Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A resolution to read

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The author's daughter

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your pop culture resolution for 2015?”

I can’t remember not being able to read. The thought of making time in my life for books has always seemed vaguely redundant, like making time to breathe. Growing up, I was often scolded for bringing a book to the dinner table, much as kids these days need to be told to put down their phones, and I read everywhere—in bed, on the train, sometimes even while walking down the street. Looking around now, though, I find that I rarely sit down for the kind of extended encounter that a good book demands. I read a lot of nonfiction this year, mostly in service of one writing project or another, but embarrassingly few novels: unless I’m forgetting a few, which I doubt, I only managed to get through Ada by Nabokov, Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, and the first half of The Goldfinch, although I also found time to revisit Black Sunday and The Magus. I can chalk part of this up to the ongoing shift in my consumption of art and pop culture since the birth of my daughter: I watched a ton of television, didn’t play any video games, and only made it to theaters for Interstellar. And don’t even get me started on live music or theater.

But the relative absence of books from the picture feels different, and more troubling. In a sense, it’s only an extension of a trend that began long before my daughter came along. I spent my twenties living alone in New York, and I read a lot. After giving up on my first attempt at writing a novel, I spent the ensuing year reading everything I thought I should have read but hadn’t, reasoning that it was infinitely easier to get through Paradise Lost and War and Peace than to write even the most trivial piece of fiction on my own. I also had a regular commute on the subway for close to four years, during which I read thousands of pages—I even picked up a complete set of the Yale Shakespeare paperbacks because I could hold them in one hand, and made it all the way from Henry VI, Part I through The Two Noble Kinsmen. Working from home, and later my marriage, changed the dynamic considerably, since I wanted to spend my evenings in other ways. I still loved buying books, though, so I inevitably became more of a browser. And there are times when I think that my extended defense of browsing as a pursuit is less a meaningful argument in itself than a justification of my own habits. Browsing, by definition, demands very little; it has its rewards, but prolonged immersion and engagement aren’t among them.

The author's daughter

To the extent that I have a resolution for the new year, then, it’s to reincorporate books, especially fiction, into my life in a more deliberate way. As much as I complain about not having any free time, with a toddler and an unfinished draft competing for every spare minute, that isn’t really true—there’s usually an hour or more each evening, after Beatrix has gone to bed and the day’s work is done, that I could spend with a book, rather than opening up my laptop while listening to a Lord of the Rings commentary track for the third time. There are countless novels, both old and new, screaming at me from the shelves: I’m a third of the way through James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, and I’ve been guiltily avoiding titles as different as The Group and Life: A User’s Manual. Part of me suspects that I’ve loved books for so long because I was able to take them for granted; when I shook my head over studies showing that a third of all adults in the United States haven’t read a book since high school, there was something smug about it, like being proud of being able to eat as much as you want because you were born with a good metabolism. But just as I’ve had to think more about diet and exercise than I did in my teens, I’ve also got to be conscious about staying healthy in other ways, starting with how I spend my time.

This also ties in with my other resolution for the year, which is to teach my daughter how to read. It’s a little premature: she’s only two, and I don’t want to shorten the necessary, and beautiful, stage when I’m reading to her aloud—or, even more crucially, telling her stories without any books at all. But I also want her to take reading for granted, just as I did, and in the face of greater challenges: the number of screens competing for her attention seems to grow by the day, and I can’t hold them back forever. Books are inevitably going to be a big part of her life; in this house, here’s no escaping them. And introducing them to her now, as we look at them side by side, feels like the greatest gift I can ever offer, even if it’s up to her to decide how much a part of her life they’ll be later on. (I can’t help but thinking of the recent New Yorker profile of the meme king Emerson Spartz, who loved the Harry Potter series enough to found MuggleNet when he was twelve years old, only to declare a kind of dismissive war on books of all kinds as an adult.) In any case, if I do teach Beatrix how to read this year, it’ll be for my sake as much as for hers. I’ve lived among books like a fish lives in water, but it’s time that both of us really learned, or remembered, how to swim.

Written by nevalalee

January 2, 2015 at 9:32 am

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