Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why Can’t I Read Anymore? (Hey,I'm Not Alone!)

Please see the update at the end of this post.
This is the coffee table in my office.

I haven’t been able to read a book since September 2009.

All my life, I’ve surrounded myself first with children’s books and then with novels and poetry collections and other things like essays and biographies. I can say I’ve literally consumed books, since I ate part of The Travels of Babar the Elephant when I was three. My shelves are jam-packed with books I love and can’t part with, even the chewed-up Babar.

The only time I’ve gone without reading is during my 28-day rehab after giving up 15 years of sobriety. That was in June 2006. Even then, we were reading the book Alcoholics Anonymous every day.

September before last, I don’t know what happened exactly. I had stopped taking my anti-depressant medication and fell into a deep depression. I started blogging, which was a godsend because I couldn’t care about anything else. I won a regional poetry prize and was writing oodles of (unhappy) poetry. The weather turned cold. By October I was on psych units in two different hospitals (not simultaneously).

When I got back home, I couldn’t read books anymore. In the past year I’ve bought several novels by my favorite authors, but they sit by my desk gathering dust. I open them; I close them. I read a few pages of this one or that one, but I can’t go on. Sometimes my friends try to help by giving me a book they couldn’t put down. But it seems I can put it down without any problem.

I remember the last novel I read, and if it’s the last book I ever do read, it doesn’t say much about my literary perspicacity. Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings, by Christopher Moore, is an entertaining marine-science fantasy about saving the whales and the ocean. It won’t win any Pulitzers, but I’m glad I read it, just like I’m glad I’ve read Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut.

When Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize in literature this year, I thought I’d found my breakthrough novelist, the one who was going to rescue me from my sorrows. A novel has saved me from depression before, first in 1984 with mystery writer Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman, and most recently Louise Erdrich’s magical The Master Butchers Singing Club in 2004. They lifted my spirits out of some kind of angst about living and gave me back my joy.

The news called Vargas Llosa “one of world’s greatest and most adventurous writers” and mentioned some similarity to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, another guy who saved my life once with One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’ve been so insulated, I’d never even heard of Vargas Llosa until the Nobel Prize. So I researched his bibliography and critics and bought two praised novels through the used-book network Who Killed Palomino Molero? for $4 and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter for $1.

The Palomino novel is thin and seemed approachable. It opens with a detective studying the tortured, castrated, impaled corpse of the boy named Palomino which is hanging in a carob tree. I have no bias against violence in murder mysteries (being a fan of James Lee Burke and Dennis Lehane, creators of violent havoc, and in fact one of Lehane’s novels scared me spitless, which I loved). But for some reason, what has happened to the boy Palomino distressed me a little. Now the book rests facedown on the coffee table in my office, opened to page 14-15. Arrrggg.

The Palomino novel lies on top of a stack of literary journals at least 15 inches high (see photo), and there are two of these towers of Poetry, Ploughshares, Fence, et al, on my coffee table. I’ve read many of them all the way through (skipping the fiction; I don’t do short fiction). (Obviously, I am not doing fiction at all, which is the point of this post.)

I save the journals because there are poems I like in them, and because if I’m in the mood to write a poem but can’t get going, all I have to do is browse through a journal, and POP! goes the weasel muse. I’ve written hundreds of poems in the past few years. Lines of poems race through my head at least once a day. Yesterday it was: “I wanted a thing and I wanted it bad.” I’m trying to compose some rhyming poetry, which I never do, for TFE’s Poetry Bus, and that line had a certain meter to it. I didn’t say that lines of great poems race through my head.

This morning I was brushing my teeth and opening the blinds in my gorgeous sunroom office when I suddenly thought: I wonder if poetry has ruined my ability to read novels? I wonder if poetry has given me a literary form of ADHD?

Oh, gak!

I think I'll just go gopher hunting, get a little violence in my life. We have one in the garden eating the hollyhocks, the precious little arsehole.

****** Update 8:30 p.m. ******

The comments you've left for me today have been hugely helpful. The biggest bonus is that I'M NOT ALONE. After reading some of the first comments, I wrote my own little fantasy (reprinted here for your ease and edification):

...Is anyone else in blogland experiencing this novel-reading difficulty? What if we've tumbled onto an actual disorder caused by blogging? What would happen then? Would we all have to go into treatment to become novel-readers again? Would there be rehabs? Would one of the pharmaceutical companies develop a pill that costs $20 each and then develop off-label uses for it and create a nationwide need for their drug (like, say, the manufacturer of a drug that rhymes with seroquel-don't-get-me-started-on-that)?

