Saturday, February 5, 2011

Reading With My Octopus Hands

The girl working in the coffee shop was having a good day and, in a voice that could cut through steel, she made sure the rest of us knew it.

"It's one of those mornings where everything just seems to go zippah-dee-doo-dah, y'know?" she said to her co-worker as she pulled a lever on the espresso machine and hissed steam into a waiting customer's cappuccino.  "Got a good night's sleep, had the leftover blintzes from yesterday my Mom put in the fridge, and didn't have any traffic on the way into work.  You ever have a day like that?" she asked the other girl.  Without waiting for an answer, she plunged into a further rundown of her morning; she was like a loud, living, breathing DayPlanner as she talked about what she was going to do with the rest of her day.  She chattered and babbled at a volume that was decidedly not an "inside voice."  The espressos hissed and steamed.  The rest of the customers talked among themselves at elevated pitches in order to be heard above the rising tide of noise.

I, for one, wished everyone would shut the fuck up.

I was sitting in a corner table with my Kindle and I was struggling to read David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  Just when I was getting myself re-immersed in 18th-century samurai Japan, Little Miss Chirpy would pull me back out with her breathless description of the shade of black fingernail polish which, oh-em-gee, totally coordinated with her Ramones T-shirt that morning.

So she was having a good day.  Fine.  Big whoop.  I uncharitably wished she'd had a paper cut and fought with her boyfriend before coming to work so she would retreat into sullen, depressed silence.

Maybe it was just me.  Maybe I was having a hard time concentrating on Jacob's thousand autumns because there were already too many other narratives crowding my head.  At that moment, I was simultaneously reading three other books and it was driving me batshit.


I sank back into the bathtub, the warmth lapping over my shoulders and stomach and tried to focus on the book I was holding six inches above the water.  The Lover's Dictionary was a delightful little book about love and commitment.  It was easy to read, each page devoted to a single word and its micro-fiction definition.  The narrator and his girlfriend were funny, smart people and I really wanted to get to know them better.

It's just that I was distracted by thoughts of Jacob de Zoet and a certain "Radioactive Lady" in Tallahassee.

*     *

I sat at the desk in the hotel room with my copy of Elizabeth Stuckey-French's novel The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady propped in front of me.  The story revolves around an elderly woman named Marylou who, as a young mother, had been a guinea pig in a medical study of the 1950s where she drank radioactive cocktails which eventually caused the early death of her daughter.  Now she was in Florida, seeking retribution from the doctor who'd done her wrong all those decades ago.
Every morning when Marylou and her Welsh corgi, Buster, left their house at 22 Reeve's Court and set out on their walk toward Wilson Spriggs's house at 2208 Friar's Way, Marylou chanted to herself: Today's the day. Today's the day. Today's the day he'll suffer and die. Every morning she fully believed that by the time she'd walked the three blocks to Wilson's house she'd have figured out how to--

ThumpThumpThump!  What sounded like a herd of elephants (but turned out to be a high school wrestling team) ran across the floor of the room above me in the Hampton Inn.  I was pulled out of the book by the rumble from the ceiling.  So much for Marylou in Tallahassee....

Then, of course, I started thinking about the witty repartee those dictionary-lovers might toss back and forth in a situation like this.  And then my mind turned to Jacob and how he needed to defend himself against the Japanese feudal lords at that Dutch trading outpost.

*     *     *

I'm skimming low across a Montana wheat field with Richard Hugo.  For the past six months, I've gotten into the habit of reading at least one or two poems each day from Making Certain It Goes On.  Hugo's poetry folds me into the very page it's printed on and I go with him to the bar in Philipsburg, to the waters of Kicking Horse Reservoir, to the field where grass is placated by the wind and
         Someone may be out there
riding undulating light our way.
Wherever we live, we sleep here
where cattle sleep beside the full canal.
We slept here young in poems.
I linger over that last line, rolling it across the tongue, trying to fully absorb its beauty.

Then I make the mistake of looking up from the collection of Hugo's poetry.  Across my hotel room, I see the Radioactive Lady, The Lover's Dictionary, and my Kindle in a haphazard stack next to my computer.  They're all waiting for me.  They each in separate voices are calling to me, each trying to overshout the other, each vying for my increasingly crumbled attention.

I wish they'd shut the fuck up.

