Wisdom from the book critic who doesn’t actually like reading
Wed, Jul 25, 2012 (5:56 p.m.)
I have an embarrassing admission for a book critic to make: I love books, but I hate reading.
All right, I don’t hate it as I hate, say, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission (“Corporations are people, my friend”), but it has always been more labor than love for me.
I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because I grew up a “TV child,” in the first cohort Marshall McLuhan described in Understanding Media as “pervaded by the mosaic TV image”—rapt, involved and careless of content. Or maybe I had (have?) a learning disorder. I doubt both of these explanations, because by high school I did everything I could, including reading, to dodge the insipid fare of the “TV set” in my home, and because by college I had settled on the decidedly ante-McLuhan idea that studying English literature was the best preparation for a writer. (I still think I was right, even though I wound up working in a framing store.)
Whatever the case, even as I savored Shakespeare, Pope, Fitzgerald and Woolf, opening a new book has always seemed to promise not an enchanted journey but a long slog to an obscure destination, even when I expect delights along the way. Sure, I have closed many books wishing they were longer, but I have never quite shared that feeling of joyful surrender described by fellow bibliophiles.
“Learn to read slow: all other graces/Will follow in their proper places,” William Walker advised in the 17th century. I am a slow reader, which can be as frustrating as enriching. But Walker’s counsel suited gentlemen of that age, and it reminds us that literacy once was the preserve of the idle aristocracy. Leisurely consumption of rich imagery and dense ideas seems a luxury today, when most readers seek what? Relief? Distraction?
And from what? Too much reading, probably. We think of our Internet-bound lives as image-driven, but how much of it is actually reading—texts, tweets or business reports? “The book which you read from a sense of duty, or because for any reason you must, does not commonly make friends with you,” wrote William Dean Howells, before anyone knew about PDFs.
Fortunately, I do not consider reviewing books a duty, even when deadlines deepen my slow-reader’s anxiety. I hope my plodding pace helps me notice nuance, scorn mediocrity and mind how much dutiful reading others have to endure.