Reading, as Dorothy recently pointed out, has its phases, ushered in and out by one’s attention span, which in turn is influenced by what is happening in life outside the reading chair. And so it is that sometimes I have gone for long stretches happily turning the pages of big books. And then weeks or months go by when all the words I need can be found in the New Yorker and Dorothy Sayers. And quite often, the back of a cereal box is good enough.
This rise and fall in attentiveness is as normal as the change of seasons. But also normal, although a little rarer, is when a certain type of text becomes something we know we no longer need. Like an unreliable boyfriend, some reading material will seem to meet your needs, but then it begins to exact such a toll or bore you to tears, which might be the same thing, and so a break-up is inevitable. Here’s a list of the things I’ve given up, permanently, I’m pretty sure.
- Political Blogs. Before the 2004 election, I read Daily Kos, and The Talking Points Memo and the many links on their sites not just religiously but obsessively. The buzz and hope and hype on those blogs was intoxicating. But then, after the election, people who’d loved John Kerry suddenly hated him. There was a lot of anger and angst. It made me feel awful. But what really made me stop going there was when I posted something and someone was just so gratuitously MEAN to me and then another person did the same thing. It wasn’t a nice place to spend time in. And I didn’t need that. I want kindness mixed in with my political chatter. Now I know that’s not going to be possible and I have returned to the New York Times and a really large dose of scepticism about everything I read there.
- Books about writing. For several years, I read a lot of books about writing. They were helpful, sometimes inspiring, and every once in a while led me in a very wrong direction. But that’s not what put me off them. What happened is that I reached a saturation point with them. I discovered there isn’t any more room in me for more information about how to write a story. Now, what’s needed is story writing.
- Cooking magazines. This might be temporary. But I’ve cancelled my cooking magazines in favor of just, well, cooking. A little like the books about writing category. I can never give up cookbooks though.
- Best Seller, Much Buzzed About, Contemporary Fiction. The Secret Life of Bees, The Three Junes, things like that. After reading several disappointing books in this category, I realized I don’t have time to wade through the mediocre to get to the great. It’s a little like when you’re single and you decide you really, really don’t need to date anymore because you already have a lot of great friends to hang out with (I can always re-read Jane Austen, I mean), and when there’s nothing to do on a Friday, you are fine being on your own (there’s always the cereal box). The truth is, when something really good comes along, someone will point it out to you. Or it will find you. That way I don’t miss things like Sebald’s great book, Austerlitz or the fun of Alexander McCall Smith.
- Legal advance sheets. These are the reports of the most recent cases to come out of our state court and the federal courts. If you don’t keep up with them, they start to multiply, like dust bunnies. A few days ago, I recycled a pile of them and felt great about it. And then it occurred to me that, like good contemporary fiction, the good cases rise to the top. My colleagues tell me about them. Or I’ll find them when I’m working in that area.
- Book reviews. I like the ones I read on your blogs better.
- Fashion magazines. Charlotte has become my fashion goddess. Don’t mix pink and black and you’re home free.
Oh, and one other thing reading related — this morning, I picked up the September 2006 issue of Poetry magazine, a magazine I like because it doesn’t require a huge commitment of time. And there was a review of Seamus Heaney’s new book District and Circle. It’s a book all about something I’m in love with: objects — how they outlive us and contain us. I’m thrilled to have been reminded this is out there to be read, and that I can read it, because I’ve made room for it by abandoning Daily Kos and In Style and The Secret Life of Bees.