When I was a teenager and had little in the way of responsiblity to worry about, I read. I mean I read a book a day, almost every day. I’d stay up into the wee hours of the night on a school night to finish whatever book I’d had clandestinely hidden behind my textbooks in class, and the next day I wouldn’t feel any worse for the wear. I read voraciously, and I read anything. I’d go to the local Thrift Store because the books were fifty cents, and I’d buy heaps of them. Some I’d never read, but most I’d pick off within the week.
This unflagging ability to read continued into my early twenties, and ended promptly when I returned from a three month trip to New Zealand in 2003. While I was in New Zealand, I read books I found on hostel shelves, I traded books with other travelers, and when there was nothing free, I ventured to used book stores and usually came out ten minutes into the visit with twenty pages under my belt already.
Upon my return from the trip, I enrolled in community college in Monterey, California, where I was living. I was also working full-time at a restaurant. While I did still read–often by average standards–I did not have the time or the focus to keep up my previous pace of three books a week or more. It also became more difficult, as my attention drifted to academic reading and my mind reeled over the unprecedented fullness of my schedule, to pick a book to read. I’d stand in front of loaded shelves and stare, pick up book after book and read their jackets, and leave the store empty-handed. Because I am incapable of riding buses or sitting around without some sort of reading material, I begun to read magazines–Spin, Outside, Backpacker, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker–whatever glossy cover attracted my attention and boasted of having something intelligent to say inside. After a few weeks of “reader’s block,” I’d find a book, usually by accident, and I’d be back in the saddle again, so to speak.
As my educational pursuits have continued to become more focused (writing and literature) and more difficult, the reader’s block has stayed with me, and it’s gotten more frequent and more… well, blocked. During the semester, I am able to read my required reading (which last semester consisted of two novels, fifteen to twenty essays and ten to twenty short stories per week), but I become incapable of reading anything else, due largely to lack of time–and guilt. It is during the semester, however, that I routinely find books I’m desperate to read–only I can’t read them, I have to put them off. By the time I have time for them, I’ve either forgotten what they were or lost interest.
I’ve found, disappointingly, that this block has continued well into what is supposed to be my relaxation time–my free reading time. School does not begin again until mid-September, so I have all the time in the world to sit around and read, but by and large I can’t. Since the end of the semester in May, I have read a total of three books. Three books in six weeks. That’s a sixth of what I used to be capable of. I’d like to say that my disappointing reading record is due to a busy schedule, other projects, a sudden burst of artistic creativity–hell, I’d even willingly blame it on a new friend or boyfriend. But it’s not that. I’ve got plenty of time to read, I just don’t. I stand in front of my shelves and look at books I’ve intended to read for months or years–half-finished biographies, books of essays and letters, “must read” classics. I stare, I ruminate, I walk away empty-handed.
When I do find something, I’m grabbed and I hold on for dear life until the thing’s done, but I’m reluctant to read the last pages, because I know that when I’m finished, I won’t have anything to read for days, or even weeks. This was how I felt the other day when I finished Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, which I’d borrowed from a friend months ago and left sitting untouched until in a moment of desperation I forced myself to read the first twenty pages of it. From there, I was golden–but I don’t like forcing it.
I’ve just moved into a house with three other people–three other people who read–which means that I’ve got their entire lot of books at my fingertips as well as my own. The morning after I finished Animal Dreams, I stood in front of the shelf and stared not at the same familiar titles I’ve been looking at all year, but at new ones. A few of them jumped out at me: a Vonnegut book I’d never heard of; Steppenwolf; Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang; a history of cults. It was this last which piqued my interest–I’ve always been fascinated by cults and the people who join them; I am baffled by the ability of some people to suspend free thought and blindly follow the rules of a charismatic but megalomaniac leader. “I think I’m gonna read about cults,” I said to my roommate, excited. Five minutes later, I put the book back on the shelf, along with The Monkey Wrench Gang and Salinger’s Franny and Zooey.
Then yesterday, the unexpected happened. I was loafing around in Harvard Square, slowly going about my errands, and I followed the smell of cheeseburgers toward Bartley’s, a legendary burger joint. Of course the place was packed beyond consideration, and I turned around. On my way back, I passed the Harvard Book Store, an independent with a great selection of used books and nearly everything new that I would ever want. I spent five minutes inside, considered a few things, and walked out, disappointed.
On my way back to the train station, I passed the Book Guy: a bespactacled, Z.Z. Top-looking vendor who sets up a stand on the sidewalk (it used to be downstairs inside the T station) and sells books, his dog tethered to his director’s chair the whole time. I paused at the Book Guy’s stand and a thick white paperback caught my attention immediately. Rolling Stone Magazine, its cover declared. A history of the magazine’s beginning, and its polarizing, revolutionary/capitalist founder, Jann Wenner. In small print under the book’s title I saw Hunter S. Thompson’s name, and when I flipped open the cover, his words of praise for the book were printed at the top of the first page. I’ve been a reader of Rolling Stone for years, increasingly reluctant to shell out my five bucks for what will largely be ads and stories on music I don’t give a damn about, but unable to pass up the chance of reading the occasional gem that it seems only Rolling Stone is capable of digging up. And Thompson, well, he was the clincher. I would enthusiastically read anything he ever touched.
I paid the Book Guy my two bucks, and by the time I’d reached the platform in the subway station, I had read twenty pages. By the time I got home later in the evening, I’d read 78. And this book, which takes place largely in the late 60s and early 70s, is the perfect segway to reading about cults.
For the moment, I’m cured. Thank you, Book Guy, for throwing a mountain of books in my path and making me stop. I’m eternally grateful, and will continue to give you my two bucks as often as I am able.