My God, It’s Full of BooksBy Chris Kennett
June 01, 2010
I have a confession to make, and it’s a hell of a thing to admit to in my first post to a classy writing website like this. I mean, I feel like the guy in an Obama shirt at the Klan rally, but I really want to start off on an honest footing here at TNB.
I’m not a reader.
I mean, I can read. And I read a lot of stuff. It’s just that the vast bulk of it is straight off the screen of my laptop, and the vast bulk of that is complete, god-awful garbage. The sad fact is that I’m simply not lit-savvy. My lack of knowledge about authors, titles, genres and whatever else comprises novels is reprehensible. I’ve read maybe three books in the past year, and one of them was Harry the Dirty Dog*.
Not only does this massive character flaw render me mute when someone wants to talk about favourite authors – my emergency go-to’s are William Gibson and Will Self – but it has become an increasing social handicap as several of my friends start to write books (something which I think is totally inconsiderate of them). Firstly, because nothing says ‘I’ve done something with my life and you haven’t’ like writing a novel, and worse, one is expected to read your friend’s book. Not to do so is considered lazy and spiteful. Conversations at parties inevitably lead back to The Book, and I can only fall silent and drink harder. (The links between my alcoholism and failure to read are well established and mutually supportive.)
It wasn’t always this way. As a child, my appetite for books was insatiable. I was one of those kids who literally read the dictionary for fun, or, if in the mood for something lighter, the street directory or the back of a cereal box. I would read the stories of E. Nesbit and Tolkien while walking to and from school, only glancing up at the inevitable sound of screeching tires and blaring horns.
So, what happened to me? It’s simple, really. My brain is a lumpy mush. I have cooked it over the low flame of internet porn and beer for a god damned decade and a half, and let me tell you, man, it’s done. I can barely summon the will to open a book, let alone read (or, god forbid, write) one.
It’s a short attention span problem. Starting a book feels like starting a relationship, and I’m just not ready to commit. Sure, I’ll fool around a little. I’ll stroke your cover, peruse your liner notes. I sure like being seen with you. But then, just when everything’s going great, you start talking about settling down and establishing characters, and maybe looking at getting a little sub-plot together. And that’s when I start sweating, and looking around the room for the moving lights and noise of my favourite drug.
I’ve come down to my local library today, hoping that being in a place of knowledge might inspire me. The internet was supposed to be the ultimate hub of wisdom, but when I try and think of anything genuinely enriching I’ve gained from my time with it, my mush-brain doesn’t get far. It’s just a desert of tired memes, illiterate rage and sad lechery. There are diamonds here and there, of course, but what good are gems to the man who will never make it back to civilisation?
I’ve lived less than a mile from this library for almost a year, but this is the first time I’ve visited. It’s a nice environment, quiet and welcoming, but it makes me sleepy. There is too much Real Knowledge here for my shrivelled mental palate, and it’s acting like a sedative. Like the junkie I am, I pull out my laptop and check for a wireless connection. Fortunately, there isn’t one. In fact the whole building seems to be a network blackspot, and I can’t even get phone reception.
I am actually offline. I feel a little delirious.
It’s probably the most obvious thing possible to say about a library, but it’s full of books. I can’t tell how many. Way more than fifty. They taunt me from the shelves, knowing that I will never read them. I pluck out a title more or less at random – a yellowing print of Harvest On The Don by Mikhail Sholokhov – and ponder what would happen if I wrote a message inside the cover and came back to check it in a year, two years, five. An eloquent reply? A dick and balls? Or nothing at all? Perhaps this particular book will never be opened again, and will just gather dust until the library is done away with, or books themselves are.
Thoughts, observations, stories – as physical objects. It’s a concept so instinctive for so long that it is only as we see the beginning of its end that it becomes recognisable as the mere phase that it is.
My sleepiness is increasing. I fantasise about building a nest of old, unloved reference books in a secluded corner and letting their outdated contents seep into my head as I slumber. I would awake refreshed, and with charmingly archaic theories on the Savage. As a child I dreamed of being locked in the library over a weekend. Were I to live that dream now I suspect it would involve a lot more random fires, and a lot less looking up diagrams of genitals in human biology texts.
