a piece by Joe Queenan in the Wall Street Journal on compulsive readers. It prompted me to write about compulsion in reading.Compulsive readers are not plagued by the mantra "I have no time to read." We read in the interstitial spaces, before work, before feeding the baby, after dinner, and in between lovemaking. I am reading White Noise by Don Delillo before work, I will read the poetry of William Blake to my mewling baby, and in between lovemaking perhaps I will read out loud to my lover selections from Umberto Eco's Infinity of Lists. It's true we don't read because it helps us. Or makes us smarter. Or gives us further insight into the problem of reality. Reading is a mental condition. We read because we are crazy. It should be listed as a mental disorder in the DSM-IV.
Reading in PlaceI remember reading The Catcher in the Rye on the back porch of my Aunt Ida's house. I was a teenager bored with the holidays so I read the seminal text of post-war American adolescence while my cousins rode down the tree-lined block in their go-carts. I read all sixteen of L. Frank Baum's Wizard of OZ books (and most of the forty written after Baum's death) in my walk-in bedroom closet in Mandeville, Louisiana. My brother thought I must have been masturbating. He would bang on the closet door. "What are you doing in there?" "I'm reading. Leave me alone!" The compulsive reader demands his privacy. We are labeled anti-social, lumped together with the onanists, misanthropes, and other creeps. I read Douglas Brinkley's book about Katrina in a pub on late Saturday night and some drunken dude was flabbergasted. He sat next to me and heckled me about why I was reading and not socializing. I thought the answer to his question was because I like to read. But I realized I had a mental condition. I just read because it was a compulsion. When I was a busboy for an after-school job in High School I was remonstrated by the fry cook for reading in the walk-in freezer. So I moved to the cracker boxes and read there.
Reading is a Mental IllnessWe compulsive readers, I agree, are not working with a full deck. We read to ourselves when we otherwise should be engaged. I read Lolita in Jerusalem on a religious field trip to the Holy Land for Easter in 2000. The priest who led the trip caught me reading about Humbert Humbert and said, "Hmmmm. Not spiritual reading but is it interesting?" He wanted a reason why I would read Nabokov's novel about a beguiling young tween on a great American road trip with a middle-aged man when I should have been focused on the sorrowful mysteries of Christ. But, I told him, I had already read Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ. It was onto other things. I read the Sickness Unto Death while at the graveyard of Kierkegaard which was funny because Kierkegaard's name means churchyard in Danish. I read the Moviegoer by Walker Percy in the college library at the Catholic University of Leuven. Native Son was read during a road trip that included seventeen states. I had completed college that year and my traveling companion was a Roman Catholic priest. I read Patriot Games in my seventh grade Louisiana History class while Mrs. Docker went on about the history of king cakes and Mardi Gras beads. I am not even sure how many books I read in my parent's van during family vacations. Jack Prelutsky, Shel Silverstein, Avi, Madeleine L'Engle. At first, I became dizzy while reading in a car but after a while, I adjusted to the bumps and screams, taunts from my brothers.
Where Reading is InappropriateNow I read in planes, cars, closets, cubicles. It is true it is a tad bit socially inappropriate to read a book in public. Reading a book at the dinner table made my father angry. I read the Duino Elegies in New Orleans in 2005 waiting for the streetcar. A truck pulled up and two college kids cursed me out. "Fucking faggot. Reading a fucking book!" What was it about Rainer Maria Rilke that freaked them out? I imagine it is a queer thing to do. Read. I learned about sex from books. On the shelf was a book I remember titled, Serious Questions About Sex Answered. I don't remember much about the answers. We have clandestine moments in reading. I read Gore Vidal's the City and the Pillar in secret at the back table of the library. It was the first novel I remember reading about coming out. Working as a page one summer I shelved a book on nudist colonies so many times I realized people were taking it off the shelf and after a quick look putting it back on a shelf, no concern for where it belonged. I finally sat down and read the book myself. The photographs were black and white, grainy, of upper middle-class white people doing all sorts of everyday activities in the nude. Nothing exciting.
Etiology of an Incurable HabitI think my compulsive reading habit started in kindergarten. On the first day, Mrs. Robicheaux gave us our reading book and I read the last story about a red fire engine during nap time. The teacher caught me reading the book and she said, "Don't read that story. We have not gotten to it yet." It was a lot more interesting to read the fire engine story than to sit on the floor and share my blocks with Skylar who was not that nice and faintly smelled of tomato soup. I wish I could remember the name of reader. Skylar teaches Geometry at a private Catholic high school in southern Louisiana. I think he is the assistant coach for the football team.
