The Breadcrumbs widget will appear here on the published site.
Learning to Read Again
By Fay Funk
It started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
I had a long commute between school and home. It was 45 minutes on the R train from the door of my Brooklyn apartment to my first class of the day at NYU. A 45 minute commute twice a day, and listening to music just wasn’t cutting it anymore. I’ve found I can’t sit still and listen to music, I need to be walking or running. The responsible way to spend that time would have been to do my homework, but I could already picture myself reaching my stop and dropping every notebook and pen and over-priced textbook on the ground as I overzealously jumped up to get off, and watching those things slide all over the dirty train floor as the doors were closing. So I picked up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I decided to give it a try.
It was the first book I had read for pleasure in about six years, and I was scared of it. The book was scary in the way anything unfamiliar, even something good, is scary at first. What if I didn’t like it? What if reading for fun was something that was just lost to me? I chose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because it was familiar. By this time the book was a smash hit and praised by critics and everyone I knew who had already read it. Over my winter break my family had insisted on seeing the movie based on the book, so I already knew the story. It was safe.
So twice a day for 45 minutes I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on the subway. When I was done with the first book, I read the two sequels. My fears about reading again were unfounded. The books were safe, and not just because of their content. I was aware of the world around me while at the same time being completely disconnected from it. Accidental eye contact with perverts was no longer a problem, so long as I looked at my book. Whenever a scammer hopped on the train and started their obnoxious spiel, I could hear them, and turn my body as far away as I could from whatever container they wanted me to put money in, while never looking up. And even on the loudest, most crowded train I could disengage from what was going on around me. The story was separating. I was not part of the train.
I hit a turning point. Reading went from scary to safe to powerful. It happened about a month before I left New York City for good. I had long since finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, and had moved on to another blockbuster book: Game of Thrones, another safe and comforting book series a fantasy dork like me, though still remarkable considering the amount of death and violence packed into every page. I was on my way to the gym, reading the fourth book in the series. I looked up briefly and saw a boy I had dated for two weeks several years before (and on whom I harbored an irrational attachment) on the train with his girlfriend, who looked like Lauryn Hill. And there I was, sweaty with a smelly gym bag, no makeup, and 30 pounds heavier than when we first met. So I acted like I didn’t see him. I acted like the book I was reading was so engrossing that I couldn’t be bothered to notice him. And it didn’t take any acting. Whatever fictional character being brutally flayed alive or stabbed in the face genuinely absorbed all my attention. I didn’t notice when he got off the train.
Comfort is important when you start reading again, and in the months after I moved from New York to Portland I stayed squarely in my comfort zone of well-received fantasy and sci-fi novels. Escapism and otherworldliness were a godsend when I was unemployed. Fantasy becomes predictable after you read enough of it, though. It’s clear who is the villain and who is the hero, who is morally ambiguous and who is going to die to create conflict. And even though familiarity is how I wanted to start reading, it is not how I wanted to continue.
I started reading The Bell Jar, a sharp turn from the stories about dragons and aliens I had been reading. It hit close to home. An academically successful girl in New York City who is overwhelmed and depressed despite having the world at her feet? I knew that that was me for four years. The Bell Jar was familiar too, but unlike the fantasy books I had read it wasn’t familiar because of the story-arcs, but because the feelings held in it were real. It wasn’t a comfortable book to read. It’s never comfortable to look at yourself that closely.
The Bell Jar is also one of my favorite books. Pushing my own boundaries was part of why I set out to start reading again for pleasure in the first place. It’s not easy to read about such complicated feelings, but it is fulfilling. I am glad it was not the first book I started reading.
My first attempt at a really unfamiliar book was Ulysses by James Joyce. And I didn’t finish it. So far it’s the only book I’ve had to stop reading. About 200 pages in I was too hopelessly lost to continue. To me that’s a book you train for, like it’s a marathon, and I’m still not up to speed. Still it was big. I had been assigned to read parts of Ulysses in college, and barely got through a page, so understanding 200 pages was a major step forward. I picked up some of the subtleties, the references to Irish politicians and poetry, that I had not understood before. Then I knew for sure: I had trained myself to enjoy reading again.
#Books #Reading #Literacy #Hobbies #Learning #Self-improvement