Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Reader's Block

What do you do when your passion becomes your job?

I got four new books from the library today. There's another pile of books lying around the house, including two that I'm supposed to be reviewing and one out-of-print one off my shelf that I read years ago and was looking forward to rereading. But I don't feel like reading anything.

This happens a few times a year, often after a reading binge, and usually goes like this: I have a big list of books I want to read, like the Young Readers Choice Award nominees, or a recommended-reading list from a library or online, or just a bunch of books I heard about and put reserves on. Then I read and read and read, steadily, obsessively, happily. Then something happens to break the momentum: I go on vacation, or I go back to work after being on vacation, or relatives come to visit, or sometimes it's just that I come to the end of my list. And I stop reading. Oh, I'll skim magazines and online stuff, short-term text I can read in one sitting, but nothing that requires a commitment, no leap into another mind's fully realized world. Sometimes I slow down, taking a week to finish a book, and then starting the next one and stalling; sometimes I just stop short.

When I stop reading I am panicky and adrift. I blank out in libraries, skim rotely through the new-book shelves, sometimes checking out a stack of books that I hope will resusitate my interest, only to find when I get home that they just overwhelm me. I hyperventilate in bookstores: so many books! So many! how will I ever read them all? Where should I start? What about the ones at home that I haven't read yet? What about the book I'm supposed to review, or the one that kid recommended to me and keeps insisting that I have to read, or that new one that fits into that 5th grade social-studies curriculum that I want to read so I can booktalk it, or the one I've heard is kind of risque that I should read to see if I'm willing to put it in the middle school section and face a possible challenge? Or what about those adult books that I'm behind on? The serious ones I never got to in college? The hip groovy ones everyone's talking about? The one by someone I know, that I want to read partly out of curiosity to see if I recognize any of the characters? I feel like an element I love has turned on me, and I am drowning in it.

When I was a kid, I read wholly for myself. I don't remember ever speaking to a school or public librarian about what I was reading, and rarely to a teacher. I never belonged to a summer reading club, never kept a reading log. I was a purist and a snob: it would have defiled the experience for me to show it off or present it to adults for approval. My older cousin, an editor and writer, occasionally passed on a particularly great book, and I compared notes with bookish friends, but mostly reading was a solitary, almost holy pleasure, pursued for its own sake. I remember being about 7 or 8 and walking up and down the fiction stacks in the children's section of my public library, running one hand along the spines of the books, getting a rush of intense happiness at the feel of their plastic jacket-covers, and at the idea of all those books literally at my fingertips.

I was lucky enough to go to school at a time and place when regular public schools tried ideas that only "progressive" alternative schools practice now. I spent 2nd and 3rd grades in a mixed-grade open classroom where we were encouraged to plan our own time each day. Most days found me in the reading corner, gobbling down one Scholastic paperback after another. As I got older, reading was my escape: from my unhappy parents, my erratic and difficult social life, my increasing feelings of being different and out of place. I was single in college and for most of my 20's, and reading in some ways took the place of a lover. I was broke and often lonely, but basically I was happy: I lived near a library and a good used bookstore, and used both. A lot.

Then I became a librarian, and reading became my job.

You know how, when you were a kid and had a book report, even for a book you chose, you suddently didn't want to read it? There's something about obligation that taints even the most decadent pleasure. And even more than that, there's something about being a school librarian, being the kind of cheerleader for reading that I would have run a mile away from as a child, that gets to me sometimes and makes me just want to hide under the covers with back issues of the New Yorker. It's hard to escape the feeling that I've been hired to convince innocent children that reading is somehow good for them, like exercise and vegetables. In the process I've managed to convince myself, only too well. My reading id, that compulsive gobbler of text, suddenly tastes vitamins and gags: it's spinach after all, and I say the hell with it.

I know this will end, that I'll start reading again, because I love it, it's my joy and my addiction, and even having to do it can't keep me away. Sometime soon, I'll once again feel lucky to have a job that essentially consists of being an evangelist for that passion. Probably, and not coincidentally, that will happen when the kids come back to school and I marvel that not everyone who loves reading feels as private about it as I did: lots of are excited to talk about books with an adult, and hey, maybe I would have been too, if I'd met the right librarian. They pester me for recommendations; they preen as they hand in their summer reading lists, each book carefully numbered, into the 30's or 50's or 90's, dozens more books than I managed to read this lazy summer.

The kids feed my reading jones as I feed theirs. When they tell me about the awesome book they found--have I ever read it, it's so great, it's so great, is there anything else like that one--I remember. I remember that it isn't spinach after all. I remember the way it felt back when I was up past bedtime, crouched by the nightlight, frantically turning pages, and the way it will feel again, soon, when I open one more book: a kids' book or an adult book, a new one or an old one, one that's on my list or one I pull randomly off a shelf, it really doesn't matter. The lists don't matter, the reviews don't matter, the booktalks don't matter. Later, they will, but at that moment, letting myself fall one more time into the story, that's all that matters: what I'm reading right then, and where it will take me.


Blogger Anna said...

I want your job.

- a reader trapped in the technological world.

(beautiful post.)

7:29 AM  

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