I love reading. When I was in elementary and middle school I found myself reading everything I could get my hands on. My mother says that when I was a child, I would read road signs aloud as we sped by them just to prove that I could do it. I was a fast reader, too; because I so often ran out of new books to read, I would reread previous books, and reread and reread and reread.
In high school I had been introduced to new material, and we would spend an entire marking period—basically two months—dissecting one novel at a time. Another marking period might be spent analyzing some half-dozen or dozen short stories. The works I read were new to me, but they were introduced gradually. And then college began and I was yanked out of my comfort zone. We tackled whole short story collections or full novels in a week or two, instead of two months, and that was in just one class, so multiply that by four. During the second semester of my sophomore year, I was assigned six collections of short stories, twelve novels, a book that analyzed the economics of society, a book of personal essays about writing, and a collection of spiritual writings. If I said I read all of it, you wouldn’t believe me, anyway, and I’d be lying. I did skip some bits, but I tried my best to read what I could. Other semesters weren’t quite as substantial, but the deliveryman who brought my books to my house a few weeks before the start of the semester always inquired as to what classes I was taking that I needed so many damn books. And it was always a crap shoot. I despised Northanger Abbey but loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, hated Moby Dick but loved The Satanic Verses.
Since my assigned reading is so daunting and the bag so mixed, my summer reading usually tends to expose me to material I’ve already read. I could seek out new stuff, going on the recommendations of friends and mentors, but I really don’t want to. I find my brain saturated with the books other people think I should read during the semester that I don’t give a damn about whatever I’m told to read outside of class. Take, for instance, a recommendation made by a professor-friend. He suggested that I read Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, a novel that was released only a few years back. I tried picking it up, but I just couldn’t get beyond the first thirty pages. There were other books I wanted to read that summer, like Dracula and The Sun Also Rises, but my reading experience was soured by The Echo Maker and, though there were still four whole weeks left in the summer, I pretty much gave up. I read only one book in those four weeks, The Maltese Falcon. I never did finish The Echo Maker.
Herein lies the problem: exploring is what I do during the semester. Breaks are for whittling down my huge list of books I think would be useful to me as writer, but mostly for books I’ve read before and loved. Over the break between fall semester ’10 and spring semester ’11, I am itching to reread The Catcher in the Rye and 1984. I read both of these books only a few years ago, but I long for the comfort reading them will surely provide. They are books I know and love and I cannot possibly be disappointed. My book list includes books I have said no to before, like The Scarlet Letter—which I have harbored a strong disliking for since high school because, for two months, day in and day out, my English teacher beat us over the head with it—as well as books that I trust I will enjoy because they are by writers I have grown to love, like Midnight’s Children or The Ground Beneath Her Feet, both by Salman Rushdie, or any of Hemingway’s longer works, from The Sun Also Rises to For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms to Old Man and the Sea. Somewhere in there, there’s a place for Hemingway’s short fiction, too.
In the end, I just don’t trust what everyone else wants to put before me. I’d like to trust them, whoever they are, but I just don’t. I’ve found works that I’m comfortable with, some because of content, others because of style. Since I’ve been taught how to read, really, I’ve had books shoved down my throat, and it has only gotten worse since coming to college. What I really want to do is acquaint myself with literature on my own terms. I might have read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay before, but it wasn’t at my own pace, on my own time. It was while I was working on other things, studying for exams, reading other books that weren’t near as interesting but demanded attention. When I revisit it, it is to be on my own terms. I could pick up a book I haven’t read before, true, but I don’t think I’ve gotten everything I can out of Kavalier and Clay yet, either. The same holds true for books that I read on my own terms the first time. I didn’t read 1984 in a classroom, and I loved it. I’ve only read it once, though, and I want to read it again. I want to see how much the experience has changed. I want to see, perhaps, how much I’ve changed.
I don’t always stick to what I’ve read before, but more often than not, I zero in on an author I am familiar with, or a classic I have always wanted to read. What draws me to new material is familiarity, and what draws me back to the old stuff is nostalgia. Eventually, I’ll reach a point in my professional career where I won’t have to read what other people tell me to read. I won’t have to buy twenty books because they’re required for all of the classes I’m taking. There’s so much literature out there, so many things to be read, that the idea of walking into a bookstore and snatching a book off of the shelf at random is petrifying. I’d rather nestle in and rediscover. I realize that I can’t do this forever, and I won’t. After all, even though I didn’t finish The Echo Maker, I discovered The Maltese Falcon, didn’t I? But I want to get a good grasp on what I’ve already experienced, or some of what I’ve already experienced, anyway, before I start browsing the shelves for new things, otherwise that list of books I started and finished is going to get longer and longer and that list of books I’ve completed is going to stay pretty much the same. Unless I’m in class.
Louie Land, Class of 2012