(Beware: I'm about to leap to a highly unscientific conclusion.) The majority of the bloggers responding to this post do indeed experience some perceptible change in their reading habits, i.e., a novel-reading reduction. Is this a blogland-wide trend? Anybody want to throw in their two cents? Any two-bit theories? I'll try to keep track of the, um... (what's the right science-y sounding word here?) DATA TREND here.

On another note, the gopher won today's skirmish and so has lived to tell the tale. He/she/it backfilled the tunnels into which I buried traps, good traps that were not touched by human hands but were baited with a banana. I was disappointed. I had actually been lucky enough to find the intersection of three tunnels! What a gold mine! But I only had two traps. Apparently I picked the wrong two tunnels. Hm. This gopher is smart. But I'm tenacious. Tomorrow is another day.

Gopher: 1 ----- Chris: 0


Helen said...

That's quite a stack! Pick up your weapon of choice ~~~ and go gopher hunting!

Jess Mistress of Mischief said...

Ok that's just WEIRD. I have the same problem. I've picked up and put down I can't tell ya how many books in the last couple of years. I can read brief snippets, I can read a few pages of anything but to sit down and read a book cover to cover (especially enjoyment books) I haven't been able to do it.


Are we destined for something we haven't knowledge of yet?

I find it fascinating that you have this affliction too. Cause I know you love books like I do. :)

If you figure it out, let me know!

Maybe I'm supposed to be writing not reading... but I can't seem to complete a full project writing either. Just blogs and short essays.

RNSANE said...

It's funny, I can't sit with a book in my hand and read, not even my beloved forensic novels...I spend all my time on the computer ( but now that my desk top has crashed,it is so difficult on my laptop which is failing as well ). I do listen to audio CDs every time I am in the car, even if I'm only going a block. I have gone through all I had and I must now go to the library and see if they have any to offer.

Enchanted Oak said...

Okay, is anyone else in blogland experiencing this novel-reading difficulty? What if we've tumbled onto an actual disorder caused by blogging? What would happen then? Would we all have to go into treatment to become novel-readers again? Would there be rehabs? Would one of the pharmaceutical companies develop a pill that costs $20 each and then develop off-label uses for it and create a nationwide need for their drug (like, say, the manufacturer of seroquel-don't-get-me-started-on-that)?
Oh, that all makes my head ache.

Jessica Maybury said...

maybe the internet has honed us to the shortness of things? like poems? short ones? and flash? would you be able to read a book of flash?

Elisabeth said...

I suspect that blogging interferes with our capacity to read because it gives us more space in which to write. Reading and writing are different activities that as I understand it, require different parts of our brain.

I tend to prefer writing to reading. There are many I know who prefer reading to writing. Yet we all know that in order to write - well - we need also to get in a good healthy doses of reading, but maybe not simultaneously.

I'd love to be able to read more vigorously, though I find if I'm held down in non-fiction for my studies as is often the case, I get far less time for the joys of fiction.

Thanks for a fascinating post.

Titus said...

That is so interesting. No, I don't think it's blogging, though I must say until I started the Uni course I only read novels when on holiday (i.e. away from my house).

A kind of allied thing happened to me after the birth of the boys - I couldn't listen to Radio 4 anymore (it's the 'talk' BBC radio). I had listened to Radio 4 all day, every day of the previous, oh, twenty years, and suddenly I could not listen to it. Mind wouldn't focus. So the house radio had to be tuned to Radio 2 (the 'music' station for the, er, slightly older rock/pop generation).

The thing that 'cured'(?) me was time - no forced listening nor people suggesting great shows - it was just something that happened in its own time. I reckon when the time is right, you'll return to prose.

And I wouldn't knock it too much, because the quality of the stuff you're writing seems to show you are highly poem-attuned at the moment...

Andrew said...

I had not thought about it but you are right on here.

I used work a job where I could read for 10 hours out of a 12 hour shift and I did read prodigiously. I had always been a big time reader of fiction and some non fiction, but since I got on line, I read e now and don't read real books anymore.

Very interesting. Thank you for the insight.

Brian Miller said...

i do read a lot less now that i blog...i may need to sign up for that rehad...esp if it involved gopher hunting...

Woman in a Window said...

Chris, I am suffering much the same as you are. I snicker. Poetry comes. Novels collect dust. Rightly or wrongly, I'm in some weird vortex and can't get out.

