It’s almost April, and I have read only ten books this year. If you find me wandering around looking distressed and slightly disheveled, it’s because I’m wondering how this could have happened. I’m on track to read 40 books this year, if I’m lucky, when once I used to boast of 100 or more! I would sit down to read, and only rise either to obey the tyranny of nature or, more likely, to find another book to read for the last one was already completed.
Here is the evidence I have gathered in my investigation of my declining reading prowess:
1) On the one hand, I certainly read more quickly now than I did in my early 2os. Three successive English degrees, the last of which required, for sometimes inhumanely long stretches, that I read 2-3 plays or 1 full novel per day, have made me a speed demon amongst the pages. I am both a good sprinter and marathoner. But there is no need to be either anymore and so I generally decline to do so. This makes me happy, except when it takes me a month to read a 600-pager. Then I feel so much shame, I consider returning my doctoral degree with mea culpa scrawled across it in my own unworthy blood.
2) Sleeping through the night puts a serious damper on storming through tonnes of books. I suffered pretty bad insomnia, off and on, from the age of 11 to about 34. I hate the tv–and when you live with other humans who don’t also suffer from sleeplessness, you can’t really have the bloody thing on at 3 am anyway–and so there’s only one thing to do while wrestling with an overactive brain in the sleepless desert: read. Read something soothing, engaging, and not requiring any serious turns of the think-box. Short, easy books. Reading a silly 180-page novel with large font, you will be shocked to learn, takes less time to process than a 900-page brick filled with thoughts in the medium- to well-done range.
3) I’ve lived in Toronto long enough (almost 10 years) to be allowed to make friends, and so there are now activities other than reading to engage in. You think I’m exaggerating the bone-chilling unfriendliness of my adopted city? Well, the fact is, it’s so cold and closed here that Ben Stiller based that bit in Zoolander about how hard it is to get into the after party on just trying to be permitted to eat at Milestones in the Entertainment District. That’s all true, except for what I just said.
This triple-headed excuse-demon is certainly part of why I don’t read so much as I used to. But the biggest issue is this: dinner. More precisely, making dinner. I will explain. Let us, if you will, imagine it is 1996. I am 21 years old and have just moved out of the family cave. This is what cooking looked like for me then: Breakfast was a sublime marriage of tea and toast. Lunch was a sammich or something shockingly unhealthy purchased either on campus or near work (in a mall). Dinner: pasta with sauce from a can and REAL CHEESE grated and sprinkled on top, but only if I was feeling incredibly fancy. I didn’t usually feel fancy. It was more likely that dinner would comprise a bowl, or three, of cereal. As I recall, it was most likely to be raisin bran cereal, which I thought was super healthy.
You see how much reading can be done when there are three dishes to wash when things get out of hand, but usually there’s just a bowl and a spoon? You see how much reading can be done when making dinner takes 1.5 minutes?
Now, the question is why I didn’t develop scurvy or diabetes. There is only one answer: I was in my early 20s. The early 20s are, I believe, a magic whose power cannot be underestimated. And that magic is stoical oblivion, by which I mean: no one can ignore the rage-filled screams of neglected health the way 20-somethings can. I once wrote an undergraduate exam with a fever of 103. I was so out of it, that I didn’t know what I was writing. But it never once occurred to me to ask my prof if I could write it later. This is just one example, and I remember it now only because my 30-something prof looked at me simply agog when, upon congratulating me on the A- I somehow earned on that hallucinatory tango with my GPA, I confessed to not remembering one thing I’d written, or what any of the questions had been.
I wrote my PhD comprehensive exams with a bad case of undiagnosed walking pneumonia. I was 26 then, so still militantly ignorant about my health, but beginning to pay the price.
If I found myself feeling even half as bad now that I’m deep into my 30s as I did during the above mentioned exam-writing adventures, I would call in sick to anything at all including, but not limited to: weddings, funerals, morning coffee, toast, civility, and words.
It’s funny how losing one’s taste for malicious disinterest in your own health results in using every dish in the house to make one meal. The phoenix of my great physical health has risen out of the ashes of my reading glory. (Flourish.)
Well, mostly. Tonight I ate granola for dinner and read 100 pages of Mona Lisa Overdrive and lo, it was very good.