Paid Reading?

It’s like when you slowly pull a cotton ball apart.  Interrupted reading, that is.  Some people never cotton onto reading—we’re all different—but some of us find it such a beguiling exercise that we neglect other aspects of life so that we can engage it.  Almost an altered state of consciousness.  That moment when you have to close a good book, though.  There’s nothing else like it.  It’s difficult to pinpoint whether images or words make up the continuity a reader experiences.  For me it’s like a continuous conversation.  Since my life may be too regulated (“nine-to-five” jobs are like that), every day at work begins with interrupted reading.  If you’re awake early, you’ll find there’s no other uninterrupted time like it.  No librarian has to shush anyone at three a.m.

My job is largely reading.  It’s also a good deal of customer service.  As an author myself I guess I get that.  Content is what the world wants, and if you find a writer who does what your press likes, well, you try to keep her happy.  Why doesn’t enforced reading feel like reading by choice, though?  It’s that reading before work that feels like the pulling apart of fibers that’ve organically grown together.  By nighttime, which is still light in summer, it’s not so much pulling apart cotton balls.  Bedtime reading is more like stumbling through a forest.  When you come to that part of the path you know you’ve been on before—perhaps multiple times—it’s time to put the book down and hopefully reboot.

There may be jobs which consist entirely of reading for pleasure.  If there are I never learned about them in high school or college.  I have a friend who’s a musician.  Many years ago I asked him what he like to play for fun.  He looked at me and said “Music, for me, is work.”  I have to believe that somewhere deep inside he still found it enjoyable, but I instinctively grasped what he meant.  Once you take your passion and convert it into a source of income the magic goes out of it.  Once I get out of work the thing I want to do immediately is read, but what I want to read. And although studies show that the reasonable way to get your best work out of your employees is to give them more time off, employers tend to disagree with the data.  The more hours you put in the more “dedicated” you are.  But then, some of us are in publishing because we love to read.  But even now, as work time approaches, the cotton ball begins to shred.


Literary Life

Trying to live a literary life is, I suppose, irresponsible.  Especially if your efforts and writing bring basically no money.  It takes considerable effort to make daily time to read and write, and so much else remains to be done.  At times I feel guilty for trying.  My books have all been published, for various reasons, with academic publishers.  Academic publishers don’t try to sell many copies of an individual book, relying as they do on the long tail philosophy.  Most academics have good paying jobs that expect research and writing in return.  For the outsider, however, there are other pressing matters.  The nine-to-five being the largest among them.  And any social organizations you join to keep you sane and connected.  Then there’s social media to take your time.  And the lawn’s ready for mowing.

I’ve always believed lack of time was (is) a theological problem.  I came up with that when I was an academic and had time to ponder such things.  Unlike many of my colleagues, I did research and write.  Now I want to move into that world where you might earn a little from all the effort.  And yet, that old Protestant guilt has a way of getting its talons around you.  You’re reading?  Shouldn’t you be doing those minor repairs you can handle without a contractor?  (Or at least think you can handle?)  Or maybe shouldn’t you be looking for a job that pays enough to hire someone to do such things?  And don’t you dare let that word “retirement” anywhere near your head.  What are you, irresponsible?

Reading takes commitment.  I try to read, on average, at least a book a week.  It requires a lot of time.  And a literary life includes giving back.  You want to share your writing with the world.  Hoping that either your fiction or nonfiction might eventually bring you some notice.  That’s the plan anyway.  The starving artist paradigm doesn’t feel so comfortable when you’ve got a mortgage.  Still, the imagination refuses to be tamed.  I’ve often said I could be content on a desert island as long as I had a huge stack of paper and never-ending supply of pens.  But that’s not the reality I inhabit.  That mortgage pays for a roof over my books and writing computer, always complaining it’s full.  It may not be glamorous.  In fact, it’s about the exact opposite of that.  But it is, after all, a literary life.


