Friday, May 7, 2010

Housebound: A Year of Reading Dangerously


I am always searching for the answers to life's mysteries.

Either that or I'm trying to avoid something.

In any case, I often search in books. I buy books, I get books from the library, I write books.

I have been certain most of my life that something in a book will save my life, or at the very least, something in a book will entertain me.

I try to avoid clutter in my life as much as I can. This isn't always possible. I am often surrounded by paper, either because of research I'm doing for a writing project or work I'm doing for the library.

I'm a writer, a reader, and a librarian. My husband works for a library, and he's a writer and a reader, too.

We've got us some books.

I'm not much of a consumer. I buy food, and I buy books. New books. Used books. Fortunately for us we live an hour from one of the best bookstores in the country: Powell's Books.

When I'm done with books, I often take them to Powell's to sell. I figure books are like clothes: If I haven't used them in a year, I should probably get rid of them.

I usually sell a bunch when I'm short of cash or when I want to change my life. (Like getting rid of books is going to change my life.) My way of thinking is: those old books sitting on my shelf didn't help me, so I'm going to get some new books.

One Saturday I looked around my house and decided willy-nilly that I was going to find one hundred books to sell. I walked through our little rented house and began pulling books off the shelves.

The more I looked, the more I realized I had a lot of books I hadn't read. A lot of interesting books. I'd bought them because, at the time, I thought I would learn something that would rock my world or I'd have some fun. Now I wanted to get rid of them for something new--some new book that I'd look at in the store and suddenly believe that it would solve some longstanding problem of mine. But there was probably a 50-50 probability that that same book would sit on the shelf and in another year or six months, I'd be looking to sell it so I could get something new.

Seemed like something was wrong with this system. I wasn't a proponent of the consumer culture, but here I was buying, buying, buying. And to what end?

I didn't need any more stuff.

Including books.

At least not right this second.

I had a thought: What if I limited myself to reading only the books I already had in my house for one year?

I didn't know if I could do it. I probably bought a new book or two every week. Recently Steve Jobs made some remark about people only reading one book a year. I couldn't imagine that was true, but if it was, that meant I was reading about a hundred people's share. My husband was reading about double that.

Despite this consumption of books, except for poetry, I do not read for pleasure.

I stopped reading for pleasure years ago.

This doesn't mean I don't get pleasure from reading. I do. What I mean is that all of my reading is purpose-driven. Since I'm a selector for my library district, I need to keep up with what's being written in my area, so I read books for that job. I do tons of research for my writing and for other endeavors, so I read a lot of nonfiction books.

I am a novelist, but I read very few novels any more, except those I read for my library job.

I know that's a stunning thing for a novelist to admit. The not reading novels happened slowly. First I stopped reading novels when I was writing because I'm a kind of natural a mimic. When I'm talking to someone with a Southern accent, within minutes I have a Southern accent. I don't do it on purpose. In fact, right now as I'm writing this, I hear it in a Southern accent just because I'm talking about Southern accents.

Same with writing. After I read Brideshead Revisited, I started writing like Evelyn Waugh. No one should write like Evelyn Waugh, except for--possibly--Evelyn Waugh.

Back when I first noticed this, I wrote about one novel a year and went weeks and weeks without writing once that one novel was finished. Having a novel-fast while writing a novel worked out fine. I read novels when I wasn't writing.

But then I started writing almost nonstop. And something else happened. I stopped enjoying reading. I couldn't relax and be enveloped by a story any more. Either I'd read a novel and wonder how this piece of crap got published (nasty me back then), or I'd be so awed by it that I'd become depressed and think, "I can't ever do anything that good so I might as well hang it up."

If I didn't have either of those reactions, I'd start rewriting the story in my head. I didn't try to do this. It just happened. My storytelling instincts kicked in, and I was certain I could do it better. (Ah hubris.)

And in certain kinds of novels, I could often tell what was going to happen from the very beginning. Once I opened a Scott Turow novel my husband had and read the first paragraph. I said, "The wife did it." (I only said this after I asked if he wanted to know.)

So much of my life revolved around stories, yet I had stopped enjoying them. It had all started to feel like work. Reading and writing.

And not in a good way.

As I walked through my house looking for books to sell that Saturday, I wondered what would happen if I didn't sell any of these books. What if I read them.

I kept looking for the answers out there. In something new.

Maybe they were right here.

What if I could actually read the books in my own house for pleasure? Without purpose. Not for research. Not for work. Just because they were in my house.

What would happen?

Would I go through withdrawal because I couldn't buy any books or get any from the library? Would my life change? Could I learn to relax?

I decided I would try it. I would try to let loose. Let go of control.

Instead of selling those one hundred books, I decided to read them.

I hope to fall in love again. But that is not the purpose.

So this is how it's going to go.

For one year, I will only read what's in my house.

I can't bring any new books into the house, either from a bookstore or the library.

I can't coerce my husband or anyone else to gift me any books.

If Mario buys books, I can't read those new books.

There are some caveats. I still work for the library, so I'll still need to read books for my job. If I take any classes, I am allowed to read whatever the assigned books are.

Other than that, I am housebound. As far as my reading goes.

I will try to read one nonfiction book and one novel a week. I'm going to be flexible with this. I'm going to try not to skim the books.

I will probably write about this process.

You could argue that writing about this defeats the whole purpose of purposeless reading.

You might be right. But I am a writer. It's what I do.

I will try to do it with purposelessness.

Oh, and here's another way I'm letting go. My husband is going to pick the books for me. One novel, one nonfiction book.

Let the dangerous reading begin.

Chapter One

Nonfiction: Chysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis by Kim Todd

Fiction: One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead by Clare Dudman


VQ said...

Firstly - I am satisfactorily entertained every time I read your non-fiction bloggerel.
Second - Capital idea, Stellar plan!

Let the reading games begin...

How amusing thou art!

kerrdelune said...

Brilliant idea, Sister Kim, and I take off my pointed hat and bow deeply to you. I always have a hard time parting with books, and as it happens, since cash is rather (make that very) limited right now, I am rereading a whole bunch of stuff in my library and finding the experience terrific. Current choices are:

FICTION: Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry
NON FICTION: The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram

gb said...

countraSister-in-law o' mine,

I'm still trying to come to terms with not enjoying reading. It's like saying you no longer enjoy being next to the one you love. I keep wondering how you can enjoy writing stories when you don't enjoy reading them. Of course I read primarily fiction and poetry so I'm not usually being weighed down by depressing tracts on the environment, politics and such.

I try to reread all my books about every five years. That means some are going onto their tenth reading.

As for the writing, I found that I write better and more freely when I'm reading authors with a strong style. Twain, Melville, Conan Doyle, Le Carre, Douglas Adams, Runyan and Gene Wolfe and their ilk--even James when I'm feeling a bit Episcopalian. Not that I copy their style (although you can tell when I've had a bit too much Twain), but absorbing how they play with words and use the playing with words to fully present their ideas in both mood and substance allows/gives me the strength to let the words do what they need to do.

Years ago, to combat unconscious mimicry, I would take a paragraph from a story with a strong scene, either one of my own or someone competent, and deliberately rewrite it in the style of Runyan or Adams or whoever I was afraid was taking over. It seem to do wonders to clear the air, and let me get on with things in my own voice.

Kim Antieau said...

Cate: Love your choices! Thanks, VQ. And Guy, I'm hoping to enjoy reading more again.

All work copyright © Kim Antieau 2008-.