10.28.2012

what i'm reading: shoulds vs. wants

An ongoing theme in my life has been ridding myself of as many shoulds as I possibly can - or, to put it more positively, to spend my time doing what I want, rather than what some voice inside my head or some external pressure tells me I ought to.

We all have obligations. Work, family, exercise - there are always things we don't really want to do, but must do anyway. Then there are the obligations we give ourselves, the shoulds we add to our own too-full plates. Those are the ones I've been shedding.

Lunches with co-workers that I really don't like. Extended email conversations that I don't have time for. I used to see blockbuster movies that I had no interest in, because, for some strange reason, I thought I had to. And certain books. Like so many people who love to read, I never have enough time to read what I want. So why read anyone else's idea of what I should read? Whether they're the current hip books that people are talking about, or classics we think are "good for us" (whatever that means), or a book we dislike that we force ourselves to finish, many readers labour under reading shoulds.

Brad Leithauser, writing in The New Yorker, seems to have a lot of them.
If your bookshelf speaks to you, it’s likely to be uttering reproaches. Or so my experience runs. All those unread books! — the must-reads of last year, or the year before, hot d├ębuts of young novelists, frosty farewells from the aging and once hot, books whose catchy titles beguiled you into buying them, books that will (so their blurbs promise, or threaten) change your life forever. They address us in the voices of aggrieved friends, saying, Why don’t you call me? Or, Why don’t you ever pay me a visit? Or, ultimately, Why are you neglecting me?

But the bookshelf offers other voices of reproach — deeper and more solemn voices. These speak less like friends than like grandparents, whose stern, measured cadences will not be stilled by any jocular protests of good intentions. They ask you, When will you get serious? They ask, When will you grow up? These are the voices issuing from the weightiest projects in your library.
Leithauser lists some of the very weighty reads he feels he should tackle, such as Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", and others that he's impressively completed, like Proust and Trollope. Then he describes an equally impressive project that he's on the verge of completing.
My most recent big literary undertaking has been, in terms of sheer pages, the most sizable of all: Dickens’s complete fiction. It comes to something like nine thousand pages, and I’m nearly finished; only “The Old Curiosity Shop” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” remain. I don’t know what to think on discovering that my favorite Dickens is mostly the world’s favorite Dickens. It feels appropriate, anyway, that this writer who so stoked and revelled in his international popularity should be fairly, representatively epitomized by his most popular books.
Now, I absolutely love Dickens. And I hope, in the course of my lifetime, to read his entire oeuvre. But I would never read them consecutively, all at once, and I'd never want to. If I tried to, I'd become bored and irritated, the books would all blend together, and I'd quickly lose touch with everything I love about Dickens.

Leithauser doesn't specifically say he read all that Dickens consecutively, with no other books in between, but I think he implies it.
Those foot-soldier readers who successfully march through all of Dickens’s fiction may wind up feeling like David [Copperfield] at his journey’s end, with shoes in a woeful condition (“the upper leathers had broken and burst until the very shape and form of shoes had departed from them”) and skin powdered “white with chalk and dust, as if I had come out of a limekiln.” Reading projects of this old-fashioned sort are the equivalent of a long pilgrimage on foot. The pace and the proddings of modern life, forever segmenting one’s existence into smaller and busier intervals, counsel against them. On the other hand, those patient, reproachful, grandpaternal voices continue to mutter on your bookshelf. And they say, Start walking.
One modest goal of mine is to read everything George Orwell ever wrote. So every once in a while, I read some Orwell. I want to eventually read all 26 Shakespeare plays. And so, every once in a while, I read one or two more. I can't imagine anything that would kill my love of Shakespeare faster than trying to read all 26 plays, consecutively, with nothing in between.

I am not entirely free of reading shoulds. I read and loved the first two volumes of Taylor Branch's history of the US civil rights movement, wrapped in a biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., often called "The King Books". In the third and final volume, Branch's dense, somewhat difficult writing style became impenetrable. Gleaning any information from each metre-long, convoluted sentence became a trial. Halfway through book three, I gave up. That was in 2007, yet I remember that I haven't finished the series, and I still intend to finish that book. (I notice that almost a year later, I was still mentioning it in "what i'm reading" posts.) I have one other similar should, also the final book in a trilogy in which I lost interest.

In general, though, life is too short, reading time so much shorter. Here's my take: read whatever you like.

14 comments:

Amy said...

Here, here! I agree, though I still struggle with not finishing a book I start even if I don't like it. I belong to two reading groups, and I always resent it when we are reading something I don't enjoy. I have gotten much better at deciding not to read whatever the group is reading if I don't like it. I have considered whether to quit the groups so that I can just read what I want, but I enjoy the conversations so it's a tough choice.

laura k said...

Is that a recent development? I remember your saying you didn't do book clubs because you don't like being told what to read.

Amy said...

