On Not Reading War and Peace — or Anything Else
I have nothing to read.
Actually, that’s untrue. I have lots of things to read.
War and Peace is on my bedside table, along with Brooklyn, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and the second volume of the Outlander series, which I’m even halfway through.
On the bottom shelf of the bedroom bookcase, to which they were shifted when the pile on the bedside table started to teeter, sit my friend’s no-longer-so-new novel, which I won’t link to because I don’t want her to know I haven’t read it, along with People of the Book, which another friend lent me at least a year ago (I did read the first chapter, a year ago). There’s also The Emigrants. I really need to read Sebald.
In the living room are all three Steig Larsson books — I really need to read Steig Larsson — and the February and March Vogues. How can I not have read the February and March Vogues? I did read the People Magazine with “Kate’s Wedding Secrets” on the cover, but reading People isn’t really reading; it’s more like surfing the internet while eating potato chips, that is, impossible not to, once it’s there. Vogue is more like watching Downton Abbey while drinking a glass of wine: generally irresistible, but sometimes you — OK, I — just don’t get around to it. Like now.
Then there are the library books. Actually, there aren’t any more library books because I returned them all without reading them and now I can’t remember what they were.
Clearly, I am in a rut.
What’s interesting to me about this rut is that it is so all-encompassing. I’m sure nobody is surprised that I’m not getting around to War and Peace, but Steig Larsson? Everyone loves Steig Larsson. This summer, fully 66% of the books at the beach were Steig Larsson. How can I not have read Steig Larsson?
It’s not like I’ve been doing other things. Well, actually, I have, kind of. I just took a month off from the freelance writing and editing which are a significant part of my work. I’d finished writing a book, on top of a straight year of never being without a deadline, and I needed a break. I had big plans: home improvements, outings with the children, reading.
Alas… not so much.
At the end of the month, I did organize the transition of Eva’s room from little girl to big girl (magenta wall painted lime green, dollhouse replaced by desk) which did require an outing to Ikea. I did some yoga, saw some friends and movies, went to bed at a reasonable hour every night, and conquered my chronic exhaustion, at least for now. But it was winter, and we were lazy, and not much else happened on a larger scale, which is understandable, but there I was, hanging around the house, and I barely read. What was up with that?
Part of it was clearly War and Peace. Over a year ago, inspired by a friend who reads even more than I do, I decided it was time to read War and Peace, so I bought Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s much-lauded new translation, and put it on the bedside table. Then came the straight year of never being without a deadline. I did read a bunch of just-published novels and memoirs, but somehow I didn’t get around to War and Peace. Meanwhile, my best friend, inspired by me, read War and Peace. Then her daughter read War and Peace. Meanwhile, I read Freedom and Just Kids.
Then came my month off which seemed like the ideal opportunity to read War and Peace. I would have the time and mental space to commit to a serious long read. Only I didn’t. Instead I stopped reading altogether.
This is the point where my editors are going to say, “What about your kids? Is there a connection to your kids?” Nope. My kids have continued to read in their usual indiscriminate fashion. While I wasn’t reading, Eva read The Potato Chip Puzzles. Mara reread Gossip Girl. Eva reread The Mysterious Benedict Society. Mara read Persepolis.
So this is clearly my issue, and now we’re at the point where I’m supposed to come to an epiphany about why I’m not reading in order to wrap up this column with a neat and inspiring conclusion. Except I think a big part of my problem is that I’m tired of doing what I’m supposed to do, even if I’m the only one telling me I’m supposed to do it.
It’s been a long responsible adulthood, with a long way to go. I’ve breastfed my children, worked out, marched against the war, done meaningful work, paid taxes, cooked meals, watched umpteen soccer games, taken my vitamins — OK, only for the last few months, and I still don’t take my calcium, but really, I’m so good. I do what I’m supposed to do, I even WANT to do what I’m supposed to do, most of the time, but, you know, it gets kind of tiring, and right now I’m sick of it.
The problem is, I’m also sick of doing what I’m not supposed to do. I’m sick of eating too many potato chips. I’m sick of staying up too late. I’m sick of reading silly books because I don’t have the energy for serious ones.
One response to such a collision of frustrations is apathy. If you don’t want to do what you’re supposed to do, and you don’t want to do what you’re not supposed to do, one thing you can do is nothing, and that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing. But it turns out I don’t much like that either. A vacuum is ultimately empty.
But now I have a confession. David Mitchell was up there with W.G. Sebald on my list of Authors I Should Read and Feel Bad About Not Reading. Then the other day I finally picked up Cloud Atlas, and I am loving it. It’s got everything I want in a book: plot, insight, beautiful sentences. Every night I settle into bed with delight because I get to read Cloud Atlas. I am reading again.
I was going to leave Cloud Atlas out of this column, because a column is art, not life, and loving a book does not fit with the theme of not wanting to read anything. Unless it’s the neat, inspirational conclusion I’ve been avoiding. Because the fact of the matter is, if I hadn’t fallen in love with Cloud Atlas when I finally picked it up, I would have put it down and still had nothing to read, just like I put down a perfectly fine biography of Caroline Blackwood a day or two earlier. There is nothing to read until you find something to read, and what I need to do, I realized, is keep looking, but not settle.
I’m not 10 or 14 anymore; the days and books don’t stretch out endlessly ahead of me. I long ago let go of the completion complex that once forced me to finish every book I started. Now I need the patience to wait until I find what I really want to read — not what other people tell me to read, not what I feel like I should read, not what I think might pass the time until there’s something better.
