I have been blessed to have multiple relationships with endeavors that result in an increased proficiency and even mastery: playing stringed instruments, guitar in the main; singing (I had absolutely no voice or tone recognition when I started at 13 and while I’m not wild about my voice now, other people seem to think I can sing); biblical knowledge; writing; and, I’m told, preaching. But the longest has been reading. I have a hard time remembering a time in my life in which I have not been actively working on a book. In my early twenties I began the habit of reading a wide variety of materials, mainly novels and critical texts; by the time I was thirty I had obsessive reading habits regarding history, especially World War II, the history of Ireland, the history of the Jewish people, the history of the church, and most of all, FDR. It’s kinda hard to see, but the bottom-most photo with the instruments shows just a bit of the (badly organized) shelves that by and large contains our 200 volumes concerning the events of 1918-1945. We have the complete works (speeches, letters, everything) of Churchill in five clothbound volumes. And I have always been a reader of novels; my father is a PhD in English and taught literature (incredibly well, I must say; my father has changed the lives of hundreds of students; I am incredibly proud to be his son); my mother holds an MA in English, also taught, was a professional writer for over twenty years, and reads mystery novels by the truckload. Dad averages a novel a day. He reads while he brushes his teeth. When I say that we are readers, I mean that we are readers. We don’t have a house. We have a bookcase inside of which we live.
But I hafta confess something. Earning an MA in English kinda killed my love. Except for Harry Potter, Hunger Games, John Grisham, and the occasional odd serious author, I read almost exclusively nonfiction. That’s okay; no biggie. I know lots of people who read only fiction and are contented with that sort of relationship to books. But here’s the thing. I have stopped reading a lot of. history. I now watch documentaries, sometimes 5-6 times; I get my fix for stories through Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO Now. There are some phenomenal television shows and films. I feel plenty intellectually engaged and entertained.
That means the only reading I am doing is work related. Pastors reading this will laugh because they know what is coming next: “work related” can mean anything from a biography of a Crusades–era mystic or a text on leadership within a Presbyterian system. I read lots of biblical commentaries; I sometimes translate Greek or read texts on exegetical hermeneutics; I might happen upon a part of a biblical story that reminds me of something from a Thomas Hardy novel (for those under thirty, not that Thomas Hardy, but this one:
) and go to Jude the Obscure (because, honestly, for me it is always about Jude) and thumb through it. But I don’t often reach for the fiction shelf anymore. And my reading almost exclusively revolves around my work and my interests in social justice. I have beem thinking that it might be time to reread the Asher Lev series by Chaim Potok (for those who don’t know, he is my all-time favorite author, and this cat right here:
But all of this to say I don’t know if I’d call myself a reader anymore. You see, books were about pleasure for me. Discovery. Magic. Entering into worlds that comforted me, excited me, made me feel more included than I sometimes felt in my life communities. Reading was how my parents instructed me in living; it was how we began our relationship when they taught me the importance of understanding different perspectives and thinking, and it continues today as we share a house with four book people and we talk about what we read. But my joy is gone. That’s not right. Joy is there, but it’s not the same. The relationship with books has changed. I’m not diving into a world of fiction and consuming it at a frenetic pace like I once did. I used to keep track of the number of books (along with titles and reviews) of every book I read and some years I would have to buy an additional notebook because it got so filled. That sense of reading is gone for me. Books don’t excite me the way they once did; I don’t really browse bookstores any more. I happily read blogs, articles, well-managed discussion threads, and other mainly online sources, but I’m not reading. Not the way I used to, anyway. Not the way my father does, or other voracious readers I know. And to call oneself a reader, at least in my estimation, means an almost obsessive consumption of the written word, sometimes to the exclusion of other things. Perhaps this is my bipolar talking and my own unique, and somewhat extreme definition of the term, but that’s what’s on my mind. And as writing is part of my therapy, here we are.
I guess I’m try to ask my small, but much appreciated readership this: have any of you experienced this phenomenon? Do you read differently? Has your relationship with reading changed? If so, how? Is there any lament for you, as there is with me? I’m interested to know.