One is, not the other. We have for many years now belonged to a havurah that started as four families doing some family things and also adult Jewish learning. Now the kids are gone, so it is only the latter. We meet about four times a year and read anything from magazine article to full books about various Jewish issues: religious, political, social, ethical, historical. Always non-fiction.

A year ago two of us asked whether we could read fiction; only the women were interested. So we decided that twice a year we would meet with other women and just do fiction.

I rarely read much for the non-fiction group since I have read enough of that stuff and feel like I don't need to read any more, but we really like the people, and if we didn't have this structure, we might not see them four times a year.

The fiction group so far has been fine because I played a big role in selecting the books. The current book is not as much to my liking, and I didn't bother finishing it. (Yay, me!)

So your memory is accurate. I don't really like book groups, but I like talking about books, as long as it's a book I want to read.

I still don't like being told what to read. :)

laura k said...

Interesting! I don't know any nonfiction book clubs, except a socialist reading circle. I would be more interested in a nonfiction book club.

My mother has led the same book club for 20 years or so, and before that, led a different one for 10 or so years. I've never gotten the impression I would enjoy it.

Amy said...

Well, our fiction group has met three times---the first two books were books I had already read and enjoyed and wanted to discuss with others. The third book I didn't know and didn't particularly like. Now we seem to be at an impasse on what we should read next. We are finding that our tastes in fiction are not necessarily compatible. Some like mysteries; I don't. Some like only uplifting novels (WTF?). Some don't want anything too long. I wanted to read literary works that I could discuss on an academic-like level. I am not sure we will ever agree on a 4th book, so this may be a very short-lived group.

The non-fiction reading was worthwhile for a number of years, but after all these years, we are starting to run out of material that isn't repeating what we have already read. Plus we all tend to agree on most issues, so it's hardly a rousing debate when we meet. I'd rather pick my own material, but as I said, the social benefits outweigh the cost of reading some stuff I am not interested in reading, and I do a lot of skimming, skipping and failing to complete.

laura k said...

The fiction experience sounds like exactly what I would expect. Only I'm surprised it took that long to unravel! :)

Amy said...

LOL! Well, the other woman and I who decided to try the group had selected the first two books before we formed the larger group. For the third book, we relied on a review, and the book was well-written and interesting; I just don't find short stories that rewarding to read because by the time I understand the characters, the story is over. Now for the 4th one, we are circulating emails, and it is clear that there are a number of us (including me) who have strong opinions about what we want to read. It should be interesting to see what happens. But I'll be damned if I am going to read a popular best seller mystery/love story with a happy ending in fewer than 200 pages!

laura k said...

If anyone reading this thread has seen the book club episode of Corner Gas, that sums it up for me.

impudent strumpet said...

This is the enormous advantage of not buying books and instead reading exclusively from the library. I put everything I want to read and feel I should read and think has the potential to be moderately interesting to read on my holds list and read them in the order they come in. The computer and the behaviour of my fellow patrons decide for me. If I haven't read something yet, I can say "It's on my holds list." If the pile on my end table gets too big, they all have due dates so I have a perfect excuse to send them back unread.

laura k said...

The library definitely lets us read risk-free. My reading gets divided into three categories: must-buy, library, and library and may buy eventually. I doubt I'll ever want to stop buying books altogether, but OTOH there's no way I could possibly buy all the books I read or want to read.

deang said...

I go through periods when I prioritize my reading list and commit to follow it, but after a while I always end up getting distracting by newer discoveries and just reading things as they appeal to me.

I've only recently discovered that I like Dickens, after being put off reading him in college by a friend who summed up his plot devices by saying, "What a coincidence!" I'm currently reading David Copperfield and hope to read more. Reading him somehow helps me deal with difficult family situations.

I've mostly been wary of book clubs, too. Several years ago, I joined a new one at a small, local, very progressive bookstore (Monkeywrench Books) and we started with Mike Davis's Planet of Slums, which was great, only I appeared to be the only one who had time to read it thoroughly. The other members were all academics who had such huge reading responsibilities already that they barely managed to skim the book and couldn't really discuss much. The group disbanded because of everyone's tight schedules before choosing a second book, but I was impressed that they'd chosen such a great book to start off with.

laura k said...

A book club at a small, local, radical bookstore has great potential! Too bad it didn't work out.

Re Dickens, the two things he is criticized for are the crazy coincidences (like modern soap operas) and the shallow, caricature-like characters. The reader either accepts those and enjoys them or doesn't, I suppose. I love them.

Life is chock full of coincidence - sometimes I feel life is entirely coincidence - and of people glimpsed but never known. For me, Dickens' characters are the faces in the crowd - brief focus, quickly drawn, but unforgettable - and you get the sense that there are countless more out there, if only we had a moment to focus on them.

David Copperfield is on my to-re-read list. Great that you're reading it, such a brilliant book.

Amy said...

I loved David Copperfield---I really should read it again.

Maybe we can have an online "book group" for it. :)

laura k said...

Maybe we can have an online "book group" for it. :)

Sure, let me know how it goes. :)