Oh, and if American gophers behave anything like Canadian groundhogs (although I fear the groundhogs are bigger and badder) do.not.chuck.wood. at them. Bastards turn and charge!

Good luck.


Hope said...

I'm still reading novels! One came in the mail for me today. I am trying to save it for Christmas holidays. Trying.

I did go through a decade when I didn't pick up novels to read except those I read aloud to my kids.

I hope you will be able to enjoy reading a novel again with that kind of appetite one can have for a really good book that is so satisfying and so sad when you turn the last page.

♥ Boomer ♥ said...

Interesting! But I do bet you read a lot, even if not books! I would be willing to bet on that because you are such an excellent writer!

Rachel Fox said...

I certainly go in phases with novels... I read a couple and then I find I don't need any more for a while and I read other things (blogs, magazines, newspapers, poetry). I have, like you, read lots in the past but these days I take them carefully and only when I'm in the mood. Partly I think this is because a good, big novel takes a while to digest (sometimes a really long time - up to a year or more) so there's no need to get started on another right away and especially so if there is other interesting stuff to read elsewhere.

Blogging at its best (and there is very good and very bad blogging...) is a satisfying read and whole experience because it is communicating with a great bunch of clever friends. Only the very best novels can beat that!


Gwei Mui said...

Since I've been blogging I wouldn't say that I don't read but my reding habbits have changed I now read far more factual books, research material but hardly any fiction. f I stop writing for a notebale period I find that I go back to reading fiction. At the moment I'm stuck. I'm in a writers no man's land. Neither writing nor reading anything much at all.

Marion said...

Books were once my greatest love. I would snatch moments out of the day to spend time with whatever book I was reading. But now I find I read snippets and bits and blogs on the computer. It's a little like fast food for the mind...not particularly good for me, but it kind of fills me up. I'm still collecting books, though...I know the time will come when I will become engrossed in books again, after this cycle is through.

Good luck with your gopher!

Very interesting post...

Kim A. said...

My eyes are my problem now. If I wear contacts, I have to wear reading glasses. If I wear glasses, I have to take them off to read. I'm just weird. The answer for me is audio books. I just finished "Atlas Shrugged" for the umpteenth time and listening to it brought a whole different meaning to it.


Anonymous said...

I find that my love of reading is well-protected by the fact that I choose to fully unplug all things electronic every weekend and at least two nights a week. I find myself reaching for books that pertain to projects I'm working on or things I want to know more about. Like physics. Or technical rock climbing. I know, it sounds boring. Believe it or not, I read for the love of it. I like the way the pages feel in a brand new book, the way the ink sits on the page, the choice of font the publisher used... the details fascinate me again and again.

All that aside, I think each one of us is capable of hitting the wall. Empathy overload. Information overload. When we gorge on sound-bites, sample the bloggy buffet and snag juicy tidbits everywhere we turn, it's inevitable that we find ourselves satiated (bloated, even) and completely uninterested in the seven course meal that a fine, full-length book offers.

I don't pretend to read every single update of every single person whose writing I love. When I do, I really, really read it. Often, I go back and read their last 8 posts just to get a sense of where they went in their head that led them to today's words.

There are times, Chris, when I open your blog (like a prized book) and I stop and brew a cup of fine espresso before I begin to read. I savor the coffee and your words, thinking and nodding and understanding and admiring not just the content but the quality of your writing.

I don't always have access to your blog (or any blog) through anything except an RSS feed, so commenting is hit and miss. But always know that your words are read and cherished.

Totalfeckineejit said...

I don't read at all, virtually nothing. I'm not proud of it but I'm not ashamed either.I'd read less than 20 books (all the way through) by the age of forty. I've written more poetry than I've ever read, I'm not sure I even like poetry that much. How weird is that?

Karen said...

Chris! Thank you for this post! I thought it was only me! I have a stack of novels on my bedside table right beside the stack of poetry books. Every time I have to make a choice, I go for the poetry. I think not blogging but poetry has ruined me for reading novels.

Magpie said...

I am having trouble focusing long enough to read an entire book also. I start one and then another catches my interest...not often enough to finish it though. Is is poetry, is it blogging, or is it the period of life in which we find ourselves?

Syd said...

I am late to this discussion but have to add that I read books still but not as many as I did BB (before blogging). I find that reading blogs and making comments takes from the time that I did spend reading. But I get a lot out of both activities.

Marla said...

I am still a readaholic. Books will be the death of me, or something like that.