Following Pulitzer celebrates its 4th anniversary this week—that’s right, 4 years (give or take a multi-month outage or two when I disappeared like a magician’s assistant) of non-stop rambles through a very idiosyncratic take on largely forgotten prize-winning American fiction from the period between the world wars, interlaced with a lot of pretty excellent poetry and some navel-gazing about the idea of America (some would call the whole blog navel-gazing, but presumably not you, faithful reader). Anyway, this would be a great moment to bounce back triumphantly from hiatus with a post on Upton Sinclair‘s Dragon’s Teeth, but truth be told that dazzling volume was only rediscovered yesterday under a pile of papers on what passes for a coffee table here at FP’s palatial digs in an early 20th century Chicago apartment building, and so it’ll be a day or two, at the very least, before I have anything to say about it. But I could hardly let the moment pass without posting anything, and so I thought it might be a good time to return to my very occasional series “The Way I Read” in which I offer some thoughts about who I think I am as a reader, and invite you to comment a bit on what you make of my thoughts, and how you yourself read. It seems like a pretty reasonable, maybe even important, sideline to Pulitzer blogging—a way to help provide a little insight into why I see books (and American literature, broadly speaking) the way I do. Newer arrivals to the blog (and long-time readers who may easily have forgotten the prior posts) can find them all gathered in one place by clicking on this link or by selecting “The Way I Read” from the category dropdown in the right sidebar.
Tonight’s topic? It’s about time I dealt with one of the most important facts about me as a reader that is totally obscured by this blog project—the remarkably aimless way I approach 95% of the reading in my life. Here at FP, of course, my “brand” is all about rigidity: I’m not just a “literary blogger”, or a “literary award blogger”, or even a “Pulitzer blogger”. I’m committed to reading the Puliter Prize winning novels in exact chronological order without exception—no skipping chapters, no skipping books, no peeking ahead. But that’s not at all how I handle reading normally, and I wonder how similar I am to the rest of you.
It’s one thing, of course, to read whatever I feel like—I do, generally speaking (more on that in a bit), but I figure that’s true of all of us once we’re free of teachers or professors assigning us reading material. What I think is odd about me, or else what is wonderfully odd about the human race (if you’re all like me in this respect), is how many books I keep spinning at one time. When I walked through the door this evening, home from work and thinking of picking up a book, I had six books with bookmarks (or folded Post-It notes, or receipts, or whatever’s handy) waiting for me to pick them up. I’m not talking about books I picked up long ago but have long since forgotten that I was reading. I’m not counting the book I’m reading aloud to my wife (see a previous Why I Read on that front), or books that are naturally read a bit at a time (like What to Expect When You’re Expecting), or books that get consulted now and then (like an encyclopedia or a travel book). And I’m not counting the long-neglected Upton Sinclair, even though obviously I intend to pick up that Pulitzer winner and start up from exactly where I left off, nor am I counting the scholarly books I’m reading at work as part of trying to put together a journal article to submit somewhere. What I am counting is the Dickens novel I’m finally rereading for the first time in 20 years, the book about global warming I realized I needed to re-read now that I’m bringing a human being into the world, the Agatha Christie mystery that P. D. James‘s book on detective fiction reminded me I’d wanted to read, and several other titles scattered from my bedside table to the computer desk. And depending on what whim seizes me tonight, I may add a seventh to the mix since I brought home this book about the journalists who covered the Nixon/McGovern campaign in 1972 and a blog post today made it sound intriguing enough that I might just have to dive in at once.
Now, these six (or seven) books aren’t all going to be finished—that much I grant you. Certainly at least one or two, and maybe four or five, of them will fall back into the sea of books that I’d call “our library” if that didn’t make it sound like books and bookshelves were some smaller subset of an apartment largely composed of other things, and of course in fact the book to apartment ratio is much closer to the ocean to land ratio current on the planet Earth. But the weird thing is that I feel I can fall into and out of these books really easily—that global warming title, for instance, I’m pretty sure I haven’t touched since I moved it from one pile to another last week, and I don’t think I’ve read it since sometime in July. But if I wanted to read it tonight, I’d pick up exactly where I left off, and feel I was merely continuing an ongoing “read” of the book. I have no idea how this sounds to you. It might be you’re saying “Ah yes! This is what readers do, James: did you really think you were unusual?” And it might be you’re saying “Ahem: James, if you’re reading more than two books at a time, you don’t get credit for any of them. Those are the rules, you know.” To me it feels simultaneously very natural and very silly. Natural, of course, since no one’s forcing me to behave in this bizarre fashion and so this must be what my brain thinks of as “normal” on some level. But silly in that I cannot possibly imagine where in my head all these different things are alive—fictive and non-fictive characters and situations bumping into each other like guests at an awkward wedding reception, looking past each other in the hopes that someone they know is already at their assigned table. All of them are as present to me as if I’d just set them down a little while ago—in old-fashioned computer speak (Millenials, I don’t know if this will make sense to you), they’re in RAM, not ROM—and I can distinguish pretty clearly between a book I read a bit ago and “am still reading”, and a book I read a bit ago and “have stopped reading”, though I’m not always sure how I know this. This is a modern luxury, of course—I figure that Aristotle and Aquinas couldn’t really have lived like this, since even owning that many books at any time pre-Gutenberg would have been pretty luxurious. I wonder why it feels so natural to me, then, and where on earth I got the habit (to my knowledge, neither of my parents are like this, and I can’t think of any other “reading role models” off-hand who might have influenced me this direction).
One last (maybe related?) note ties back into what I noted a couple of paragraphs back, when I said that “generally speaking” I read whatever I like. For some reason, every summer I decide I need to learn something. I pick a topic (often seemingly at random) and assert that I really need to pick up several books on the topic and get somewhere with them. Sometimes this is an utter disaster (the Summer of Learning Old English was not a roaring success), and at other times it works marvelously (the Summer of Learning about Climate Change has turned into a lifelong interest). But regardless, I’ll admit, it’s a bit of an odd thing to do—suddenly select an area of interest and decide that, over the next couple of months, I am committed to reading about it. Is this my brain trying to steer me onto a better, more focused path? Or just one more of the many ways I make eccentricity a way of life? It’s not clear to me. I certainly read a weird mix of fiction and non-fiction normally, and usually none of the titles relate to each other, outside the parameters of my “summer project”.
Am I overanalyzing? Almost certainly! But this is the point of my occasional “The Way I Read” posts: bringing out into the light one of the sides of me as a reader that I figure might be idiosyncratic, and seeing whether it resonates with other folks or not. I fully intend to keep reading this way in the future: I hardly know how to stop, even if I wanted to. But I wonder—do you read this way? If so, I’d love to hear your musings about it, and if not, it would be great to get a glimpse of what reading is like for you.