I read all the time, all day. I read tweets, I read articles linked in the tweets, I read articles on and reviews of books that are linked, recommended in the tweets. I read about people’s lives, about current events, about tragedy and comedy, in 140 characters. I read the stream, my mind pulling apart and putting back together information and narrative and context. I read, and then I share, and then I write, and then I read some more. Sometimes what I am reading slips away in the stream, and I am momentarily lost, but then I read something else and somehow hit pause. I make connections, I made meaning, I undo and redo my world through that stream.
I read facebook. I read status updates and shares and likes and lives and personae curated for this space. I read about friends from long ago, imagining life spent differently. I read between the lines and reach out and write to friends who seem to need it. I like and I like and I like because I know what it is to want to be seen and heard and acknowledge. I am still here, I am reading and paying attention. Someone sees you and hears you through your words and the words and images you share. I read in anger and frustration at what some people have posted, who some people have become, have chosen to be, but also know that they are reading me and my choices, so I like and I share and I blame the algorithm for mediating and manipulating. I read about all of my friends who are all far away and I write status updates because I hope that they get to know me the way I’m getting to know them despite the distance of space and time and that damn algorithm.
I read online like I once read the newspaper: comics, entertainment, sports, higher education news. It’s a morning routine, done with a coffee, to start my day. The proverbial front page is provided by other sources, consumed more passively, like I always did with the front page in my youth. I knew the sections I wanted to read, the places I wanted to go. I still read about hockey, once the season starts, eating up the words describing the game I wasn’t able to watch. My favorite writers are all retiring. But as long as my team still plays, there will be people there to write about them, in two languages, often more. I read comics to laugh, sports to be closer to home, entertainment reviews and recaps to be part of a community, higher education news because I am always afraid that one day someone will realize I am ill-informed and thus unworthy. There is the seductive nature of abundance that I want to hold in my head and so I keep reading.
I read emails. All the emails. I answer the questions about classes and availability and set up meetings and cancel others, trouble-shoot. I get coupons and promotions and news and updates and YOU WON’T BELIEVE THIS and spam and a daily email from my mother that if I don’t read and answer immediately will lead to more emails and then a phone call with a sad-sounding message left on my voice mail. Every day, she writes me the equivalent of a letter home because home is where the heart is and her heart is partially here with me far away from her. She reads voraciously, and our house growing up with always filled with books. Books I was never interested in, but I always saw her reading them. I read invitations and rejections and forms and newsletters and attachments and messages from school teachers and bosses and jobs I will never apply for but dream of for just a second of indulgence.
There is technology and education and race and gender and class and politics and violence and vitriol and pain and sadness and elation and struggle and cats and GIFs and shade and cute puppies and children and memes and Star Wars and Muppets and Scandal and food porn and refugees and arguments and agreements and family and friends and love and loss and longing, it is all there and more in front of me, for me to read.
I still read books, but I am tired of books about the same things, and I am torn by wanting to be challenged but at the same time escape. I read science fiction and fantasy and authors who aren’t from America, not really. But often reading novels reminds me that I am no longer a literary scholar, if I ever really was. Books that pull me in then demand to be written about and I can’t write about them, not well, not yet, perhaps not ever. Academic books are worse, because I can’t afford to be inspired by anything else right now. But I still read books, I still love a good book, although if you asked me what I mean by a good book, I have no idea. I have trouble reading about bad things that happen to children and grown men and women with what I can only describe as ennui. I don’t want to see myself in the literature I read, and yet I long to find that book that I can perfectly emphasize with, like it had been written just for me.
I’m teaching this semester, introduction to literature. And so, although I am allowing the students a great deal of agency and choice in the class, there is little flexibility on the requirement of reading. We have been talking a lot to start off about what we read, why we read, and what literature is in that system. And so I asked them to tell me about their “favorite” book or author, the book that made a difference, the book that changed things for them. When given the chance to share their book or their author, for each and every one, their eyes lit up, their tone change, and they were momentarily excited by and about reading. Perhaps it was because I asked them, which rarely happens anymore within the confines of the classroom. Perhaps its because reading, reading novels, reading literature, still elicits a kind of visceral reaction.
But it is not the only kind. It is not the only way.