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Waiting Lists

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Well, I suppose we could go around in circles some more, but I still come down on the side of teaching what is necessary to know, not in trying to pick those parts of what is necessary to know that you think students might like, or giving up on what is necessary to know in order to pick other things students might like.

Robert thinks that what gets taught in  English classes is inevitably boring, and I’d agree, except that a lot of what he finds boring I found, and find, completely fascinating, and a lot of what he thinks is “a good story” I find dull, repetitious and predictable.  

But that doesn’t explain why I am now in one of those periods when I can’t find a book to read.  It’s not that I don’t have books around the house.   I’ve got tons of them, and a couple of weeks ago my editor sent me a nice package full of things wrritten by my fellow authors at SMP.  So I’ve got books I’ve had around for a while and new books both, and none of them seems to be what I want.

I  have no idea why this happens.   Most of the time, I can go from reading one thing to reading the next without a hitch.   My biggest delay in going from one book to another is finding out where I put the thing I want to read next.

But every once in a while, I get to a point where I just get stopped dead.  I’ve got books all over the house.  I’ve even got a book or two that I thought would be the next thing up.  I take them out and put them on the couch or the loveseat or the coffee table and stare at them.  I pick up one or the other and read a few pages and just can’t make myself go on.

Sometimes this happens because I’ve got something on my mind that would distract me from anything, but at the moment I don’t think that’s the case.  I do have something on my mind at the moment, but it’s not so pressing that I’m unable to read any more.   I got through my book of essays on  Renaissance art in a very happy frame of mind, and  was sure, when I did, that I was going to go on and read this big book of essays by  Samuel Johnson I’ve had sitting around the house for forever.  

I’ve never read anything by Johnson except scraps and quotations, and several writers I like a lot think he’s wonderful, so  I thought  I’d try him and see what he was like.  But I can’t make myself get into the book, no matter how hard I try, and I keep running up against a real weird road block:  I keep picturing  Robbie  Coltrane playing  Johnson in series three of Blackadder

If you don’t know Blackadder, you ought to try it.   Not only is it funny, but it stars Rowan Atkinson, who was one of the few people in British public life to stick up for freedom of speech and expression after the Danish cartoon mess.  Somehow, I don’t think he’s going to be in favor of the new UN ania for making “respect for religion” a “human right.”

Sometimes the reason  I can’t read something new is that the old writer had such a strong narrative voice that I can’t get it out of my head, and the new writers I’m looking at are nowhwere near as distinctive.

In this case, however, the last thing I read was an academic book, which was well written enough but hardly dramatically singular.  

And I have projects goin, which means I have books I need to read to complete them, but I can’t get myself interested in any of those, either. 

And sometimes, I just get sick of reading.  I’ve been reading and writing as a vocation as well as an avocation most of my adult life, and there get to be spots where I just want to chuck the whole thing for a month or two and go on safari or something.

This is not the same thing as not being able to read, because you just can’t focus, the way I was a few weeks ago.   This is more a feeling that  I’m getting stale in some ultimate way, that the world and life has to consist of more than words on a page.

And yet words on a page is what  I’ve loved for as long as I can remember.

And it’s words on a page, too, not “a good story” or whatever is “interesting.”   I read and have always read nearly everything–I read Nietzche for the first time at thirteen, and Aristotle before that.   By the time I hit junior high school, I’d made my way through most of the classics of nineteenth century fiction and fallen completely in love with the American expatriates in the Paris of the 1920s.

By the time I  hit high school proper I was infatuated with Camus and Sarte and Jean Annouilh.  Which I’ve probably just mispelled.  

There was a point in the Sixties when there were a lot of modern writers who were actually very good, and writing about something other than their insular lives.  That was the time when movies became something more than entertainment, too, so on top of what I was reading I had Lawrence of Arabia and A Man for All Seasons.  My big movie at that period, though, was Becket, which was of course by Jean Annouilh.

I saw my first serious stage production around this time, too, and it was a production of Dylan  Thomas’s Under Milk Wood put on at the summer stock theater in Westport.  Over the last few years, just before he died, Paul Newman was involved in a project to revive and revitalize that theater, and it always makes me a little depressed to think it ever had to be revitalized.

But you see where I’m going here–without the help of a single English teacher, I stumbled on just the kind of “literary” writing that makes some people here bored and annoyed. 

My English teachers, in fact, probably knew next to nothing about the contemporary stuff I was reading, and most of them wouldn’t have understood it if they had.  They were good at classics and at those squishy Tells A Moral Lesson contemporary books that elementary and junior high schools live and breathe on, but I’d have been lucky if they’d even heard of Camus.  Some of the other stuff I was reading–Ginsberg and Kerouac, for instance–would have horrified them.

This feeling that I’ve just spent too much of my life reading is very recent.  It started showing up about three or four years ago, and it comes and goes at uncertain intervals even now. 

It’s always difficult, because I read the way some people take in air–I just do it, it’s almost an automatic reflex, and everything feels wrong if I go too long without doing it. 

Usually, the best solution to this mood, at least for me, is to find something very straightforward and analytical.  The perfect thing would be, maybe, Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American  Novel, which I’ve been looking for for a while, but it’s lost in the office at the moment.  It could be months before I find it again.

I’ve got a big hardcover called Cultural  Amnesia, by Clive James, but I’m put off by the fact that it isn’t a comprehensive book but a series of short essays.  I’m not sure I want to bop from essay to essay like that, and especially not sure I want to do it when the essays are arranged in alphabetical order by the last name of the subjects.  Maybe I care too much about historical progressions.

