Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

On Being a Reader

Have I mentioned this week how much I love the Critical Mass Blog? Of particular recent interest was this post on Terry Caeser's Article in Inside Higher Ed. Caeser laments the demise of spaces devoted to reading, to the technological rush of computers and text messaging and too many television monitors. Nobody, he feels, has any public place to read.

Dan Wickett, of Emerging Writers Network, politely called this bollocks. I politely concurred. Mr. Jerome Weeks politely noted we missed the point: that technology is taking over, and publishers are missing the boat.

I agree with Dan. I agree with Mr. Weeks. I had a harder time with Caeser's pleas, as they were aimed at the poor, suffering professors, hiding in their offices to read. As for adjunct faculty, now shouldering the teaching burden nationwide, well, God, they don't even have offices. In additon to high workloads and poor pay, they have nowhere to read. And what about the girl who flunked out because--you guessed it--she couldn't find a quiet spot to read?

I have mentioned I work at a major U.S. University. A really famous one. You've heard of it. I am not faculty of any sort, but lowly administration, and my office is a zoo. My "desk" is a stretch of countertop with a computer and a telephone. To write, I must move my keyboard up on the monitor tray. I sit within touching distance of two people. A third person is four feet away. The noise level ranges from relatively peaceful (at 8am) to so loud I must cover my free ear to hear telephone callers (9-4:30).

I have a lot of down time, which I spend reading. Concentration can be difficult, but if the material is engaging, I am completely able to tune out the marital spats, insane faculty, bored colleagues, and discussions of what to eat for lunch. A few weeks ago one of the senior staff, a person I cannot tell to fuck off, told me I was boring. Why? All I ever do, she noted, is read. "You're boring," she said. She actually said it a few times. I smiled at her, agreed that I am indeed dull, and returned to my book.

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The world divides thousands of ways. One is those who must read and those who don't, with a few people like my husband thrown in for variety. My husband is always reading something, but he doesn't read like I do--with a sort of voracious desperation. He doesn't get anxious if the available supply of books runs low. He doesn't care about funky editions. He didn't leave his office to grab "The Year of Magical Thinking" the moment, literally, that Pegasus books unpacked the distributor's boxes. He wasn't upset when Lucy Grealy died.

It was me who did, who cared, who was born this way. I know few other people who feel as I do...and I don't even really know many of them. Dan Wickett is an internet acquaintance. We would pass one another in the street. I have no interest in getting to know Maud Newton or Jessa Crispin personally. Knowing they are out there, and love books--albeit different books than I do--is sufficient.

Are readers born or made? I would have to some of each: my mother was instrumental in passing on a love of reading. I remember her teaching me to read, using a book called Peter's Rainy Afternoon. She also subscribed to a club that sent a new Dr. Seuss monthly. I was a toddler, so she kept them on a high bedroom shelf. I remember the day I asked her to take them down so I could read them. I was three. Nixon was in office; young men were coming home maimed from Viet Nam. I read Hop on Pop.

I remember my mother buying me Little House on the Prairie, because she loved it as a child and thought I might, too. I did, and still do. When I began elementary school, I spent so much time in the library that the librarian came to know my tastes. She led me to Sydney Greenstreet's "All of a Kind Family" series, about a Jewish family on New York's Lower East Side. My fourth grade teacher took me to see Judy Blume speak, a thrill I will never forget.

If my teachers encouraged me, my classmates made fun. I preferred reading to socializing (Hell,I still do), and extensive time living in books gave me a vocabulary beyond my years. Kids made fun of my "scientific" words. I was not hurt. I thought them idiots.

This was all a long time ago. There were no computers or VCRs or even answering machines. Telephones had cords and plugged into the wall. The IBM Selectric Self Correct was a major deal. Japanese automakers were only beginning to destroy my hometown, the Detroit you can read about in Jeffrey's Eugenides "Middlesex."

People entertained themselves with television, music, movies at the cinema. They got together and yakked. Some read. Lots didn't.

I read my way through school, ignoring my classmates. I prayed college would be better, that I would be in the company of other readers. My family moved to California, where my peers had fallen victim to something called Whole Language Learning. Forget reading: these people could not sound out words, much less read them. My freshman English class found me with fifteen true illiterates. We were assigned The Dolphin Reader. We were to read an essay a week, then write a two page report on what we'd read. I did all of mine in one sitting, pecking away on my mother's IBM Selectric II, which had pride of place in our home. I lived in fear of breaking it.

I got an A in English.

I graduated with honors and went on to study for a Master's in English Litertaure, a horrible experience. Everybody was into lit crit and thought writing died with Melville. None of my classmates read beyond the assigned literature. They were too busy figuring out how to put a Feminst Marxist spin on Little Dorrit. I graduated with good grades but shredded sanity.

Now I have a job that has nothing to do with books. Nobody would notice if I never read another page.

Except me. I would lose my refuge, my education, my escape. I would stop learning about how other people think. How they live and love. What they wear and eat and what their politics are. I would no longer be able to explain the world to myself: the center would no longer hold.

I don't know if the advent of computers and the internet and cell phones and all the other available distractions is destroying serious reading. It seems likely. People have attention-span issues these days. ADHD is the newest scourge of childhood, and what is it but the inability to concentrate?

To every era, its disease.

I have no ready answers. No solutions. I think people will always read, just as there will always be people who study ballet or spend hours studying epilepsy in fruitflies (yes, people really do this). I think the big New York Publishing houses are going to drag their feet and hope the John Grishams of the word underwrite their refusal to modernize.

All the readers can do in the face of all this is keep reading. We don't need special spaces. Comfortable chairs or beds are always nice, as is adequate lighting, but many of us made do with dim flashlights as kids and suffer the equivalent now--no office, no desk, flourescent lighting. Blaring televisions and cell phone conversations we'd rather not hear. Reading is becoming a subversive act. Incredible. Me, nearly middle-aged, about as threatening-looking as a dachsund, engaging in subversion.

Whee!

Reading, Books

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