I have spent many hours in the library now. I have written a little, thought a little, ripped a substantial number of CDs. I have not read a book, but neither have I shot the sickly slow intellectual death juice of ‘teh intarwebs’ into my brain for an entire afternoon. Harvest On The Don still lies next to me on the desk. The Communist on the cover stares at me with something like pity, something like pride.
*The classic children’s picture book, and not, as I would prefer you to believe, some kind of post-modernist re-imagining of the Clint Eastwood films.
They’ll let anyone in here these days.
This used to be exclusive, man.
Ah… welcome aboard.
Do you think we can reverse it? The short attention span, the inability to problem-solve beyond two steps, the researching anything that isn’t pictures?
I sure hope so. I think that even my small experiment showed some promise, but I fear I will never fully regain the ability to concentrate I once- LOL THIS GUY THINKS HES A WEREWOLF LULZ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZLulEgXLOU
You can save it. I am living proof. I real alot when I was a kid, then when I was about 16 till I was 20 I stopped and all I read were the labels on booze bottles and from when I was 20 to 39 all I read were the little numbers on the sides of syringes and dollar bills.
And then, in my post-drugs/death half-life, I bumbled my way back to school. I read an interesting book, ‘Void of Course’ by Jim Carroll. Poems. They were one page. Short. Bite sized. Hence began my two year “bad poetry” phase. But it switched my brain back on, and ten years later I have an MFA, one book out, another being edited and I’m getting ready to start a third.
It can be done.
You just have to find what works for you. If you don’t feel like reading, you don’t have to read. If you do, then I hope you plunge in and fucking go for it. Maybe you have to find the perfect book to lead you down the path. Reading is great.
i highly recommend ‘confessions of a teenage jesus jerk’. 🙂
I’ve heard the book is good but the author is into all kinds of weird sex stuff.
“And there is a dreadful law here—-it was made by mistake, but there it is—-that if any one asks for machinery they have to have it and keep on using it.”
(E. Nesbit, 1910, The Magic City)
Freeman Dyson has this as one of two quotes prefacing his book, _Disturbing the Universe_. In his aim for non-scientists (the readers of the book) to understand how scientists think, in order to improve world conditions, Dyson shows us the Second World War’s scientists, commanders, politicos and soldiers. Dyson’s not only a brilliant scientist, but an illuminating writer who loves great writing—-and humor: “It is characteristic of all deep human problems that they aren’t to be approached without some humor and some bewilderment.”
He, himself, had wanted to write about Dresden, but had no need to do so when Kurt Vonnegut’s _Slaughterhouse-Five_ was published. Dyson says about Vonnegut: “He was in Dresden at the time and saw what happened. His book is not only good literature. It is also truthful. The only inaccuracy that I found in it is that it does not say that the night attack which produced the holocaust was a British affair.”
I see you, Chris, tied up in some of the roles suggested by Dyson. With your brilliantly agile mind, delightful humour, and serious dedication to craft and subject, you are working to make your roles unite and to produce elevated works.
You write: “Starting a book feels like starting a relationship, and I’m just not ready to commit. Sure, I’ll fool around a little. I’ll stroke your cover, peruse your liner notes. I sure like being seen with you. But then, just when everything’s going great, you start talking about settling down and establishing characters, and maybe looking at getting a little sub-plot together. And that’s when I start sweating, and looking around the room for the moving lights and noise of my favourite drug.”
Your starting to *write* a book will be less like that, and more like the creative love of your life…..with more loves to follow.
Eh. My knowledge of novels is limited almost entirely to what I’ve been forced to read as an English Lit. major and a handful of fiction works that I’ve read and managed to finish. (That and the mountains of fiction by TNB writers I feel obligated to read as a regular at this site. I swear I will guys! One day!)
You’re not alone.
I suspect “well read” will come to include (if it doesn’t already) being familiar with online publications and goings-on. Come to think of it, there should be a class in this for Literature majors. I wonder if there is. I would totally teach that class.
Very funny! I love the Aussie presence here on TNB.
