A Reading Challenge, in So Many Ways

In which I attempt to read for pleasure…

I saw a post on Instagram tonight from @curtiswritesbooks. Curtis is promoting a reading challenge that technically starts on the 7th of May, but the post encouraged us to start early if we so desired… and I desired.

I live in a house that is full of books: they are the remnants of my years as an academic and my husband’s years as a thoughtful, energetic writer and avid reader. He is amazing: you put any bit of paper in front of him with words on it and he will read it. Whatever is on the kitchen table — be it the New Yorker, the London Review of Books, a Land’s End catalog, a promotional flyer from Circus Circus Reno — he will read it.

Sitting in the Living Room with Books Aplenty

In that aspect, we could not possibly be more different: I shun books, though I still buy them compulsively. I cannot open a book without immediately feeling drowsy, or antsy, or both. Sitting down to read — which is pretty much all I did between 1993 and 2015 while I was building an academic career — could not possibly be a less pleasant activity in my mind. Yet I am also very aware of how large a problem this is when your deepest desire is to write books.

My husband and I have had conversations about reading, especially about why I don’t do it. “It feels like work,” I tell him. “Every time I read something, I am performing all sorts of mental machinations, trying to figure out where the next article lies, or judging and analyzing whatever shortcomings I perceive in the text.” After all, reading was my bread and butter for so long, and “reading like a professor” is a skill that I worked hard to develop and am reluctant to unlearn. He says he understands.

“But,” he insists, “if you want to write, you have to read. You have to read a lot.”

I protest, but I know he is right. I have to read more if I want to write more, or even write at all.

Enter the #readwithcurtis challenge. For someone who has often been accused of relentless aloofness, I love social media challenges more than one might expect. I like the sense of disembodied community, strangers in the ether(net) partaking of the same joy without actually having to go out for coffee or some other dreaded form of socially-driven beverages. I don’t know Curtis, he doesn’t know me, but he has an awesome idea and I want to join in. So I post “I’m in!!!” on his Instagram feed, put out my cigarette, and head inside to choose a book.

After a few minutes of internal protest — the idontwannas, I call them — I finally choose a book, landing on Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, which (right now) echoes my desire to write creative nonfiction pieces about my travels.

It’s an interesting choice, since Solnit is garnering much attention right now as an outspoken critic of the current administration, which some still call the presidency. Wanderlust, however, was published 18 years ago. Though it has some political tang — the first chapter discusses nuclear testing sites in Nevada — the tone is overall less strident, less aggrieved, and still filled with wonder at the beauty of the world.

Because I knew I would have a problem staying focused on the reading for a minimum of 20 minutes, I used my Forest app to plant a virtual tree that will die if you use your phone at all during the 25 minutes that the tree needs to “grow.”

Hey, don’t judge — whatever works. If gamification works to get me reading again, I’ll do it.

As it turns out, I got through 25 minutes of reading quite easily (and pleasurably), thanks to Curtis and Forest, as well as Rebecca Solnit’s engaging essay about the importance of walking through the spaces we inhabit.

I feel like this is a small step forward in my effort to reclaim my life (and my joys) post-academia. What a cruel, cruel twist to have the written word become my seemingly eternal foe when I left the profession; it feels vengeful, as if the university did it just for spite because eff you, that’s why.

But in the same way that I committed myself and my resources to getting a doctorate, I am taking measures (albeit, measures so small that you could hardly see them on the Planck scale) to reconfigure my settings (so to speak) regarding reading.

Tonight, I read with Curtis, at least in spirit. Tomorrow, I will do the same.

It’s a start, if a slow one. But as was the case with the tortoise and the hare, often times slow and steady wins the race.

Image credit: https://www.iaspaper.net/slow-steady-wins-race/