Sunday, April 7, 2013

Here, Not Away.

I'm become something of a lapsed reader over the past few months. I own multiple stacks of books that I perpetually intend to read. I pick one of them up, make it past a few chapters and then put it back down. I carry slimmer volumes around in handbags stuffed to capacity, all in the hope that a one hour window in my working day will magically open up, at precisely the same moment that I am experiencing an unusual degree of receptivity and concentration. Yes, I know.
In the meantime, though, I've been wondering about why it's important that I (continue to) read at all. I've spent a reasonable number of hours curled up with books, and maybe this lapse is a natural progression? Maybe, once I've chalked up enough half-read titles, I'll move on to something else - film, indiscriminate eating, walking tours, cat video production? In thinking about this, I keep playing back something a colleague once said - 'People read to escape.'  Does this have something to do with it? And, more to the point - do they?
It's easy to understand why books are seen as an 'out.' Other people, other worlds, other concerns - pedantry, history, contemporaneous hand-wringing, science fiction and fantasy - striking notes that range from the reassuringly relatable to the expressly exotic - accompanied by the proliferation of communities dedicated to giving favorite narratives their own spin, coupled with the constrasting but ever present stereotype of the reader as sole inhabitant of a self-constructed ivory tower - this seems all of a piece with wishfulness, wistfulness, wilful immersion, away-ness.
But when I  revisit the books that I most enjoyed, I realize that what I experienced when reading them wasn't escape, but a very forceful presentness. In those moments, bringing all my attention and emotion to bear on a character or a plot point, imagining, anticipating  and then feeling each 'twist' or development, I was fully aware and engaged, much more so than I have been through many classes, meetings, social encounters and conversations. The best writing - insightful, warm, joyous, laugh out loud funny, terrible and tragic, grand, remote, great - evokes a response that can be startlingly real, sometimes uncomfortably so. Even non-fiction, that preserve of research, analysis and opinion, can cast a unexpected light on the prosaic, misunderstood and taken-for-granted, making the world look a little bit different.  
I've written elsewhere about why reading is important. But what the actual act and experience of reading can do to the reader at a particular point in time is another thing altogether. Maybe the reason I don't read as much isn't that I've outgrown escapism. Far from it. It might be that I don't have the resources, right now, to fully inhabit the present.

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