Lines and Silver

If you’re thinking about silver linings, here’s one to ponder: waiting in lines has, with certain exceptions, disappeared during the pandemic.  Yes, some people waiting in line to be tested, others to be inoculated.  Early on lines were long to buy toilet paper.  By and large, however, waiting in lines has ceased for many of us.  For me that’s a silver lining.  Even from my youngest days I’ve found waiting in line problematic.  Not that I think I’m more important than other people—not at all—my mind keeps itself pretty active and standing in line has been one of the more difficult times to keep it engaged.  I generally keep a book with me.  The lack of mass-market paperbacks in the categories I tend to read, however, makes having a book in your jacket pocket difficult.

People standing in line are often surly.  It’s not always a great place to strike up a conversation, to improve your mind.  It is the epitome of wasted time.  Not just for me, but for everyone involved.  Learning to live mostly at home has greatly reduced that wasted time.  Interestingly, many people have reported being bored with their extra time.  Others of us find this small windfall just enough to keep in place as we continue sprinting along.  Regardless, the line waiting absence has been one silver lining.  When I was a student I used to call waiting in line a theological problem.  What I believe I meant was that time should not be wasted and your options were severely limited by standing in a queue.

For many people, I suspect, the smartphone has addressed the issue even before the pandemic came.  My smartphone has never been that much of a comfort to me, when it comes to time.  Although I’m on social media I don’t spend a whole lot of time on it.  It can easily become yet another way of spending time I don’t have to squander.  Reading ebooks on a small screen doesn’t really lead to any sense of accomplishment for me.  Perhaps I think about it too much, but it seems that real goals are met in the real world.  Ah, but this is meant to be a silver lining post, the lack of lines.  As the pandemic slowly dies down, queues will return.  Books won’t have grown any smaller in the meantime.  Perhaps I could use the time wisely by learning to explore the wonders of the universe in my pocket.  Just after, however, I finish this book in my hands.


Strange Reading

The internet has changed things.  Perhaps forever.  I’m thinking particularly of the way we read.  Not just ebooks, either.  I’m primarily a book reader.  That is to say, I prefer long-format, print writing.  Since we’re fairly isolated (this applied to me even before Covid-19), one of the ways we discuss books is via social media.  There are any number of sites where this takes place such as Book Riot or Goodreads.  I tend toward the latter because that’s what publishers tend to pay attention to.  Each year I participate in a couple of reading challenges.  On Goodreads my goal is a set number of books.  But this has a hidden aspect as well.  What counts as a book?

As a matter of course I don’t count the odd Dr. Seuss book I pick up and read in a matter of minutes.  Nor do I count the many, many books I read as part of my job.  The ideal method of tracking reading on Goodreads is to use the ISBN.  Older books, especially, come in multiple editions, often with differing content.  One way that publishers make money on public domain books is by adding a new introduction or preface to which they own the copyright even though the majority of the text is in the public domain.  The first commandment of capitalism includes the phrase “what the market will bear.”  You can price up until people stop buying.  In order to get value for money, short books are often bound together with other material.  This especially applies to novellas.   Who’s going to pay ten bucks for a book of under 100 pages?

The problem is counting them on Goodreads.  In order for the ISBN to count, you really need to read all the stories in a book.  In steps Amazon.  Making it simple to self-publish, many individuals have rushed in and have saturated the market with public domain material bound and distributed by their own print-on-demand editions.  If I want to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the older dilemma was you couldn’t buy it alone.  It was almost always bound with some stories I didn’t want to read.  Now, however, some savvy book smith can download an electronic copy, word-process it, format it and sell it to you at a nice markup.  And you can enter the ISBN and get credit for only what you actually did read.  This is a strange new way of reading.  Before I had challenges to complete I’d read a short story or novella and not worry about the rest of the book.  For now, anyway, my reading patterns have changed just to keep up with the challenge.


Infinity

It occurred to me the other day that I will never read all the books on my list.  Only in my fifties, it’s not as if I’m knocking at death’s door, but who hasn’t been aware that that gentle rapping might come at any time?  Macabre?  Maybe.  Realistic?  Definitely.  Perhaps I’m a little old to be thinking about prioritizing, but it’s pretty clear that between work, writing, and the requirements of daily life (taking the car to the shop, scheduling a dentist appointment, trying to find time for a haircut, lawn care), that something’s got to give.  Work’s the non-negotiable since without it avoiding starvation (or perhaps getting medical coverage) becomes a full-time job.  Best to leave that sleeping dog slumber.  Then come the other three Rs: relationships, reading, and writing.  After that the time left to divide is pretty petty indeed.