Send me your address (on email) and I’ll send you my book. (It got rave reviews in the two big Australian newspapers and another rave in Australian Cosmo.) I guess I’m trying to proselytize you, which is sort of pathetic on my part, but could be fun (better than spreading communicable diseases, right?)!
Kennett’s mine! I own him! And all his subsidiary rights!
So are you saying if I want to get to Kennett I have to go through toi?!
Oui! C’est vrai!
I’m fine with the fact that I haven’t read many of the “classics” or other, more current works that are, so I’m told, must read great literature. I might get around to them some day, I might not. What I’m not fine with is being treated as substandard or intellectually inferior because of it.
I’m finally starting to enjoy reading again, right at the exact time that I have absolutely no time for it. Through school I wouldn’t accept being assigned or forced to read anything, so I didn’t. A quick skimming, some Cliff’s notes, and a talent for eloquent bull-shitting got me through my English classes with honors.
Oh, and Becky, I would definitely sign up for that class. Could you simulcast your lectures on Skype or something?
“Starting a book feels like starting a relationship, and I’m just not ready to commit.”
One of the cool things about TNB is that it brings together lit-heavyweight types with lit-flyweight types. If you can write and entertain, you’re welcome like a mofo here. No need to feel like you need some deep familiarity with modern/old timey/ancient lit here.
For what it’s worth, I’ve gone in waves, reading-wise. I went through long periods where all I read were magazines and the internet. For the past couple years I’ve found myself reading quite a bit. I think the reason is that I just sought out books that actually interested me, and once I caught on to one of those, I was off and running.
No matter- enjoy TNB!
i also agree that starting a book is a lot like starting a relationship.
for several years, i hardly read any books. magazines, yes. stuff on the internet, check. but it had been maybe years since i read a full-length book. it was the commitment thing. plus too much TV.
i had to set a goal for myself one new year’s – one book a month – to force myself to start reading again. last year i started reading the books on the BBC 100 that i hadn’t read yet (the fun version of the BBC 100, not the pretentious one), and as a result read Harry Potter for the first time and am now a total addict.
anyway, i don’t think it’s that big of a deal to not read books, at least for a while, though i have to say i get a lot out of it, personally.
Welcome aboard, Fellow Australasian.
Nice to have you here!
Well-read is a plastic term that varies in meaning depending on what particular type of intellectual snob you happen to be talking to. I’ve been reading just about anything I can get my hands on, from superhero comics to weighty literature, since I was about five years old. And I’d never call myself ‘Well-read.”
I ever manage to get my ass on a plane down to Melbourne, you, Simon, and I can grab a beer and discuss the merits of Gibson. That motherfucker can write.
I get what you mean about how the Internet and other immediate media sources can make reading a book seem like it requires too much investment. I’m a novelist and my reading has dwindled in the past few years. I find myself less motivated to write when I’m not reading, however, so I’m trying to get back into the habit of always be reading a book. I used to buy at least twenty or thirty books a year but now I’m down to half that. It’s not a good thing when you don’t even support your own industry. Ha.
Thanks for the Arthur C. Clarke reference. Welcome to the site!
Loved the humor in this post.
Maybe you should try a “sleeping dictionary” before you completely give up on reading.
Hey, thanks for the comments everyone, it means a lot. I feel welcome. A little nervous. Slightly aroused. But mostly welcome.
Also, I made an Arthur C. Clarke reference? Go me!
What if you’re meant to be a writer and not a reader? Lots and LOTS of readers aren’t writers. Hmmm.
A writer friend told me before my book came out NOT to expect friends and family to read it. Yes, many would buy it, but few would read it. That was one of the most important tidbits anyone ever shared with me.
Libraries should have little cots in rarely-used corners. Oh the cool air, the lurid bright hum of fluorescent lights.
Enjoyed the post. Welcome to TNB.
Welcome to TNB, Chris.
Ya know, I haven’t been a big reader for some years now, but having been hanging around TNB for a bit, and now writing for the site, I find myself reading a lot more. I’m actually working my way through the TNBers’ books. It’s a great place to start.
I think, in general, less people read books theses days because of the internet. I have a couple of friends that read voraciously, but mostly, most of them don’t.
At least you’re not alone 🙂