Books are Not Sacred ObjectsI don't think books are sacred objects. I will read a scroll, a web log, a typed out letter, a found piece of tissue paper with scrawl on or an epub file of Of Mice and Men. To me the medium doesn't matter. A symptom of the compulsive reader is to read whatever is in front of you. Yes, we like to discriminate -- and the more books you read -- the more you know what to avoid. I don't read Harlequin Romances nor do I read much biography or memoir -- unless the subject is someone I am intensely interested in, like Virginia Woolf, Steve Jobs, or a biography of someone I am currently reading a lot of at a given time -- or someone who is not an artist, writer, or someone who doesn't express themselves too much. A biography of a Jewish Hasidic woman in Crown Heights is something I would read.
I think it is a misconception that people who are compulsive readers read a lot to appear smart. Joe Queenan argues people who read vast amounts of books do so because they are ultimately dissatisfied customers. They read because they are dissatisfied with reality. I think this is partly true. It is perhaps too neat, however, to divide reality into those who read compulsively and those who don't -- as if those who are dissatisfied bury their dissatisfaction in a big, fat nineteenth-century novel. People who are dissatisfied don't all commit themselves to compulsive reading. People who read voluminous amounts of literature find pleasure in what they find in books. Even badly written books. It is not an escape from reality but rather reality is somehow represented through a different lens than we get through our bone-worn senses. To engage reality is to read.
Reading and the Concern with RealityI think Orhan Pamuk said correctly, we find places to read, and for him, to write, as well as to read, because not to do so would be unbearable. Reading is an extension of being in the world. We read not so we can escape reality but we find in reading an extension of what we always already are coming to know. I postulate the first "book" ever written was a grocery list. Or maybe it was a tax roll. Then we went on to carve epigrams into blocks of stones, then great epics, and now we post blogs. This thing called writing and reading what we write is something we have been doing for over six thousand years. The painter who paints feels disconnected without her paintbrush. Take away the iPod buds from the music addict and they feel discomfited. For readers engagement with a book is engagement with the world. Since we carved cuneiform into soft clay, reality has not been the same since. Perhaps there was once an ancient Sumerian, now forgotten, who compulsively read every scroll, every carving, every piece of etching he could consume. Asked why, he just shrugged and went onto to find his next unread carved block.
It is my hypothesis that those who read compulsively are better equipped to face reality and its vicissitudes -- as well as recognize its triumphs and pleasures. I really don't think I compulsively read because I feel it will make me a better person or make me more intelligent. Those might be healthy byproducts. I read Jane Eyre in the tenth grade not just because it was assigned by the teacher but I thought maybe the character of Jane had something to say to me. I read because I wanted to listen to Jane. And in the first pages she is reading. A reader reading about a character reading. Mise en abyme -- mirrors facing mirrors. I read about Jane Eyre who in turn was reading a story that was speaking to her and so on and so.
When I go home for the holidays my mother still has my old bookshelves in my bedroom that she has converted into her office. I am surprised I still own books that I have not yet liberated. They still sit there, mementos of books I read or books I bought but never got around to reading. When I go home I have a sudden nostalgia for those unread books. I have gotten into the habit of pocketing one or two when I visit. I take them back with me. Sometimes I read them. Or sell them back to get a new book. I still have my set of the Chronicles of Narnia at my mother's house. The copies are browned and each one has my sixth-grade scrawl inscribed on the frontispiece. I re-read the first few pages of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I was struck again by Mr. Tumnus, just as I was struck by him when I read the book as a child. Mr. Tumnus has a shelf full of books. Is Man a Myth? reads one of his titles. I would want to read that book, a book written by a fantastical creature about other fantastical creature.
People think we read lots of books, those of us so inflicted because we want to have knowledge of everything. I don't think I exist in Borges's Library of Babel where the sole motivation is to find the Ur-Book, the book that will unlock the mysteries of everything and give a unified theory of life, the universe and everything. There are plenty of books in Borges's Library, an infinite library with every possible configuration of words splayed out in an infinite enclosure of an infinite set of hexagonal rooms. No monkies need to slam on keys to potentially pound out at some unspecified time the complete works of Shakespeare. I read because I am like the monkey pounding away aimlessly at the keys. I read knowing that I am slogging through the muck, and perhaps there is the hope that I will come across a diamond in the rough. Sometimes I read crap and I then I read some more crap. To find a book that moves the spirit, that moves the mind, for example, Marilyn Robinson's Home or Plato's Phaedo, to name such a few, or the crown of my book pile, those books I would keep with me on a trip to a desert island. Logophiles, bibliophiles, those lovers of morphemes strung together like beads of delicious taste morsels -- we sing the songs we hope to find in the flowing pages of books, kindles, iBooks, pages. I am Mr. Tumnus reading Is Mr. Tumnus a Myth? who in turn is reading Is Man a Myth?, seated on a weather-worn armchair, sipping tea, in the interstitial spaces of a reading life.
image credit: Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The Difficult Lesson (1884)