My reading list grows almost daily.  Reading is a form of relationship.  I’ve recklessly written to writers after finishing their books, convinced that they’d written it to me.  I’ve also read material that, when done, makes me regret the time spent.  Still, I don’t, I can’t give up.  Writing is a form of giving back.  The other day an editor who’d accepted one of my fictional stories wrote that she couldn’t stop reading it.  It doesn’t matter that the magazine doesn’t pay—I’ve received back already what I’d planned for all along.  A kind of relationship with a reader.  If WordPress is to be believed, there are some followers on this blog.  Most think I write too much, and some, perhaps, too little.  Writing, however, like reading, is the formation of relationships.

Like relationships, reading takes time.  I carve out a spot for it daily but that doesn’t really make a dent in the growing reading list.  I can’t claim that it’s because I’m no longer a professor.  Except during the summer I read more now than I did when I was teaching (the professor’s life isn’t what most people think).  It is, I believe, that there are so many interesting ideas out there that one person simply doesn’t have time to think them all.  Reading and writing are a form of very slow conversation.  Of course, with technology the rest of life is speeding up.  Things seem now to happen instantly.  The world of books is slower, and the pace is far more sane.  I may never get through my list of books to read, but at least I have good conversation with those I don’t know, and that’s what really matters.


Myth and Magic

Magic and religion are difficult to tell apart.  Scholars have known this for some time, but don’t often say anything about it for fear of offending.  A few days ago Religion News Service ran a story headlined “How the ‘Harry Potter’ books are replacing the Bible as millennials’ foundational text.”  While many reacted with shock, to me the fact that a foundational text can be identified at all is a relief.  You see, reading is good for you.  Really, really good for you.  One of the most hopeful things I observed as a parent was the increased quality and volume of young adult literature available.  Of course it’s produced to make a profit, but the fact is it showed that reading is alive and thriving.  If the young make a habit of it, well, let’s hope that habit’s hard to kick.

My own reading doesn’t always keep pace with my desire to do more of it.  I go for a couple of weeks sometimes without finishing a book.  I begin to feel depleted.  There’s something spiritual about reading, and fiction can reach parts of your soul that are on guard when non-fiction’s your subject.  And that’s like magic.  It took a couple years for me to catch on to the Harry Potter craze.  Eventually my wife and I broke down and bought book one and read it together.  As millions of readers can attest, that first book was a fishhook.  We all really hope the world does contain some magic.  Many people find that solace met with religion.  Either way, fiction can enhance the experience.  We read the original series, hanging tensely until the final volume came out.

Many of those who believe in a magical religion protested the sale of magical fiction.  We were still in Wisconsin at the time, but we saw the protestors outside a local bookstore the release day for one of the later volumes.  Like Death-Eaters the protestors opposed Harry Potter.  The root of the problem seems to have been unique truth claims.  Whenever a religion declares itself the sole harbinger of “the” truth, every other way of looking at things becomes evil.  Even if it expressly declares itself to be fantasy fiction for young adults.  Years have passed, and Harry Potter, like other forms of pop culture, has grown to the status of a religion.  Even Nones want to believe in something.  Magic and religion are, after all, very difficult to tell apart.


Mastication Meditation

Musing while munching a bowl of Wheaties, a thought came to me.  Not only do we owe the practice of eating breakfast cereal to an evangelical strain of Christianity, but we also encounter the early morning ideas that stay with us through the day.  Cereal boxes start our day.  Advertisers and marketers know that images are important.  If successfully done they stay with us and may influence future purchasing choices.  In the case of Wheaties (which I’ve always liked) the box shows some athlete or other, implying that we’ll be champions too if we partake.  We are what we wheat.  Now, I don’t follow sports.  I can tell a football from a basketball, but watching grown men (usually) chasing one about really has no appeal to me.  I don’t eat Wheaties to become big and strong.  (At my age you don’t want to get bigger.)

