One week different

For the past week I’ve done almost everything differently. I haven’t been online. I haven’t gone to work. I haven’t cooked dinner. I haven’t seen friends. I haven’t worked in the garden. I expected to go to New York, but didn’t. I’ve driven out to the beach twice in the afternoon, and once to the nearby Japanese garden. I’ve read two books, one on paper and another on my ereader. I’ve gone to four doctor appointments. I’ve taken half a dozen naps. I haven’t checked the news.

One of the books I read was Reader, Come Home, by Maryanne Wolf. I picked it up on a whim at a bookstore in the beach town I’d driven out to. Reader offered the only accurate description I’ve ever come across of how it feels to me to really read, deeply, all-in, surroundingly. I used to say that good reading wasn’t about seeing or thinking individual words; I was there, watching, present. The description the author gave in this book was the first and only thing I’ve read that made me think someone else would know exactly what I meant by that.

So that pulled me in. And I had time: not a lot of mental energy, true, but time. I’d set my email autoreply to indicate that I wouldn’t be answering email. I’d declined meetings. It seemed pointless to check much of anything online, and since the whole point of the week was recuperating, there was nothing much else I was trying to do. I read the book. I read it on paper, page by page, and because the author had me hooked with that description, I trusted what else she might have to say: after all, this is a person who gets it.

Summary: we read differently when we read to skim, to summarize, to hunt for information than when we read deeply. We read differently on a screen than we do on paper. We read differently when we read in volume rather than when we read to read. These differences aren’t subjective or maybe; they’re measurable and visible in everything from brain scans to how we move our eyes across text.

Maybe because this was a week of different, maybe because I was primed to pay attention, maybe because I’ve felt my own reading brain slipping, the ideas in the book hit home. I tried what Wolf said she’d tried: focused, forced attention. I read and re-read until I got it. I fought my way through long sentences without letting nuance slip past (I found a couple of places I think Wolf’s editor could have improved things, but that’s meaningful too). A couple of chapters were less personally meaningful to me than others, but I read them deeply anyway. I held internal arguments with myself about what might be missing: this is a recipe for reading more deeply as taught to children, but what about the rest of us? are we sure that children are more distractable than adults? how do we handle the volume of things we might read, or feel we’re expected to read, professionally or personally? if one reasonable goal is a bilateral approach to reading modes, when does truly lightweight skimming make sense? (And as I write this, I remember: being taught to skim, as a skill, sometime in middle school. There’s a certain irony to that, but maybe also a certain hope: can we learn to choose how we read? And I remember my mother telling me about how her reading changed in law school, and how it changed again after that.)

As the week went on, I started experimenting more specifically. I aimed for less rapidity, fewer things, and more depth. I aimed for stillness, for letting my mind do nothing much at all. I checked email less often, and when I did, I wrote back to the friends who’d sent messages asking if I were okay. I uninstalled a couple of apps from my phone. In the doctor’s office while waiting for the optometrist to come in, I simply sat.

I’ve also been reading Gould’s Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan, on my ereader, and up to about three quarters of the way through I hadn’t really seen the point of it. It’s violent and gruesome and yes the early penal colony days in Australia were awful, but. I haven’t been able to see it, to see the story in the book the way I sometimes (and in the past, nearly always) see the stories in books.

Then sometime around Thursday evening, a switch flipped, and I was there. Twopenny Sal was dancing around a fire, ochre painted on her face, shadows leaping too against the night sky – and that image is as vivid as anything I can imagine. I finished reading Book of Fish this morning, and everything through to the end – I was there. (It’s still never going to be my favorite book, but that’s fine, and a different story.)

Last night I picked up The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth. I’d gone to see Kingsnorth give a talk, a few months back, and the whole idea of this book just pulls me in. The surreality of it; the slip into a new language; the sense of a landscape I both know and don’t. Every few months I’ve picked it up and thought, is this what I’m going to read next? and every few months I’ve put it back on the shelf.

This time, I took it down to the couch and dove in. It’s beautiful and misty and wonderful and even in this, my week of how-is-it-possible-to-feel-this-tired, the scenes and the place and the people are clear. I am so glad I waited to read it.

So where does all this leave me?

Somewhere around Thursday or Friday, my brain started feeling more clear.

Somewhere around Thursday or Friday, I started feeling like I could think again, in a way I haven’t felt like I could think in quite some time.

I don’t quite know what’s next, but I am unwilling to give this up. I’m planning a few things to keep it going: less lightweight information, and if that means I use the gaps between things for exactly nothing specific, that’s fine; more breaks between meetings; more paper, both for thinking through projects and for reading; fewer apps; less checking the news; more one thing at a time; more choosiness and more depth in reading. If this forces me to do fewer things overall – okay. It feels like a really good trade.

It also feels like the best side effect I can imagine of coming down with shingles. A year from now, I think and hope this is what I’ll remember when I look back at this time.

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