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“Girl, You Know I Don’t Read Shit.”

I wished longingly, during my reading-intensive years as a student and teacher, for the ability to read whatever, whenever, and take as long as I want to do it.  When I took a 9-to-5 job, I finally had the time and mental energy for that glorious freedom.  But in an irony of the “grass is greener” variety, I eventually found myself envious of a friend’s description of her literary and philosophical travels through one semester’s reading list.  I could get the syllabus and read all those books myself.  But I never would.  My reading had become so undisciplined and unguided, I told her, “I wish I could take a class and have reading assignments again!”

I used to be snobby about books. That’s not to say I only ever read literaTOOR, because that was not the case.  I just wouldn’t allow myself to read something I deemed too trashy or mindless.  In my own defense, I truly wanted to read only what was good and worthwhile.  I wasn’t denying myself in some kind of self-punishing way or so that I could make myself feel superior (I do other things to achieve that).  I excluded what were probably decent reads and consumed some junk with rationales that now seem peculiar. (Young adult lit was acceptable because it was meant to be less rigorous and usually made no attempt to disguise its derivative nature; modern works were bad because all of the stories they tell were written, better, by others before them.)

As I left classrooms behind me and began to read wholly untethered to any academic pursuits, I began letting the trash in.

First, I told myself that I’ve read so much, and have for years, so I don’t have to finish anything I start.  I took much advantage of this easement.  If it took me too long to read something, or I wasn’t enjoying it, I just gave up and looked for something else.  This was liberating for a while, but soon became … wasteful.

The worst example is probably my reading about 900 pages of the 1,000 page Don Quixote.  I simply couldn’t take it any more and stopped.  Hundreds of pages of that book are lost from my memory, but scenes and characters and small moments still stick with me years later, and I know why it’s a classic.  What have I lost by not finishing it?

This laissez-faire philosophy became its own burden.  Books are expensive and I was reluctant to buy ones I wasn’t pretty positive I would finish.

It wasn’t long before I was happily buying and reading Janet Evanovich novels, once the archetype of books for which I held smug disdain.

When I faced that that was about all I was reading, in humble desperation I asked my friend The Stinker, an august academic and intellectual of the highest caliber (he has a doctorate!) to recommend some books to me.

He said, “Girl, you know I don’t read shit.”

The Stinker was suffering from the same, weird intellectual attention deficit and overall laziness.  This was bad.

It was about this time when I discovered the library.  Or rediscovered. I had tried to get a lender’s card at my childhood library a few years before, shortly after having moved back to the area, but my driver’s license address didn’t match my residence.  The little lady who ran the circulation desk wouldn’t issue me a card without a piece of mail showing my address.  In response to my irritated pressing, she told me that, yes, a piece of junk mail would do, and I left in an eye-rolling huff.

Fine.  Libraries have due dates and fines, and, unlike Amazon, they don’t deliver to your door.  Having to make the ten-minute trip to my library, search the card catalog and then the book shelves for the right book, stand in line to check it out, drive home, read it within a specified amount of time, and then make that same trip back before a certain date … well, all that was too much of a strain on me anyway.  I’m not even going to address the germs and other crap all over library books.

The lassitude continued until, recently, another friend and library enthusiast told me that I could do all my catalog searching and retrieving online, in my home, and that the book could be waiting for me at the checkout desk when I arrived.  I considered this development.  That removed several of the steps noted above.  She also told me about digital downloads that could be delivered directly to my iPad.  That removed nearly every step.  Sold!

So, I’ve become a more adventurous reader again, thanks to the library.  The due dates are strangely motivating rather than defeating, the access to so many free books liberating, in an echo of my initial feelings of freedom from academia.  Some books have made it back to the library barely cracked, and my personal reading list isn’t a model of ambition.  But at least now if I want to read, say, Derrida’s Of Spirit (never going to happen, but it remains a vague pursuit), it is only a few computer clicks and one ten-minute ride away.

Photo: Diana Gabaldon, National Book Festival 2010
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