As I ponder my fodder, I wonder what it would be like if we put pictures of people reading on our cereal boxes.  Would we experience a massive renaissance of literacy if cool people were shown with a book instead of a ball?  Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for exercise.  I’m a fidgety sort of guy who doesn’t sit still well.  I like to get out and jog or walk.  I don’t mind doing household repairs.  I like to move about.  But reading is one of the great rewards I allow myself.  When work becomes dull, I look forward to an evening of reading (I tend to do my writing in the morning, before the mental exhaustion of the day kicks in.  Wheaties are, after all, a morning food).  It’s kind of like living in pre-television times, I suspect.

Among the publishing industry the fate of book reading is a constant topic of discussion.  Or, not to put too fine a point on it, book buying.  Reading itself is doing fine.  If, for example, you are reading this you are probably doing so on a screen but you’re still reading.  You don’t have to pay for reading, and it passes the time.  No, the crises is getting people to buy books.  People like yours truly buy books even when many are available free online.  I spend at least eight hours a workday in front of a computer screen, and by the end of it, nervous and twitchy, I need a break.  I need a physical book.  And maybe a physical constitutional walk.  If only my breakfast cereal encouraged others to explore the joys of the literary life—but then, I’ve got to get going; my Wheaties are getting soggy.


Moving Books

One of my anxieties about moving is that commuting time was my reading time.  Enforced sitting for over three hours a day meant consuming book after book.  Now I have to carve out time to read.  Life has a way of filling the time you have.  I say the following fully aware that you’re on the internet now, but one of the biggest time drains is the worldwide web.  Humans are curious creatures and the web offers to answer any and all queries.  (It still hasn’t come up with a satisfactory answer to the meaning of life, however, IMHO.)  Even when I’m working on my current book, a simple fact-check can lead to surfing and before I know it, I’m out to sea.  That’s why books—paper books—are such a good option.  A footnoted source meant another trip to the library, and libraries led to more reading.

I’m a Goodreads author.  I like Goodreads quite a lot, and I actively accept new friends there.  In the past I set goals of reading 100+ books per year.  Aware back in January that a move might take place, I lowered my expectations.  I figured, even without commuting, that 65 books would be attainable in a year.  Of course, Goodreads doesn’t count the books you write, only those you read.  I had to tell even Amazon Author Central that Holy Horror was my book.  Moving, however, is a liminal time.  Every spare minute is spent packing.  And you still owe “the man” eight hours of your day.  That rumble that you feel is the moving truck growing closer.  Reading time has become scarce.  I fear I’m becoming illiterate.

And Goodreads makes me think of Twitter.  I’ll just click over there a while and wonder why I can’t seem to grow a following.  Ah, it turns out that you have to tweet often and incessantly, with erudite and trenchant things to say.  The birds chirping once a second outside my window can’t even keep up.  Problem is, I have a 9-to-5 job, and I’m trying to write Nightmares with the Bible.  And there’s just one more fact I have to check.  Wait, what’s the weather going to be like today?  Gosh, is that the time?  I have to get packing!  That moving van will be here only hours from now.  I need to calm down.  The way to do that, in my case, is to read a book.


Indie Bookstore Day

Although a year can seem like a long sentence, holidays are the punctuation marks that help us make sense of and organize it. Ordinary time, such as time at work, or commuting, can be endlessly tedious. Holidays, some personal, some local, others national or international, help us break up the time. Give us something to look forward to. My pity goes out to those religions that recognize no holidays and face time with a grim, Presbyterian determination to get to judgment day. The rest of us like to celebrate once in a while. So what’s today? It’s Independent Bookstore Day! Anyone who reads more than a post or two on this blog knows that I’m a lover of books. I first started taking solace in reading when things were difficult in my younger years, and reading has never let me down. In fact, I’ve often told myself that I could put up with just about any job as long as I could write.

It’s because of being in publishing that I learned about Independent Bookstore Day. Yes, it’s a promotional holiday, but it’s also a genuine celebration. As the outside world daily reminds us, those of us who read are a minority. The realistic author knows that the reading public is a small fraction of the whole. The number of people, percentage-wise, who spend their money on books is minuscule compared to those who fling their lucre elsewhere. But those of us who read appreciate the depth and reflection of each other. We may read different things, but we read. And that’s why I don’t mind going to an indie bookstore today and buying something.

