In defiance of New Year’s resolutions, which oftentimes stem from the idea that a life must be fundamentally changed in order to improve, I like to use this time of year to wonder how I might rededicate myself to some meaningful aspect of my life. This approach works even better if I try to identify something I’ve started to neglect because I feel like I don’t have enough time or energy to devote to it. Because usually, when I’ve convinced myself I don’t have time for something I think I care deeply about, I either don’t care as much about it as I thought, or I’m avoiding the kind of next level attention I could bring to it because doing so feels too hard.
And in recent months – maybe even in recent years – it’s becoming clearer to me that I don’t give a certain kind reading nearly as much attention as I used to. This is significant not just because I’m a writer, but because I’ve always believed that the information we consume signifies where we direct our attention and why.
It’s not that I don’t read. I probably read more now than I ever did. And reading, in a sense, has never been more of a preoccupation for all of us. Social media is, after all, a form of reading, as is the textosphere, and the internet. The problem is that I’ve become hooked on immediately digestible and available information, frequently filling my head with the intellectual equivalent of a coffee and a donut.
And I’m definitely starting to feel the long term effects. It’s not just that I feel overstimulated and empty after ingesting this kind of information. I think many of us are aware of such intellectual bloat, and wish to do something about it. But a deeper problem reveals itself the moment I try to invest my energy into the intellectual equivalent of kale or, to be honest, just a single, flavor-packed blueberry. I’ll sit down with the best intentions, but after just a few minutes, my mind immediately reveals its most recent training. It assumes that anything worth reading will grab me just as readily as the phone that pings, tsks, and wriggles in my pocket all day. It wants to sprint, to fly, to be tickled and tantalized. It does not want to complete even a single page of Dickens.
The problem, in other words, is not just that I’ve become an unknowing consumer of relatively empty information. It’s that my mind is so accustomed to this kind of fuel, it has lost its taste for the good stuff.
And I’m not alone. You can’t get through a positive rating of a newly published book without encountering star-spangly adjectives, many of which refer to things like pacing or drama or humor. Pick up one of those volumes, and the chances are excellent that you will encounter a birth, death, or maiming in the opening chapter. And while many of these volumes deserve the praise they’re given and more, should the immediacy by which a piece of literature grabs us be so important? And while literature might be evolving to involve more spark and shimmer, do we leave anything behind when we kick slower reads to the curb? Can we trust that these evolutions protect literary integrity, knowing that many modern readers want the same hit out of their novels as they do out of their television shows?
In all honesty, I’m not sure I know the answer. But I plan to find out. This year, I resolve to rededicate myself to reading. Or, more specifically, the kind of reading I’ve neglected. The books that are quieter or refuse to be digested quickly, the ones that might take a month – or more – to read, but give me enough to chew on for a year. Maybe even a lifetime.
It won’t be easy. I’ll have to reread many sentences and put my phone in quarantine, which means I might get the shakes from the FOMO. I’ll have to relearn how to focus and use proper lighting. My eyelids will need to take on some strength training. But I think all these muscles are worth redeveloping. Perhaps in all of us.
Art: Octopus, Lantern Press