*     *     *     *

How did I get to this point?  When did I become a reader fragmented between narratives?  Why was I now sipping from my books when I should be gulping?

Some of it started when I took on the role of a book reviewer to multiple publications.  While I was reading one book for The Barnes and Noble Review, another assignment with a tighter deadline would come in from New West, and I'd feel forced to start working my way through that second book even as I was trying to finish the first book.

Then I started finding more and more books to add to my Must-Read list, taking recommendations from enthusiastic readers on Twitter and at BookBalloon, not to mention getting hooked by new books arriving daily from publishers who hoped I'd take a look at what they had to offer.  I called my To-Be-Read stack Mount Everest; then, as it grew and I realized what I was getting myself into, I renamed it Mount Never Rest.  The more I started to read new books, the farther away the finish line moved for each book.  At this rate, I would be a perpetual book starter but never a book finisher.

Make no mistake, you and I both live in a distracted society.  By now, the media has reported that story to death: video-game culture, attention-deficit, flashing billboards, micro-fiction, 140-character autobiographies, blah blah blah....In the competition for our attention, the once-interesting things in life have scattered into tiny atomic particles.  Deep thought has diluted and the short and shrill has become the momentary attention-getter.  In fact, since you started reading this, I'm willing to bet you had your eyes pulled off the screen at least three different times.

And now I was allowing myself to fall victim to turning books into wading pools.  Why, when there were so many TV shows to watch and news feeds to browse, was I making life hard for myself by reading four books at the same time, reading in the shallows with each one?

Overcommitment, for one thing.  Psychologically, I'm a "pleaser" and I hate to let anyone down--particularly editors who would like to have me review certain books by a certain date.  Before I knew it, my calendar bulged with assignments.

And then, in what seemed like mutual conspiracy, this year the publishing industry published a full roster of books which looked really, really interesting.  I was captivated by covers and hooked by plot summaries.  I started adding book after book to Mount Never Rest, trying to work out a reasonable schedule for myself--a schedule that quickly collapsed when I got books like The Instructions and Skippy Dies, thick volumes of daunting length.

I logged onto Twitter and tweeted at the #fridayreads group about how I was reading all these books at the same time "with octopus arms."  Funny, yeah, but nobody's laughing here.

I wasn't always like this.  There was a time when I was a monogamous reader, faithful to only one book at a time.  Ah, those were the days.  Back then, I could plow through War and Peace and keep the cast of characters straight in my head (well, almost).  Now, if I attempted that same thing, I would need a PowerPoint flow chart to help me navigate Napoleonic Russia.

The answer is, of course, to read faster.  Read faster, and live less.  Winnow down my time here on earth to the bare essentials of working my eyes across a page, line by line.  Take a speed-reading course, forsake responsibility, shirk my marriage, eat only peanut-butter sandwiches on whole-wheat bread.  That's unrealistic and (especially in the case of the shirked wife) completely undesirable.

Or, I could just stop taking on new books.  Finish these four, yes, but then pare it all back down to one book.  The way it used to be.  When all the pieces of my brain were in place and my reading was richer, deeper.

Yes, but....yes, but....I'm attracted to the next pretty book that comes along, clicking its high heels, swinging its hips, tossing its hair, pursing its lips.  I follow, I grab, I open to the first page, I start to read.  At this point, I have the image of my face getting too close to the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner.  I'm sucked in.

And inside the book is where I want to stay, at the peril of losing control of everything else that really matters in life.  Committed readers are much like meth addicts in this regard.

Here is what my factory-piston brain is trying to convince me I should do: lean closer to the book, assimilate into The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, concentrate deeply on samurai Japan and let everything else slip to the background in a whisper: the chatty barista, the herd of high school athletes, the wind moving through Richard Hugo's grass.

Ah.  Hugo's grass.  That reminds me, I haven't read my "daily poem" this morning.  And after I'm through with that, I think I hear the Radioactive Lady tapping her foot.  She's waiting for me to come back to her...


  1. I love your blog title...very clever.

    Hopping by from the blog hop....

    Stop by my blog if you like to see my answer to this week's blog hop question and to read my reviews.

    Have a fun hop.

    New follower.

  2. Oh man, I SO relate. I used to be a strictly monogamous reader and now I'm such a... oh, I'd best not say it.