One of the simple pleasures in life—call it a punctuation mark, a comma maybe—is being surrounded by unfamiliar books. Oh, I often worry what happens when we decide to move; we have lots of books at home. The last time the movers actually complained in our hearing that we had too many boxes of books. Talk about me at the bar afterwards, but don’t castigate my simple pleasures to my face, please. Books are the rare opportunity to commune with others on a deep level. How often have you put down a book and felt that you knew the author? Their soul was revealed in their writing and you had touched it. Just being in a bookstore is cause for celebration. If you have no plans for today, why not make your way to your local indie? Stand up and be counted as the literate resistance. It’s our silent Bastille Day, after all.


Shocking Truth

The electrician recently stopped by. We’re renters and although I don’t mind doing minor household repairs to benefit the landlord, I draw the line at electricity. It’s a scary thing. I’ve been shocked too many times to want a jolt bigger than I can handle. I even once accidentally grabbed the metal prongs when unplugging something as a child (it was a microscope light, I remember) and that helpless feeling of being unable to drop the plug even while my body jerked uncontrollably left me with a healthy respect for those who actually understand insulation, capacitors, and those impossible electrical diagrams. So when the pull chain came out of the ceiling light I wasn’t going to try to fix it.

The electrician, like most people who see our apartment, commented on the books. “You like to read,” he said. I can’t help but feel guilty about that. It’s almost as if you should apologize for requiring the stimulation of so many tomes. I confessed that I did, but I wanted to justify it. “I work in publishing,” I feebly offered as an excuse. Concentrating on the fixture above his head, he said, “I don’t ever read a book unless I have to.” He fixed the pull chain and left. I couldn’t have fixed the thing so quickly, or safely. He even had a metal ladder. I was grateful for the light, but once again felt somewhat freakish for my bibliophilia.

Those of us who write books must read books. You can’t learn how to do one without the other. Because of movies and television, we picture writers as people with large houses and separate rooms as libraries where they can sit surrounded by books as they type away at their next bestseller. Those of us who work for a living seldom have such luxury. A separate room just for books? I like letting my books reside in whatever room they feel like. Most affordable apartments don’t come with a study. There are living room books that you want people to see, and kitchen books that suggest good things to eat. There are bedroom books that you might not want others to see. What I don’t have is a library. A book zoo. My books roam freely about my home. It occurs to me that one area lacking in my collection is one about household wiring. Maybe instead of feeling weird I should get wired. I’m sure there are books out there that will tell me how. Or at least that will let me know that a wooden ladder makes a poor conductor.


New Year’s Resistance

Now that 2016 is safely behind us, it’s time to start looking ahead to a year of peaceful protest and renewed social activism. When you reach a certain point in your life you’d like to think your country will represent your best interest but the crooked electoral college system with which we’re shackled has lived up to unthinking obedience to convention. Now we all will pay the price. Not all protest has to be highly visible, however. Education has a way of improving things even if done subtly. The key is not to let up. The moment we do, the evil Borg will assimilate us. I’m beginning my new year with a literary protest against ignorance. I mentioned Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge yesterday. It doesn’t have to be that one, but taking on a reading challenge—any educational imperative will do—is a way of saying that the darkness can’t last forever.

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2016 was a busy year, in spite of its many challenges. I wrote two books during the course of the year. Don’t go rushing to Amazon, because neither has been published. One likely never will be, although I have high hopes for my most recent effort. I write this not to draw attention to myself, but to suggest yet another form of social protest. Writing is a powerful tool. Long ago one of the most influential people in my life, a high school English teacher, told our creative writing club to write at least 15 minutes a day. There have been times when I’ve slipped, but by far the majority of my days since then have included spells of writing at least that long. This blog is only one outlet, in addition to the fiction and non-fiction I also write. Write your protest! Your thoughts can’t be known if you don’t share them!

Most important of all, we can’t give up hope. The end of the story hasn’t been written yet. We know that Trump lost the popular vote by an historic landslide of almost 3 million. Many, many, many, many, many people are unhappy with the results of this election. The mistake is to think that so many citizens are powerless. We’re not. Even before last year ended I committed to the peaceful march on Washington the day after the “inauguration.” We need to stand up and be counted. We need to say we’re just as American as the bullies who’ve taken over the schoolyard. And we need to continue to educate this country, no matter how reluctant it may be to pre-post-truth.


