiful genre I hadn’t begun to explore of creative nonfiction with authors like David Sedaris and Oliver Sacks. They also introduced me (in some cases, re-introduced me) to Hemingway, to Steinbeck, to Jeanette Winterson and Annie Proulx, Truman Capote and Flannery O’Connor. As I returned to the written word, I introduced them to Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Tracy Kidder. In the four months between Hawthorne starting school and me becoming the quality manager at my ambulance company, I read ten novels, two of which – Bridges of Madison County and East of Eden – are still some of my favorites.

It was an amazing way to build a relationship, on a bedrock of literature shared and mostly enjoyed. We had some failed trials, sure; I liked Lolita, but haven’t yet tried any Dostoyevsky; they never did get through more than a couple chapters of Nora Robert, and I liked more real science than they ever did. As for the myriad of sociological authors they left behind on our shelves? There’s only a few on my TBR: Proust, Foucault, Shelton.  

As I began to read more and more reports for work, I turned less to the shelves again, but never so hard as to forget their importance in my life. Even now I still have a tendency to absolutely inhale the volumes of Nora Roberts, gulping down chapter after quick chapter whenever I stumble across a new one. My mother used to buy me two of her books a year – one for my Easter basket, and one for Christmas. They never lasted a day. Now I willingly go on anticipated binges; I wait a while, cleansing my palate of formulaic cis-het, white, vanilla romance. Then I will frustrate myself trying to navigate the connection between the Kindle app and my library app to blow through four or five that have come out during my fast. I carry the Kindle to the kitchen to get fresh coffee, to the back door to let the dog out, and forget to feed myself (don’t worry, Lucy cannot be forgotten). At the end, I raise my head, utterly dazed and disoriented. It takes a couple hours for the headache to fade and my vision to clear, and few days for my neck to get back to the correct angle from being so intently bent towards the screen. (I’m rolling my shoulder out and correcting my posture now just thinking about it.)

After Oscar’s death, then Hawthorne’s, I have turned back to words. Writing them, reading them, watching my tears soak into the ink. I pushed myself through Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking and thumbed the dog-eared pages of my favorite romances. When I began starting to piece my new life that I’d been given back together, I filled my shelves to bursting (they were already quite full) with self-help books with titles like Girl, Wash Your Face and You’re Not Lost. They had some good lines; there’s plenty of marginalia to go back to, but over self-help books just weren’t that helpful. 

I began reading again, deliberately, in 2021. That year I started nine books and finished five. One of them, Too Like the Lightning, remains unfinished – not because it isn’t amazing, but because I rarely have the time to devote to being totally immersed into a world so different than mine. Ada Palmer’s glorious stories demand of me a minimum of two uninterrupted hours to make any progress. 

In 2022, I made daily reading a habit I wanted to keep (with wavering success) and set a goal of 26 books for the year. Counting a 500-page novel draft from a friend, I hit the goal with an eclectic mix of gay romance, mainstream fiction, Brene Brown recommendations, and nonfiction books about the death of the body. There was the beta-read novel for a friend, two audiobooks, and at least 5 Nora Roberts on my Kindle. 

My goal for 2023 was 30 books. I planned on pacing it out, but then someone gave me TJ Klune’s The House in the Cerulean Sea.

Since then, I have had an insatiable need to stare into the pages, my eyes racing over the text, and never feeling like it’s enough. I feel greedy, possessive; I gather these volumes to me, unable to wait for the paperback versions, needing to feel the weight in my hands. The scent of new books, old books, the dust and the ink all further whet my appetite for them. I long to be in bookstores with infinite money and infinite time, and have visited three different libraries already this year.

On my little retreat in Provincetown; I brought several books that I had started or wanted to read, a mix of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction books on writing. To no one’s utter shock and disbelief, it turns out that when I have stretches of time to myself, I still will find a comfy spot and dive into a book until something interrupts me. I finished two books I had begun prior to the retreat, and read two more completed, and started a fifth. (I also may have visited every bookstore in town and purchased an additional ten titles but that’s not the point. In fact, I should be commended that it was only ten, especially since one of them was a used bookstore.)

I thought, okay, this is a little vacation fluke. I can’t keep up this pace. I’ll fall back into my old ways and struggle to get ten minutes of reading, my little goal, in per day. 

Turns out I was only partially right – I couldn’t keep up that pace, but holy crap, I am still reading more than I have in years. I’ve finished, what, three more books since returning? In three weeks? I am two books ahead of my goal per Goodreads. 

I keep a new picture on my phone screen to remind me that “what you are not changing, you are choosing.” I have been trying to get off my phone for a while. It’s hard. I like the distraction, the immediate dopamine hit, and I’ve also discovered a particular animal sanctuary whom I’m a little obsessed with. But man, I do not want to be staring at that little screen as long as I do. I’ve set limits on apps – 30 minutes on Facebook, 60 on games;  but I can easily make excuses to not follow the self-set rule. I find ways to circumvent it, opening things to read in my browser instead of Facebook, subtracting the Maps and Facetime minutes. Bad mental health days see the times spike; good days, where I hike or create or connect with live people, those days see the times drop. So, too, the days I spend reading – and that’s what I want. 

I want to live a life where I do read voraciously, where I am spending my energies in saturating experiences like books or travel or laughing with friends. I want to be caught up in my life as I get in the lives of characters, to be focused and mindful of the story and my place in it. I want to think of seas as cerulean and feel my heart pound for fumbling first kisses. I want to remember the hum of magic just under the surface and the feeling that we are never really alone in the woods. I want to find the worms when I dig my hands into the earth, brush dandelion seeds from my daughter’s hair, and show her the world beyond these screens. It’s not easy to get away from all the distraction, but oh, it’s so worth it. 

This was long and rambling. Thank you for reading. I hope you keep reading, anything you stumble across. Blogs and books and cereal boxes and bottles of shampoo in the shower. It is thrilling to me that my words can be part of your reading journey. Thank you.

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