Saturday, August 06, 2011

Why I Stopped Reading

I have a confession to make: the last novel I read was months ago. It's been so long, in fact, I don't any more recall the title or the author. As someone who at one time went through a novel a week, I find this devolution in my own reading habits rather sad.

I haven't actually stopped reading altogether. I still have to follow industry news and brush up on technical material. Every now and then, a feature story will catch my fancy. From time to time, I still try to take in a short story or two. But all in all, my appetite for fiction has greatly diminished.

Why is this, I wonder. When I ask why I stopped reading, it's not with the intent of justifying myself. I don't think this was a conscious decision to begin with. It's an honest question in search of answers, of which I'm afraid I might not have the right ones.

Of the reasons I can think of, I can start with factors outside my control. My time is more limited nowadays. I have a 28-unit teaching load, administrative duties, and responsibilities with two professional and civic organizations. On weekends, I help out with my wife's business.

I hate to admit it but I'm also getting old...er. My eyes aren't quite what they used to be, and they were never very good to begin with. They get tired when I read for extended periods. I now have to take off my glasses when I read small print. And no, dammit, I will not get bifocals.

As real as these limitations are, I suppose I could get around them by an act of will. For instance, divest myself of some of my duties, or take time out to even read just a few pages at a time. To force myself to read, as it were. But that course of action just reveals something even more disturbing. To force myself to read? When did reading become such a chore?

So there's the rub: I've lost the zest for reading. The gusto isn't quite there anymore. What was once a pleasure to look forward to has become another task to pencil in. Why, I ask myself, did this happen?

Perhaps it has to do in part with my immersion into literature. In recent years, I've learned to read critically, and part of my work involves editing fiction and poetry. I've been steeped in theory, so I know what works and what doesn't. But there's a price to that knowledge. I know now what's behind the curtain, and because of that, sadly, some of the magic is gone.

Part of it, too, has to do with the world of literature. When I read back when I was younger, the interaction was purely between the story and myself. The author was some mysterious master craftsman who I knew only by name (Isaac Asimov! Piers Anthony! Robert Heinlein! Anne McCaffrey!) and that only because of the book. And critics? To hell with the critics, I read for myself.

But now? No. Authors are personalities. Authors are celebrities. Authors are rock stars. They give out interviews, they write books about their writing process, they post on their blogs. They tweet. Authors now are as much self-promoting salesmen as they are craftsmen, and sometimes more of the former than the latter. We even know now how much money they're making. Thanks to the Internet, the mystique is gone.

And critics? Critics can spoil your reading experience if you happen to read the review before you read the story. So avoid reviews? Easier said than done. Flip through a newspaper, or go to a website, and there you'll find a feature on this author or that.

Critics are bad enough, but worse still are the bestseller lists. No longer are authors judged on the quality of their work. Instead, we measure their success on the number of readers they have, and how many copies they've sold. The more controversial the book, the more rabid the fans, the better. These days, it seems we decide what to read based on what's at the top of the charts.

For that matter, reading has become a competitive sport. I signed up with a social networking service dedicated to books and started following a couple of sites dedicated to my favorite genre. I thought that I could expand my circle of like-minded friends and catch a good title or two. Instead, I found super-readers who plow through a novel or two a week and even find time to write reviews and correspond with the authors.

If critics are bad enough, and fans are worse, what could be more horrible than the bastard mutant hybrid that is the critic-fan?

Call it an inferiority complex if you will, but there used to be a time when reading was for me an act of rebellion and non-conformity. Now, it's become one-upmanship. It's a game I don't want to play because my eyes won't let me.

* * *


In the process of writing this piece, I've worked out some possible answers. They may not be the right ones, but I think they're more tolerable than the state I find the literary world in.

Reading was my greatest pleasure when I was doing it for myself, and so it still might be. I'm going to disconnect myself from the reading sites, from the charts, from critics, and from the fans. I will resist the bestseller lists. I will not listen to anyone who will tell me whom I should read or what.

Reading was an act of rebellion once, and it still might be. It will be again.

3 comments:

  1. This post has somehow put into text the feelings that I have long suspected were floating in my head :(

    I am partly relieved that you are going through this, it makes me feel less alone and it does make me think this is a phase somewhat and it will go away! (And that my book blog will be magically updated once I get my reading groove back!)

    This is true in any field... "Perhaps it has to do in part with my immersion into literature... But there's a price to that knowledge. I know now what's behind the curtain, and because of that, sadly, some of the magic is gone." ... I used to write ardently, with so much gusto: I used to feel like writing made the retelling of my daily activities, ideas and inspiration, things that struck me, a lot livelier and funnier and sweeter and generally better. But now that my work is centered on writing day in and day out, the line separating dutiful-work-writing and fun-pleasure-writing has become thinner and thinner.

    Going back to literature, I have taken upon myself to continue reading. I have chanced upon a very good, stimulating, poetic book. In the past, it would take me a week to finish this, but now I have it on my bedside for about 3 weeks and counting. Sigh. But everytime I have the chance to sit down and unwind with this novel on my hand, I read a passage or a quirky dialogue and that special 'reading spark' comes back and makes me read more! Until time catches up with me and my novel will sit idly again.

    :(
    tl;dr I want my reading spark back.

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  2. went through, or still am in the same phase. the compromise that I made: Audiobooks! Listening in the car, during long walks... It may not be as satisfying but it's better than nothing.

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  3. Dom,

    What is more important is have you stopped thinking? How many hours a week do you think?

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