Bibliotherapy

This may sound strange, considering the source, but I fear I don’t read enough. An article by Sarah Begley in a recent issue of Time, reinforces what we’ve known all along—reading is incredibly good for you. Even fiction. Especially fiction. For the most part, as I’m commuting, I read non-fiction. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but it doesn’t always help with literacy issues that might call for a bibliotherapist. You see, literacy builds a kind of psychological strength that helps with real-world issues. Part of it is because many books go through a rigorous process of approval. Still, it’s important to realize that this kind of reading may not be the popular fiction that can be found in grocery stores and airports—although even that is fine—but the level of writing that really helps is somewhat mysteriously labeled “literary fiction.” The kind of book an author writes, rewrites, and rewrites. Deep thought and care go into such books, and they can be a help to their readers. Reading isn’t just fundamental, it is transformative.

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I remember my school years well. Kids are amazing in their level of energy. They crave activity and experience. Getting them to read can be difficult. You need to sit still. And concentrate. Concentration isn’t easy. You have to train a child to read, and, at least where I grew up, that was a struggle. The fact that it’s possible to graduate from high school and be functionally illiterate is one of the signs that learning to enjoy reading doesn’t always take hold. I knew guys in middle school who would rather do just about anything other than read. I often wondered what anyone could do to make them realize what they were missing. I read books and stories that took my breath away. There was something incredible going on between the covers—but how to convince others?

Recently a colleague pointed out to me that those of us in publishing are, statistically speaking, a very small number of people. We work in an industry that serves a small number of people. We are an odd lot. We read books, and some of us write books, and we do so for a small sector of society. Signs are hopeful that interest in reading is growing. Leading by example may help. At any one time I have at least one, generally two or more, fiction books going at the same time. On the bus I read through non-fiction at a faster rate. Maybe the mix is actually right. Fiction reading takes more time. It could be because I’m getting more out of it than I realize. I just wish I had more time to do it. More time for reading health. I may need to see a bibliotherapist.


Read Long and Prosper

“Live long and prosper,” Mr. Spock was (or will be, depending) known for saying. Many of us know the regimen for healthy living: don’t overindulge on the food and drink. Get some exercise. Try to eat the right foods. Sleep once in a while. When we go to the doctor’s office, it’s generally a physical cause that we want explained or treated. It seems, however, we might have been overlooking a way to live longer. Reading. An article from last month’s Tech Times explains that book reading—sorry folks, reading this doesn’t count—correlates to longer life, according to a Yale study. The article by Alyssa Navarro explains that concentrated reading for three-and-a-half-hours a week can be connected to living longer. Those of us who read may not have that fringe benefit in mind, but it does stand to reason.

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Since people love correlates that sound alike, the way that we describe aspects of our lives is often quantity verses quality. In terms of quantity, consciousness seems to drive us to claim as much life as possible. It’s hard to let go. Connoisseurs, however, often prefer quality to quantity. While there may well be other options than these two q’s, it seems to me that those of us who read tend to do it for the quality issue. Quantity may be a fringe benefit. My job requires a long commute most days, and I bury myself in books. If I pick one that really captures my interest, I’m amazed at how quickly even an intractable commute can go. On those days I work at home, I have to admit, I miss the reading time. I try to read with the same level of concentration when I power the laptop down, but there is something about being in a situation where you’re forced to read that somehow enhances the level of concentration. It’s training, I suppose. We often think that once we’ve figured out how to read then it’s just a matter of doing it. To really get into a book, however, requires effort.

If I’m at home and I sit down for a marathon reading session, I inevitably get sleepy. Since I awake quite early this isn’t something I think I need to see my doctor about. Of course I get sleepy on the bus, but I’ve seen how ridiculous most people look when they sleep in public, and I don’t want to be one of those. If the book I have is a good fit, I barely notice how tired I am, surrounded by my aluminum walls and the wheels that go round and round. Maybe that’s because my mind is elsewhere. I don’t commute for my health. On the days when I don’t take the bus I try to get out and jog. My healthcare regimen, I think, could use a little more book reading. At least that’s as good an excuse as I can come up with for what many people, ironically, consider a kind of illness. May we “bookworms” read long and prosper.