Ack.  It’s getting late and I have to go get something done, and I’ve had no sleep, because of course my son’s trip was late last night, and then there was fog.

Maybe my biggest problem is that I can’t think of what I would do if I wasn’t reading.

There doesn’t seem to be anything else.

Written by janeh

April 2nd, 2009 at 5:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Waiting Lists'

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  1. I agree with teaching what students need to know, and am not deterred by the fact that some students will find some of what they are required to read boring. I liked some required reading, disliked some and absolutely hated a few of them, but I don’t regret having had to read them. At least now I know I don’t like Hemingway or Hardy.

    But I, like you, have and still do read, well, obsessively is the only word, as long as I can remember. I’ll read anything – I was going to say ‘as long as it’s not Hemingway’, but that’s not true. If I were stuck on a desert island with nothing else to read, I’d read Hemingway.

    I’ve never been in your position. I’ve always wanted to read, and I’ve pretty well always had some other interests or hobbies that I could do if I wanted. Other people have said I spend too much time reading, but I’ve never felt that way myself and never felt at a loss because I didn’t want to read. I periodically go through phases when I don’t want to read certain types of books, but I always read. I used to read great swathes of historical romances, and now almost never do. Ditto for various types of mystery novels. I almost never read anything that could be described as ‘literary’, so I can hardly say that’s something I pick up and drop, and my non-fiction reading depends heavily on my interests of the moment. If I suddenly feel a complete lack of interest in, say, vampire shagger novels, or mysteries with recipes in the back, I look for a different type of book. I don’t feel like I read to much and need to think of something else to do. It must be a terrible feeling!


    2 Apr 09 at 6:32 am

  2. Things to do when reading palls:

    1. Clean closets or some other boring household chore. If you’re not ready for a good book by the time you’re done, at least you have a clean closet. Sounds to me like organizing the office might unearth some good reading material too.

    2. Work at a hobby. I have several I do. If you don’t, maybe it’s time to get one. Crocheting is about the minimum equipment hobby, you just need one crochet hook and some yarn.

    3. Re-read something. Sometimes revisiting a comforting old work gets me ready for something new.

    4. Resolve *not* to read anything for 24 hours (this includes cereal boxes and the internet). This would drive me insane, and I’d grab something immediately when the time was up. Or even before.

    5. Make a list of all the stuff you’re not reading, and rank them in order of “if I were reading, this one would be first”. Then at least you’re ready when the need hits. And you may talk yourself into it halfway down the list.

    6. You mentioned projects that need to be done. Commit to just work 15 minutes on each one and then quit. You might find you want to work more on one or more of them. Or not.

    7. Watch some TV. Within 10 minutes you’ll be twitching for a book.

    Good luck. This may be more generalized doldrums, which manifests as lack of impetus to read, since that’s your most valued and frequent activity. If you were a runner, you’d be tired of running. A chef who couldn’t cook. You get the idea. Consider your general level of ick.

    Hope you work through it soon. So many books, so little time….


    2 Apr 09 at 1:28 pm

  3. “Robert thinks that what gets taught in English classes is inevitably boring, and I’d agree, except that a lot of what he finds boring I found, and find, completely fascinating, and a lot of what he thinks is “a good story” I find dull, repetitious and predictable.”

    I am maligned–or at least misunderstood. I don’t think what’s taught in English classes is “inevitably” boring. If I did, I’d give up trying to change it. I do think English teachers often pick either books which appeal to them, or are “morally improving”–meaning they share the morals and politics of the teacher. This restricts the range of works on offer. I think if Shakespeare weren’t already established as sacred before we had English teachers in the modern sense, they’d have tossed him out of the Canon for having too much action and not enough focus on talking through relationships. They’re also inclined to confuse matters of taste with moral and intellectual superiority.

    The early readers take no harm–other than the male students especially being bored out of their skulls. The average readers are often never exposed to types of writing they would enjoy and profit from. And THAT is a tragedy.

    If English classes are not for the enjoyment of the students, neither are they intended for the amusement of the faculty. If six books are assigned for a semester of high school, surely out of the vast field of English literature it ought to be possible to find two written to an acceptable standard which have plots or characters–or come from genres–which teacher may not favor, but which may broaden the students’ notion of what might lurk between the covers of a book. I think if such a policy were followed, every now and then a student might come to class and ask “This guy Rostand: did he write anything else?” or “This IVANHOE business: I know it’s a novel, but was it really like that back then?”

    Across the board, English teachers seem very dissatisfied with present outcomes. Normally, when one desires different outcomes, one changes one’s behavior. For so great a goal as improved reading skills, perhaps not even throwing in something the students might like would not be too great a sacrifice.

    But I bet it is.

    As for the reading problem: I never get where I don’t read, but I get to where I flit from book to book and make no worthwhile progress. Generally time cures. Otherwise related books seem to help–two or three non-fiction on the same subject, perhaps, or a historical novel with a history book covering the same time and place–or a life of the author with a piece of his fiction.


    2 Apr 09 at 4:28 pm

  4. I also have suddenly been unable to read (normally I read like you do, compulsively). And judging by the discussions on the library Reader’s Adviser listserv I belong to, the problem is not unusual among those of us who essentially read as a default activity. For some reason, occasionally it happens to us all.

    The most popular solutions we’ve come up with involve putting the books away for a bit, and doing something else–work on a hobby, learn how to do something new (involving computers or sewing or something which doesn’t involve much reading), go to the zoo, anything which you normally enjoy, or have always meant to try, & which doesn’t involve reading.

    Don’t worry, the desire to read will return.

    Lee B

    2 Apr 09 at 8:31 pm

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