I might not ever read The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, even if it’s a graphic novel based on Victorian literature, and graphic novels are cool, and I love Victorian literature. I might not ever read Steig Larsson, even if everyone loves Steig Larsson. But I have a feeling that one of these days, I just might read War and Peace.
13 replies on “On Not Reading War and Peace — or Anything Else”
OK, this is just fabulous! And makes me want to read both Cloud Atlas *and* The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen! But I’m about to head back into the no-new-reading zone of the end of the semester….
Great article! I think you did a great job telling the story no matter what your “editors” would have said. I have a big pile of books (unread) too, but for an entirely different reason. They are all about sustainable food issues, and while they are all great books that “everyone” is reading when i pick them up and start reading I feel overwhelmed by the amount of work there is for me to do. I need to read them, since it is my work, but when I pick up a book, I want a story to escape into, not one that reminds me of the sometimes insurmountable struggles I face everyday…thanks for your wit, humor and intelligence!
“War and Peace” is on my summer reading list, when I have long poolside hours to surrender to it. What you’re saying here about being tired of being so responsible and “good” while also being tired of all the “potato chip” alternatives is really REALLY resonating with me right now. I’m torn between feeling overly concerned with my goodness and feeling disgusted by some of my worse habits (clutter, soda). Sigh. I’m hoping some good books will pull me out of it–might I recommend “The Invisible Bridge” by Julie Orringer? Truly phenomenal.
Wow…*you* not reading…I wondered what was causing those tremors at the foundations of the earth.
Hmm, maybe a little time off was needed to let your pleasure centers recover. Glad to know the joy is coming back!
(And you can smack me upside the head with an eighteenth-century folio if you want, but have you tried an e-reader yet? I resisted and resisted, but finally got a Kindle for Christmas, and have been reading even more maniacally than usual.)
Wow, Becca, this is a fantastic column! And it makes me feel less guilty for all those dust-gathering door-stoppers lying on every surface in the bedroom.
P.S. re: Steig Larsson books, skip ’em. Just rent the movies. Or, rather, rent the first movie, and you’ll see what the fuss is/isn’t about. The books are poorly written and overwrought.
P.P.S. I’ve never read War and Peace either.
Not reading is so much better than not running or not going to yoga but it is perplexing to be in that space (and so interesting how many others who are avid readers have found themselves right there. I can’t seem to find a new book to read now (after War and Peace, I mean what can follow Tolstoy) and as you know that’s my greatest fear–to not have a book to take on a trip. Great column as always!!!!
I am a voracious reader and went more than forty years without reading Don Delillo. I felt tyrannized by him, by the many lists that would come out, listing him as the “best writer in the world” type thing. I told myself when I turned forty that I would NOT read Don DeLillo before I died and that was o.k. Nor would I enjoy Sebald (whom I’ve read and think incredibly boring) or Halser (another boring Swiss writer) and that would be all right. Well, I picked up DeLillo’s Falling Man and adored it, so now I’ve finally finished his oeuvre.
I loved this post — and haven’e read any Steig Larsson either!
I’ve only just learned to discard a book I don’t enjoy, and I’m 75. But I did read War and Peace the year after I graduated from college, while riding on the NYC Subway to and from work.
i feel like as a mama, a busy mama, the freetime i have is so so so much more precious to me now. this means that the timing in terms of what i end up reading and why plays a larger role these days. when i have time to myself, i want to be completely immersed in what i read. this has lead to a hodge podge of books that are fairly unrelated lately, but each one has been completely gratifying. sometimes, i even keep several going at once…different books for different moods, but what a great piece of writing that speaks to this weird phenomenon during adulthood.
I enjoyed reading about your non-reading period. I read voraciously, but about once a year I stop. Just stop. I watch Scrubs, Greys Anatomy and That 70’s Show. I skim People, buy Vanity Fair, and don’t read it.
I think our brains need a rest. I read too fast, about a book or two a week. My brain needs the chance to assimilate all those images, symbols and thoughts. I read Surrender, Discovery of Witches, Fight Club and Turn of the Screw back to back. Whose brain wouldn’t need a rest after that combination?
Watch the Steig Larson movie, watch a second one if you like the first.
Then escape into Cloud Atlas, I loved it from the cover design to the bitter end.
I definitely know where you’re coming from. This summer I tried reading a bunch of classics because I felt like I’d been lacking in them since I got out of college. I did it, but it got to be a bit grueling and I slowed down reading. Recently I went back to reading some more popcorn type books and I’m back in the game. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is also in my giant pile of books to read, but only because someone passed it to me.
I highly recommend reading League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It shouldn’t take long and it’s absolutely PACKED with literary references.
I find it so interesting that you chose War and Peace because that, too, is the book I keep meaning to read and yet never manage to do it. I’ve even read the first chapter and was absolutely taken with it and still! I very much identify with this column, I could have written it. Thank you so much for making me feel that I’m not the only one.
I don’t think anyone need feel embarrassed about skipping Tolstoy. He was, like Dickens, the serial TV of his times, and no longer relevant. I speak from personal experience. I started reading W&P and came across endless poorly realized passages that wouldn’t pass muster in a creative writing class. I’m told it’s the historical scope of the novel that constitutes its greatness, but the minefield of astonishingly bad writing you must traverse make it an exercise in masochism. Heresy, I know. But I must speak from my experience. Elite critics be damned.