Hi Ho, Hi Ho

I’ve been writing about reading. No surprises there, I suppose. My wife recently introduced me to BookRiot, and I wish I had more time to spend there. A recent post by Aisling Twomey describes how reading on her Tube commute helps keep her sane. Here is a good case of convergent evolution—I came to the same conclusion after about a week of what turns out to be about three hours a day commuting to New York City. We didn’t move to my current location to work in Manhattan. My job was in nearby Piscataway. It was only when a headhunter found me a job at Routledge that I began the daily trip. The problem is I get terribly car sick. To this day I can’t read in a car. Some days I can’t read on the bus either. Gradually, however, I trained myself to do it, and the results have been worth it. Ms. Twomey has read over fifty books this year on her London commute. I suspect my commute is a bit longer since I’ve read a few more than that. Still, we tilt against the same windmill, so we need to appreciate the dedication it takes.

I was talking to someone the other day who was complaining about cell phones. She said, “I used to read a lot. I worked in a book store. It was great.” Her cell, she said, gave her a stiff neck from constantly looking down. And a sore thumb from swiping and texting. And yet, she lamented, she just couldn’t stop. Books may well be a vice. I’m as bad as any addict. I have no idea how many books I’ve read in my life: the number is in the thousands rather than the hundreds, I know. And even the books I regret, I don’t really regret. Reading is a coping mechanism.

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One of the things that the traditional ancient religions all have in common is books. Not all of them treat sacred texts the same way, but they all have some form of sacred writing. There was an implicit sense, I believe, from the first stylus on clay, that something truly special was going on here. Holy, even. Writing is one of the great joys of life. Reading is another. Both are sacred professions. In a way it seems a shame to have to be forced into a commute in order to find time to read books. Still, the constant flow of new material has a life-saving quality to it. I can’t imagine spending fifteen concentrated hours a week texting. I don’t know that many people to text. The ones I do know I know through their books. And they’re very good company on a long ride.


Philosophies of Reading

I like my Starter. For those of you unaccustomed to New Jersey Transit buses and their ways, a Starter is a person who makes sure the buses scheduled to arrive at her or his gate do so on time. It’s not a job for the faint-hearted. If a bus is late, or AWOL, the Starter takes the heat from angry would-be passengers. Since they’re present “on the ground,” angry people lash out with their frustration. My regular Starter recognizes me. I’m usually early in my line, so I appear about the same place most days. My routine is, well, routine. I get to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, pull out my book, and read. Starters can’t really get involved in anything like a book because their job requires constant interruptions. Even when no buses are coming in because of an accident in the Lincoln Tunnel, they still have to answer questions and hold up the occasional crucifix. My Starter came to me the other day, as I was reading, and asked me what I thought of an incident four days earlier. To put this in context, the incident happened on Friday. I was there for it, in my usual spot, and this was Tuesday. Clearly it still bothered the Starter that someone had come out and yelled at him for not getting us a bus on time.

I sympathized. Starters can’t materialize objects. If they could, they wouldn’t be Starters. Yet, I realized as I turned back to my book, that I had lost some reading time. I don’t mind helping out my Starter, but it occurred to me that there are a couple of different philosophies behind reading while waiting for, and on, the bus. Many people, I suspect, read to pass the time. I don’t know what they’re reading, since much of it is on a flat device, but knowing that research reading is nearly impossible on the bus, I suspect they are just reading to make the weary time go quicker. Others, I know, read for content. For me, reading is very seldom passing time. I read because reading is what I want to do.

Commuting behavior isn’t conducive to my life choices. No longer do people sit quietly on the bus, respecting that inherent violence of awaking before 4 a.m. to try to get to the city before traffic inevitably makes you late. Devices make their unmuted bodily noises and glare in your face. The guy next to you pulls out his wide-screen laptop, while tapping away on his phone. Or pulls our her iPad to watch a movie with fast-paced images splashing in your face. The book is demanding company. Your time, your attention, your concentration are required to get the most out of it. I don’t mind supporting my Starter. I feel for the ennui of my fellow commuters. I also crave time alone with my books.

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