Reading Under the Influence

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In fact, I can’t read very successfully under the influence. Generally I fall asleep within about a page and half—though I can get pretty passionate about whatever I’m reading in that time. When I wake up, a half-hour or so further along of an evening, sobered and abashed, a little groggy, I might make some tea and walk outside, then back to the book or article or whatever it is I’m reading. And then it clicks. But it’s a catchy title.

Mornings are my best reading time, but of course mornings (till about 2 p.m.) are my best writing time as well, and my best teaching time, best thinking, best anything except maybe eating and drinking. I used to read in bed—no longer. I don’t even get a sentence out of the way before I’m snoring. And if I am awake it’s because I’m worrying about something, in which case no book can cut through the looped narrative in my head.

I manage to get at least a little writing done while teaching, but reading falls away—or at least optional reading, recreational reading, literary reading. Has to, when you’re inside a couple hundred pages of student writing a week. As of May 2009 I finished my really very delightful tenure at the College of the Holy Cross, a five-year endowed chair, and gradually since my neglected reading practice has come back to life, something like a book a week, more if the book is short, fewer if there’s anything complicated about it. I’ve often thought I could endure prison, even solitary, if they just let me have something to read. But I guess the tough jailers take your books away from you. But what brought prison to mind?

In “Reading under the Influence” we’ll just report on our reading in both long and short form, both casually and critically. Sometimes David and I will be reading the same book and comparing notes, perhaps even battling. Our battles can be pretty amusing, especially during cocktail hour. We also invite Cocktail Hour readers to weigh in, and wouldn’t mind suggestions for great books to read. Or try classic or recent titles on us—chances are good one or both of us have read it and will have something to say. Or tell us about your book.

At some point before too long we’ll be posting our lists of essential books in various categories and genres, and we’d love to see your lists, as well.

In the last many weeks I’ve read Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel; The Wives of Henry VIII, by Antonia Fraser (to help me understand Wolf Hall); The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker; Cheever, by Blake Bailey; and some others. My impressions follow, and I welcome yours. These books don’t have a lot in common except that they’re pretty big time and that they’ve been waiting on my shelves for a long time and I’m trying to catch up. A losing proposition, I know. If I were locked in my house for the next fifty years (till I’m 106, that is), I’d have plenty to read and re-read just in my current shelves.

And yet I’d go on writing, as if we weren’t all swamped in the same boat: so many books, so little time.

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