I’m a bad reader.
Like many other things I’ve accomplished in my life due purely to a desire to prove other people wrong, I learned how to read out of spite. To make a long childhood story short, I skipped the majority of 2nd grade thanks less to a belief in my academic abilities, and more to a surprisingly effective attitude that I would be ok because I had no other choice. Coming out of a Los Angeles hippie commune filled with celebrity children and teachers who believed I would do things when I “was ready”, I found myself in a summer school program designed to keep kids with working mothers occupied, unable to write in print, and unable to read.
When I told the teacher I couldn’t copy down the homework assignment because I couldn’t understand it and could also only write in cursive, she looked down at me with an expression of pure disgust and said:
“You’re seven years old, and you don’t know how to read?”
I returned home filled with righteous anger for being thrown into a race I didn’t know I had been losing. I started making capital letters out of popsicle sticks, and accomplished Green Eggs and Ham the next week. Nobody was particularly impressed because, apparently, it’s what I should have been doing all along. By the fall I had taught myself enough reading, printing, and faking, that nobody seemed to notice I’d only picked it up a month and a half ago.
At some point that year reading stopped being work, and became fun. I would forever be behind in math because I never learned my multiplication tables, but I could read like nobody’s business. My mom didn’t consider anybody too young for classic literature, so she let me read Jason and the Argonauts, Little Women, and (despite the fact that I was drawn mostly to the creepy illustrations), she let do my fourth-grade book report on her ancient copy of Jane Eyre. Again, nobody was particularly impressed. My teacher thought I was a precocious asshole, as far as children go. To no great note, I went from 0 to 100 in the space of one America Girl Doll sponsored summer course.
With 16 years of academics and a lot of tiring, badly paid jobs under my belt, reading feels like work again. I haven’t decided if the problem is the books, or the fact that I spend a disproportionate amount of time between one workday and the next staring at pithy cutaways on a 12” screen that don’t require any effort in the slightest. There are those people who never feel this way, or at least never admit it- those people who breeze through three volume novels like a Rich White Lady on a yacht returning from the Seychelles, praising the merits of “exploring” and “adventure” and “really getting into it”. I am not one of those people.
I read like most people read, and then pretend not to. I’ll spend 6 months with a long volume mostly because the only time I have to spend on it is at 9pm after a 10 hour work day, and I will fall asleep faster than I can put on my outdated and oversized American Cinematographer’s League t-shirt that’s been glamorizing my wardrobe for the last eight years, slip on the Expensive Franchise™ sweatpants a cool girl with a nose ring and “denim” hair sold me at Urban Outfitters, and tell myself what a great thing it is that I’m doing something that doesn’t involve electronics and the internet.
I get bored because, gosh darn it, there’s a new episode of Portlandia I could be obtaining by completely legal means, and sometimes you don’t want to be sitting in the almost-dark pondering the mystique of the written word and wondering things like, “what does it really mean to love someone?” “Is it possible to have children without fucking them up?” Or, “If this author is 35 with two best-selling novels and a seven-part series, what am I doing with my life?”
I haven’t read a book in one sitting since Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I have yet to be Emotionally Effected in a way that equals bawling my eyes out with my very concerned dog on the living room floor carpet while my mom yelled at me to empty the dishwasher, because I was reading a copy of Ella Enchanted I still haven’t returned to the Library, and she was trying not to stab the Prince because True Love will always be the trump card. I’m pretty average as far as patience and literature goes; I love Jane Austen and a glass of Merlot, but sometimes all I can handle is Bill Watterson and some fruit snacks.
People absorb the work of reading lots of different ways: skimming the Best Seller Lists, sticking to the classics, sticking to fan fiction, reading six books at once, giving up entirely. Listening only to audiobooks because you just don’t have time to sit and stare and do nothing else when you could be driving or eating or watching Netflix with your significant other (or a fuzzy, stuffed cow named Gerald. Whatever works). I’m proud to say that in my well-rounded, Liberal Elite educated glory, I have employed all of these tactics to varying degrees of success.
One thing that writing has taught me, among other golden nuggets of wisdom like “stop comparing yourself to child prodigies”, and “put down that glass of wine before you spill on the computer you’re still paying for”, is that not every moment in writing, books, or life, is particularly thrilling. Not every sentence is a masterpiece, not every scene is gripping. Heck, not every book is publishable, let alone a best-seller. Love is not always the trump card. This makes parts of even the best things, just not that fun. Still, as the incomparable Stephen Sondheim put it: “…if life were made of moments, then you’d never know you had one!”
My favorite book is boring. I know this because I gave it to a friend who can read more books in a week than I can afford on a lower-end-of-the-totem-pole entertainment industry hourly rate, and she got through exactly seven pages before giving up.
“Look,” she said. “If I’m ever stranded alone in a cabin in the desert for a week with no internet and absolutely nothing else to do, I’ll read it. I promise.”
It’s a book about a person, to whom relatively ordinary things happen. This is not a pithy premise. It could not be printed on a T-Shirt and sold outside packed arenas, and as a studio pitch would unequivocally suck. What it is, on the other hand, is an insightful examination of bigger questions, through the limited lens of everyday life. In this book I see myself, not as I want to be, but as I am. It’s not an escape or an adventure, but it is a picture through which I can see why the work, the boredom, and even the childhood anger issues, are meaningful. The boring parts are worth it- and that’s the most remarkable thing to communicate, after all. Life is, occasionally, shit- and we’re going to be fine. So get bored, give yourself a break, and keep going. That’s where the magic is.