This post originally appeared in February 2013 on the website of Southerly, where I was guest blogging for a month.
Ironically it was tonight, a hot, smothering, still Melbourne summer’s night when it’s all I can do to keep my dull eyes fixed on the telly, never mind think about great literature, that I had one of those moments when something true about my life with books hit me. I was trapped on the couch under the warm, soft weight of my little cat Boo, who was giving me a very rare and precious honour by taking her siesta on my hot lap, and thinking idly of how great it would be to get into bed later, and read for a while. It’s been a horrible, stressful, demanding day and the idea of bed, bed and a book has a reliably totemic, analgesic effect on nearly any spasm of stress I might have. At the end of the day, there’s always, always bed and a book. A bower of comfort, and a cushioning, almost like a very comfortable mattress, between you and the gravity of the world. It has saved my sanity in the harshest of times and an evening concluded without a few pages in bed, even when I have company, is rare.
But it was still hours before bed-time, and the cat was upon me so I couldn’t stir, and the tv remote was too remote indeed on the other armchair, and there was nothing to hand except a folded-over print-out of an essay I’d found in unpacking the house which I’d chucked unopened into the lounge room, hoping to get it read during the sports bulletin on the nightly news, and thus be free to briskly discard it. I’ve been unpacking five million books all week, having spent the previous two weeks packing them up and am absolutely rabid by this point to cast off any superfluous printed material. So I picked up the sheaf of pages.
It turned out to be a review from The New York Review of Books, by Giles Harvey, of two recent publications by one of my favourite authors, long-time-no-one-else-knew-about-him, British wunder essayist Geoff Dyer. (I have a whole long and dramatic Dyer-esque anecdote about meeting and not-meeting Dyer at a writers festival, but I think you had to be there. Suffice it to say that my rueful frenzies of regret have not diminished my appreciation of his talent.) Dyer is fairly well known here now, not least for the 2012 collection of pieces, Working the Room: Essays 1999-2010 and his most recent, Zona: A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room (2012), both of which were being reviewed in this piece. Harvey writes very nicely and deftly about Dyer’s very nice and deft writing, and I was enjoying the simultaneous play of a good review about a good book. I was thinking, I should re-read some of Dyer’s older stuff. I was thinking, oh for that bed, later, and a book, even though last night I finished the one I was reading and will have to start another, and shall it be the one I’m meant to read immediately for my studies or one of the two I’m meant to be reviewing, oh, what it is to have to read what you’re meant to instead of what you want to, wasn’t I going to try some Patrick White, well, don’t I always think that? – and having that familiar pang of regret that whenever I’m seized by the ferocious desire to read (or re-read) a certain book it’s always at a moment when that is quite impossible – when I came upon a reminder in Harvey’s review that Geoff Dyer himself is enjoying reading less and less as he gets older. And I thought: OH GOD. ME TOO.
And, reading this nice deft review of a wonderful book I thought: He’s right. Most of the time I can’t stand reading. Most of the time, to be honest, it puts me in a terrible state of tense irritation.
That is, I love reading. There are still books that make me squee and clench. Actually make my heart beat faster. Revelation. Glee. That’s still possible. I am thoroughly, thoroughly enjoying slowly eking out John Julius Norwich’s 1967 history of Norman Sicily The Kingdom in the Sun, and just rapturously appreciated Elizabeth Knox’s Billie’s Kiss for its Hilary Mantel-esque cleverness, and was re-ravished last year by Lolita… But, looking back just now through my notes on what I read, I am hard put to pick those gems from the mud. I read quite a lot of books last year, and the year before, and I cannot imagine a life without my beloved books and that beloved bed and book at the end of the day (sorry; no, I can, I had that life for a time once, and it was grim and gristled, all the flesh sucked off the days). And most of the books I have read in recent years I may as well not have read, for all they mattered, or stirred me, or might be recalled. Too often, in fact, I turned a book, mid-sentence, looked thoughtfully at the cover, calculated that I was half-way or two-thirds of the way, or two chapters through the book, and realised that if I put the book down there and then and never picked it up again, my life would not in any way be diminished. Nor was it, when I did just that. I would never miss finding out the end to that story. I would never regret not getting to know those characters. The book would, very likely, never again enter my consciousness except as an object to be packed, given away, or thumped thoughtlessly into a pile. It, and I may never have met. And to be honest, the vast majority of books I read are of that category.
I’m not going to sledge, here. This is not a complaint about contemporary literature and its accidie. I was just struck by the nerve of Geoff Dyer, a writer known for his erudition and sensitivity as well as his legendary supposed procrastination and shiftlessness, in admitting that he, a writer, is less and less enamoured by reading. It’s not what we’re supposed to say. We are supposed to bang on and on about how we live to write, live to read – how we are storytellers, in whom storytelling burns like an unquenchable ember, the desire to share stories and absorb them and surround ourselves constantly with stories. We are relied on to be the readers of each other’s works and be nice about them all the time and persistently clamour for more publication, more voices, further opportunities, more and more things to read. We, as writers, if no one else, must be the champions of reading.
