I’ve never lost the joy that reading gives me, but I realized in the last year or two that I had stopped reading with the same care that I used to. Curiously, I wasn’t sure why. It didn’t seem to matter whether I was reading weighty non-fiction like In The Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Voyage of the USS Jeanette–a book that assumes the reader is going to be invested enough to concentrate on dates, the fallibility of nineteenth century maritime cartography, nautical jargon, and the properties of various alloys used to reinforce ships whose job is to bust through glaciers–or the latest Lee Child thriller. (That link has a big list if you’re not sure where to start with Lee Child and Jack Reacher.)
Perhaps this is because I spend too much time in the click-happy online world which we’re sharing right now. Maybe my brain had in fact rewired itself in the way that Nicholas Carr talks about in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.
Sounds plausible. I scan instead of analyze. Seeing lots of information can feel like learning, even if nothing is retained. If I can tell you what a book was about, I can pat my back and say I read it, even if I didn’t pore over every sentence.
But I didn’t even really care why. A lot of people I’ve talked to about this–librarians included–say yes, their brains are changing, and so they’re reading fewer books.
That wasn’t me, though, even if my brain had changed in the same way. I never stopped reading books. I never even really slowed down. I don’t know. It has just felt like I don’t make myself concentrate as hard as I used to.
And again, it’s not that the joy of reading went away, but it was the very act of reading carefully, as if I couldn’t stand to miss a word, whether it was The Hardy Boys or Voltaire, that used to give me the most intense joy. It is what made reading an act of oblivion that also managed to serve as an education, or at least a gymnasium for my brain.
Most of this I only see in hindsight, and I only see it because I started reading seriously, with purpose, in other languages.
I study languages because I think it’s fun and because I want to take lots of trips overseas. Not much more to it than that. So, after I would go through a set of Pimsleur or Michele Thomas CDs I would pick a book in Spanish, French, Italian, or German, and start to read. (don’t be impressed, my language skills are fairly primitive. I’ve always had some aptitude for languages, but if I have a secret weapon, it’s just that I study for about 10 minutes a day and never miss a day).
To the point:
When I read in another language, I have to slow down. There’s no point in racing through sentences full of words I don’t know or whose structures I can’t grapple with. I recently read In Other Words, Jumpa Lahiri’s Italian language memoir (the English is also included) of moving to Italy to master Italian. There were were paragraphs where, before I could even figure out whether I knew the words or not, I had to assure myself that I remembered how sentences even work.
Where is the direct object? Who’s doing what? Are we in the past, present, or future? Did the speaker change when I wasn’t paying attention?
To truly start to grasp prose in another language, you have to read with intent and rigor. For me, that was exactly how I used to read everything.
Perhaps this is a meager epiphany on the grand scale, but it seems to be true for me.
Now, when I read in English–which is still the majority of the time–I tend to treat the text as if it were in another language. Something I have to parse, to discover to anew, to digest, and to absorb it to the point where I carry it with me when I close the book…and that was always the point.
I’d just forgotten somehow.