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Friday, July 29, 2011

Reading to Excess

The other day I heard an interview with author Nina Sankovitch on the Leonard Lopate Radio Show. The discussion was about her new book, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, a memoir of the author's year of reading a novel a day as a way of working through her grief over  her sister's death (her sister was in her mid-forties).

During the interview Nina Sankovitch makes the remark that most people cannot fathom reading 365 novels in a single year. I, actually, can. During my heaviest reading period (when I commuted to work by train for nearly 2 hours each way), I read about 500 novels a year. Yes, that's right, 500, not 50. I read at least one a day, usually started the 2nd, and occasionally made it part of the way into a 3rd book of the day.

Even when not reading at such a pace, I have almost always read between 200 and 300 books a year, which is about 4 to 6 a week. Recently, however, I have lost my drive to read. I am down to 2 or 3 books a week, sometimes just 2. This is a scant number for me, a quick reader who would rather curl up with a book than just about anything. Until now. (And if you are wondering how I manage this much, I never watch television, ever, unless a family member asks me to join them. Or unless American Idol is on. It's stunning how much time you have if you don't watch tv.)

I taught myself to read when I was 4 years old. I remember the day. I had asked and asked my mother to teach me all morning, but she was busy. She finally got exasperated and told me to go across the street and ask our neighbor Mrs. Hannenberg, since she had been an elementary school teacher. We kids all called Mrs. Hannenberg "Mrs. Hamburger" (I once heard my mother in her most charming voice tell Mrs. Hannenberg that the children at our house called her "Mrs. Hummingbird," which I think my mother would rather we had called her, and Mrs. Hannenberg, the veteran teacher, replied, "That's odd. Most children call me Mrs. Hamburger." There was no putting one over on Mrs. Hannenberg.)

(And I guess I should mention that my mother used to be an elementary school teacher too. But when I was 4, she had 4 kids under the age of 5. She was a busy woman.)

So I marched across the street and told Mrs. Hannenberg that this was the day I was going to learn to read, and could she help me. She gave me a blue cloth-cover book of the "Meet Dick and Jane" series and sent me home. I sat on the couch with the book and would not get up until I could read. I was in tears, highly frustrated, when my mother told me to go outside and swim with the other kids, but I refused. I was going to learn to read. I had the alphabet under control, so I had a good start. Finally, the sounds came together and made words, and by the end of that afternoon, I had read the whole book. Mrs. Hannenberg told me to keep it. Maybe my parents have it still.

Since that time, I have read like crazy. Except for when I was in grad school and had no time to read anything but texts and academic papers (I didn't go to grad school for anything literary), and when I  had two kids under two years of age and I hardly read except for books on child-raising. And for now, when I am reading only 2 or so books a week (for the past 15 years, I have read a lot of nonfiction and a ton of poetry in addition to the novels I read.)

I don't know why I am not compelled to read these days. The heat? The general busy-ness of my life? The lack of books I really want to read here in Japan (which never stopped me before--having to read anything I could get my hands on here has broadened my scope immensely)?

I don't know why, and I don't know for how long this general reading malaise will last. Anybody ever gone into reading withdrawal? Maybe it's a good thing?

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