Once, when I was feeling dejected about some struggles I was having with my writing, Michael Steinberg told me that during the times when he finds he can’t write for one reason or another, he focuses instead on reading. Despite my love of writing and books, I’ve never been the kind of avid reader that most writers tend to be. I was a restless child, and I’m a restless adult. I find it hard to devote myself to reading a book from start to finish in a relatively short period of time, unless there is a compelling reason (other than the fact, of course, that the more you read the better you think and write) or unless it is a very compelling book. As a result, I am always amazed when writers say they read a book a week, or are currently reading several books at once. It can take me a month or more to read a good book, because I pick it up for just a few minutes here and there until it’s done.
That is, of course, unless it’s one of those books that grabs you the moment you start reading the first page and won’t let you go until it’s over. And I’ve read my share of those in a wide variety of genres — from classics like Anna Karenina to modern novels such as The Elegance of the Hedgehog, from a memoir like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail to a really good mystery such as Into the Woods by Tana French. I read every single Tony Hillerman mystery from beginning to end. And of course there are my guilty pleasures — the audio book thrillers that get me through long drives or periods of time when I have to be in the car a lot (such as during these two months when I have to commute back and forth to a job every day). My favorites are Daniel Silva’s Gideon Alon thrillers, which have an Israeli intelligence agent at the center and are packed with political machinations and international intrigue. Last year, while I commuted back and forth to a teaching job at Framingham State University, I listened to Lolita.
This spring, while I’m working at a temporary job in Cambridge, I’m taking Mike Steinberg’s advice. Because I have less time for my writing, I’m focusing more on reading. I just finished listening to To Kill a Mockingbird, which, shockingly, I had never read (what a book — I will never get it out of my head now that I’ve read it, and that’s a good thing) and reading Strayed’s memoir. Now I’m listening to the latest Daniel Silva thriller in the car, pouring through some Edward Hoagland essays I had left unfinished some time ago, and catching up on a couple of literary journals during my lunch breaks. I’m also reading some poetry, something that is always good for my mind and soul and that brings me back to the basics of language, imagery and lyricism when it comes to writing. I recently purchased Carolyn Forche’s early poetry collection, The Country Between Us. The last poem in the book is dedicated to Terrence Des Pres, my husband’s father and the author of The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. Last night I was leafing through Forche’s book while standing in the kitchen. When I discovered that last poem, I thought I would read a few lines and then get back to it later. Instead I found myself rooted to the floor. When Jean-Paul, not realizing what I was reading, said something to me about dinner, I side-stepped out of the room without a word and kept reading until I had read the four-and-a-half page poem from start to finish. When it comes to some writers, a freight train could pass by and I wouldn’t want to tear my eyes from the page.
So…I’m trying to tell myself that it’s OK that I’ve produced less work during this brief period, partly because I’ve been reading so much more. Still, I’m getting a bit restless in the opposite direction now. I want to get back to my writing. I just hope I can continue at least some reading once I do; there’s really nothing that replaces it. And anyway, I have to keep up with my neighbor, Grace, who is eighty-two. When she mentioned to me a couple of years ago that she reads books that she borrows from the local Senior Center, I started leaving books that I had finished at her door. She has read through practically every book I own, and I’ve been running out of ideas regarding what to leave for her. This morning I walked up the hill in a light drizzle and slid four more books through her mail slot: Jean-Paul’s father’s book, Primo Levi’s Moments of Reprieve, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and, because I was concerned that this selection might be a bit depressing, The Milagro Beanfield War. I haven’t even read Moments of Reprieve or The Milagro Beanfield War yet, but I just can’t keep up with Grace. When I lent Anna Karenina to her, hoping it would keep her busy for a good while, she finished it in two weeks.
Never mess with a master.