Course Correction: Obstacles to reading
On the things that get in the way of reading, and some possible methods of clearing those obstacles.
I’m a sucker for the charm of New Year’s resolutions (new chapter, new me, new start, all the old clichés), and among mine is always an improvement in reading habits, which perennially deteriorate in the coldest, darkest days of winter. Last December, as I prepared to hop the calendric stile over the fence separating the worn-out previous year from the greener grass and brighter skies of a new year, I wondered about the best way to inaugurate this recommitment to reading.
I had spent all of last autumn mired in the bog of a depression that destroyed my ability to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes at a time. As a result, it had taken me all of December to read two short novels, of which I recall frighteningly little. Emboldened by the emergence from this mental fog into the clear skies of sanity, I decided that I would begin the new year reading a Big Book. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen was published in 2001, which means that it has spent two decades glaring at me from one of my bookcases, condemning my frivolity – You can’t be a serious reader with so many books unread – my lack of will power – It’s your fault I remain unread – and my pretensions – Why keep me here if you’re not going to read me? To impress others? Poser.
I am happy (and approximately sixty percent less ashamed) to report that I am now on page 442 of this 653-page behemoth, and most importantly I am deeply engaged with every brilliant, surprising, world-unfolding sentence of this novel. And the same question has come up in my mind that comes up every time I finally read one of those You-Really-Must-Read-This books: What was stopping me?
Well, yes, the size of the thing is the most obvious explanation. At a reading pace of around fifty pages an hour, The Corrections would take me some fifteen hours to complete. That’s either fifteen days with an hour of reading a day (a minimum I aim for), or three days reading for five hours a day, which would mean cutting into hours for writing, or hours for socialising or spent with my wife, and what about the days when I am obliged by the economics of being a borderline-penniless writer to work at my day job so I can pay the bills, and then what about...? It often goes on like this, a mental process of needless anxious questioning that I call “spiralling”, until I give up and take comfort in a novella.
A great number of my friends have told me over the years that they are “completists”, and we are not alone in this. Just this lunchtime I was listening to a book critic on the New York Times podcast comparing the “percentage read” data on a Kindle to a Fitbit: “It’s both too much information and also not the right information.” She confessed that such information can lead her to focus more on the numbers rather than the reading. I don’t want to commit the fallacy of arguing from authority, but it does reassure me that even a critic of such high-standing suffers the same problem I do.
My fix for this bug has been to set a timer for my reading. Beginning with fifteen minute sessions and increasing to a half hour, then to forty minutes, then to an hour, I was able to solve two problems. First, I retrained my brain to focus for longer periods, so that my reading was less fractured. Second, I was able to ignore the accumulating page count, because the task at hand was not to read X amount of pages, but read any amount for whatever length of time I’d set. This left me feeling freer to re-read a beautiful passage or take my time over difficult text, because all that mattered was that I was reading until the timer sounded.
If this sounds like a lot of work for what shouldn’t seem quite so difficult, you have a sense of how frustrating I found this re-education. The mental degradation of clinical depression spreads beyond mood. It literally changes you. “I am become Depression, destroyer of minds.” That said, depression is not the only source of attentional disfunction. We are also unlearning the ability to focus deeply for long periods via the media (and social media) we engage with. Our brains have been trained – by scrolling through news feeds and switching channels and watching videos in increasingly digested and decreasingly sized portions – to favour the intellectual snack over the meal.
Online media, from Netflix to TikTok, are not just inhibiting our ability to engage with long, difficult books – they are distractions from books in the first place. There seems to be a strange cognitive bias that makes a ten-hour series watched over ten days seem like a lighter load than a book that takes just as much time to read. This was made pointedly clear to me when I began reading The Corrections in my afternoons and watching a Netflix series in the evenings. It took no internal persuading to watch the series, and my impression going into it was one of expecting that it wouldn’t take much time out of my life. Opening The Corrections, I subconsciously saw the time given to this book spanning out into an indefinite future and weighing on my days as an unending duty. And I call myself a lover of literature! (At thoughts like this, the unread books on my shelf begin mocking me again.)
I surmounted my hesitation by reminding myself why The Corrections seemed like a worthy book to read, a book that justifies itself with itself, that doesn’t request but demands your time and attention. But those reasons became yet another obstacle to the reading: What can I (I wondered) possibly find in this work that hasn’t been discovered already and expressed in more erudite and eloquent terms than I could articulate? If this is an issue for a novel like The Corrections, widely discussed over the last twenty years by those at the very top of the lit-crit scene, magnify the problem by, say, twenty for every quarter century a book has been in print.
What new thing could I possibly have to say about Frankenstein, a book so enmeshed in our cultural understanding of scientific hubris, the human condition, and moral responsibility that its themes are as well-known as the monster itself? What original thoughts could I ever have while reading The Iliad, or Pride and Prejudice, or 1984? This saturation of cultural commentary can impede the ability to read as an act of discovery; instead, reading becomes the process of seeking the things you believe you are supposed to find – the social critiques, the subtexts, the references to other books you haven’t yet read.
Struggling under the weight of previous commentary, it can be difficult to forge one’s own relationship with a book. Perhaps it feels presumptuous to believe you can form a personal bond with a book that has become synonymous with a whole cultural moment, or preposterous to think you can have something special with a story that everybody already thinks they have something special with, like a naïf who asks everyone if they’ve heard of this cool old band called The Beatles.
Many years ago, I heard a famous author shruggingly say he hated Wuthering Heights. I had analysed it as part of my degree and found that process interesting, but when I went to re-read it for my own pleasure a few years later, I couldn’t find traction, nor could I locate the problem. When I heard this author say he hated the book, two things fell into place:
First, I hate Wuthering Heights too. I loathe it. I find it such a miserable slog, at times nihilistic about the meanness of the human heart and the drabness of certain English locations, at other times numbingly dull.
Second, I was allowed to hate a book that (seemingly) everyone else loves. Game changed: I realised that all the commentary and criticism about a given book was just more text to engage with. I didn’t have to accept anything as dogma, nor assent to anything that didn’t strike me, in my reader’s heart, as authentic to my own reading experience.
While reading The Corrections, I have been made to think, to analyse, to decipher and also to enjoy the acrobatics of Franzen’s sentences, the clarity of his insights, and the sheer pace of his plot. I have also forced my way through a couple of dense passages of prickly text, of syntax that trapped me like vines tangled in the path, thickets of misjudged pacing where I almost lost the path entirely and my progress crawled rather than sprinted. And sometimes the novel pushed back, showed up my faulty assumptions or reversed an earlier appraisal.
In short, my reading was a conversation. Maybe this is as good a New Year’s resolution as any: to not let myself be lectured to about a book, by any individual or by my culture, but to talk with the book myself. Just pick it up and read.
• The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen (2001)
• The Book Review, “The Listener’s Episode: Editors and Critics Answer Your Questions” [podcast] (2020