I Still Read

A moment of leisure bliss. If my dog read, it’d be suspense thrillers about the acquisition and consumption of food.

I’ve been planning a blog about the seemingly arcane act of reading for quite some time. It seems the flood of internet messages and images, and the world of fantasy film and TV shows that go for the easy tease, have drowned out “reading.” I labored in the public school classroom to stimulate an interest in it, and found that young people – at least the ones I got – were so averse to the activity that one had to lead read-alouds, by which we crept, as a group, through the books. Thus were Macbeth and The Catcher in the Rye dispensed with, and though many enjoyed them, to my great satisfaction, and wrote compellingly to reveal the opening up of heart and soul in the apprehension of sympathetic character and gripping conflict, the sheer numbness of so many of them, morphing at times into spite and hostility, helped drive me from the field.

They’re all on their handhelds; that’s their world. The primacy of the internet addict has drowned out the voice and relevancy of that former eminence, the discriminating reader, leaving us with various tribal viewpoints fueled by social media. I am about to take a position as a volunteer tutor to grade school kids at the Prescott Public Library. The library employee who took me on said new statistics show reading is far from “going away.” But the world doesn’t feel like it.

I am almost embarrassed to cite Howard Stern as a weathervane of public taste or emissary of what’s good or not good, but I have to say I twinge every time he says he doesn’t like to read. Not that I don’t feel like that myself sometimes. I’ve found myself reading a sentence over ten times to get a footing in some a obtuse opinion piece in one of the three newspapers I subscribe to online. I have to remember Howard’s confession of reading distaste is but a blip on the screen of his campaign to share his whole crazy psyche with us, jittery attention span and all. And it makes me smile to hear him talking, just the next day, about sitting down with the Sunday Times and finding it fascinating, full of variety and life and interest.

The same contradiction obtains to me and my reading life. I assigned myself a thousand-page biography of Winston Churchill and loved it. And yet if you asked me what happened in The Brothers Karamazov, I can barely tell you. I loved Notes from Underground, a mad, painful little book, but my effort to win to memory the tome many call Dostoyevsky’s great work — and maybe a Kindle was the wrong tool for the job — came to naught. It stalled me as a reader. Reminds me of the time when I was a kid and loved kiddie bios of American frontier heroes and stories about Indians, and forced myself through The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans and wound up in remedial reading in seventh grade with slouching greasers, my reading rhythm now hobbled and traumatized.

When I was very little, before the ill-considered wrestling match with James Fenimore Cooper, I loved adventure stories. Bible Stories for Jewish Children, which I’ve blogged about, fascinated me. Here was the heroic literature of my people! I have remembered this book my whole life, an amulet against wearied stereotype. I remember Fire-Hunter by Jim Kjelgaard, about a primitive man who invents a spear-launching tool. I remember Hardy Boys mysteries. I remember a sports book called Triple Play, a suspense story in which a man is threatened by criminals to throw a game but, by standing his ground at the end, creates a stirring conclusion (the poor Italians will have to live with heavy Nino Martelli, a name that sticks with me).

Mr. Bunsey, my eighth grade AP English teacher, assigned memorable challenges, including a haunting short story by Conrad Aiken about a boy’s psychic disintegration called “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.” But the 1957 novel A Separate Peace was the real jewel. I found in exuberant, disarmingly honest Phineas a character to love. Not since Tom Sawyer had a character stuck with me so well. I liked Finny even better than Tom, who started the Twain classic kind of a smartass, though the frightful adventure of Tom and Becky trying to stay ahead of chilling Injun Joe was ripping good stuff, as was the scene of Tom walking in on his own funeral. Who cannot (however blushingly) admit to wanting to hear people boohooing their passing? And magic abounded in the tacit affection between Tom and Becky. But there was something refreshing and life-affirming about the athlete Phineas that rocked my world as nothing had before. A Separate Peace has informed my idea about integrity, and what it is we love in people, to this day.

In the photo above, I’m at it again. Reading.

It was the best kind of day, a day off from Walmart. The Beast and I ate a good breakfast, and not long after that I leashed her up and, in the morning cold, took her for our customary three-mile walk. “A tired dog is a happy dog,” the vet says. Rosa’s feeling gentle and drowsy and is keeping me company on the guest-room bed as I open my Kindle to Studs Terkel’s Working, a procession of prompted monologues from Americans about their jobs. There isn’t enough literature about the everyday reality that shapes us. It’s a long book, but I think I’ll finish it.

Whether it’s paper or doing it this way, I still like to read. Reading won’t go away until I go away, and I don’t think that’ll be for a while yet.