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.