I’m all for reading. But I notice that less and less can I justify the time I spend on it myself. Dyer, in the essay ‘Reader’s Block’, admits that in moments of pretentiousness he calls his condition the Mir syndrome, “after the cosmonaut who said that he didn’t read a page of the book he’d taken to the space station because his spare moments were better spent gazing out of the window.” I can understand that. There’s not a great deal to look at outside a curtained window at 11pm in a Melbourne suburb, but I know what he means. I also understand Dyer when he talks about the conscience involved in choosing (or being obliged to read) one book rather than another, lamenting that, “the opportunity cost of reading a given book is always too great.” I am possessed with constant violent anxiety and anguish over my choice of reading material – if I am reading new releases I am neglecting classics; if I re-read an old favourite I am missing out on a yet-unknown treasure; if I capitulate and read something middling-oldish, like Iris Murdoch or Graham Greene, tonic though they are, I won’t know what everyone is talking about when the Miles Franklin shortlist comes out (I never do, anyway). So when I pick up a book, from the – literally – five metres (by spine width) of unread books I have next to my bed, it had better be worth it. It’s like saving only one orphan from the orphanage. It is going to have to be utterly, utterly charming or back it goes into the cupboard under the stairs.
You can imagine my chagrin when, having committed to one out of the hundred imminently awaiting my attention next to the bed, or the thousands and thousands in the shops, or the hundreds of thousands in the library, it turns out to be a waste of my time. I have only a limited number of hours of life left to me (and I am only forty yet), limited reading hours; an average book takes, say, eight or nine hours to read; perhaps one book at week unless I’m very efficient; about eighty books a year on average; almost nothing is worth a full two weeks of my reading schedule.
And each disappointment (like the peevishness of the three bears, finding each volume too rictus-tight lyrical, too terse and manly – please, not the dreaded ‘McCarthy-esque’! – or too flaccidly pitiful) puts me in a more and more heightened condition of crankiness. By this stage I am pre-cranky with books. I open each one with a De Niro scowl and mentally stand, hand on cocked hip, lip curled, demanding to be impressed. Demanding to be satisfied. I am too old, too sleepy, too well-read, too arrogant now to finish a book unless it is absolutely fucking astonishingly good.
And I don’t think that is too much to ask.
In a more charitable frame of mind than myself, Dyer suggests
If reading heightens your responses, shapes your idea of the world, gives you a sense of the purpose of life, then it is not surprising if, over time, reading should come to play a proportionately smaller role in the context of the myriad possibilities it has opened up. The more thoroughly we have absorbed its lessons, the less frequently we need to refer to the user’s manual.
I would so very much like to think it’s because I’m wiser, that I don’t need reading as much anymore, but I doubt it. I would adore to think I’m such a great writer I don’t need to study great writing any further, but I know absolutely this is not true, and never can be – god, as if. I’m just bored. I’m just restlessly, shiftlessly, frequently totally bored by most of the books I so much wanted to read. Is it the lack of fully realised story (what Michael Chabon so gorgeously calls “plotless [stories] sparkling with epiphanic dew”) or the turgid style, or the insensible formulaic construction or is it the fault of creative writing courses or not enough creative writing courses or is it modern malaise or is it shoddy neglect of editing or is it hype outsizing actuality or is it production-line commercialism or is it uncooked writing or overboiled writing… is it the writing or is it me? Who knows. It’s not even very interesting, that I’m not so interested in reading, or rather, so dissatisfied with it.
I want a book that tells me something I don’t know. I want a book that shows the author took care with words, which throws glints of gorgeousness and flashes of fangs, which galumphs along with a cracking story and lingers tenderly over moments of grace. I want a book that’s muscular, tight, jointed so the sinews flex with every line; I want a book that’s generous, even baggy, discursive, confident: more than anything, I want to read something that feels as if the author enjoyed writing it, and wasn’t typing with tense, close-bitten, freezing fingertips attached to a mind feeling grim. Writing, just as much as my experience of reading the product, shouldn’t feel like a dreadful chore.
Look, doubtless, as it is with Dyer (who mourns that he’s left it too late to enjoy The Brothers Karamazov), it’s not really the books. Or not entirely – I do suspect fiction in general is becoming more insipid – and not always. It must also be me. A searching, hungry, dissatisfied griping of restlessness in what I want, and a persistently shifting set of criteria. Perhaps I don’t really know what I’m searching for. For a few months, as I was working on one of my own, doubtless extremely flawed, novels-in-endless-progress, I found myself mooching distractedly around bookshop shelves: haunting the crime section, the fiction section, the fantasy nook… What was I looking for? I picked up volume after volume, but barely glanced at each before I replaced it, and left without buying anything, and with the sensation that I’d forgotten the name of a book I was long yearning to read. Eventually I realised: weirdly, I was looking for my own novel – the one I was still working on – my own unpublished book, hoping to find it on the shelves and discover how it ended. Not surprisingly, it still hasn’t been found.
So I desperately want to locate good books: satisfying, chewy, juicy books which I can be glad of discovering. I want to be able to receive and devour them as they deserve. I want to find focus and offer devotion to something worth my time. There are lots, lots of books like that out there – old ones, forgotten ones, books which are at this moment still being written.
But, having just moved well over a thousand books because I love them so, I wonder why so many of them, though beloved and cherished and gorgeous, have never been read again (though I yearn for that, often), and why so much of my collection is from my younger days, and so many of the books that have come my way in the past ten years are no longer with me, on the shelves, in the new house, or even in the archives of my memory. Why I read as much as ever, and yet, like some character in a fairytale, feel less and less nourished by most of the magic pudding.
 I made an exception once for Simon Schama’s Citizens and it took an entire six months – but I was on drugs at the time.
 But I am afraid to say, Chabon being one of the very few authors who generally make me swoon in ravished delight – see The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) – the other day I gave up on his newest, Telegraph Avenue, halfway through. He was just trying way too hard to be wonderful. It really burned.