Recent reading: Gravity, by W. Scott Olsen

A couple of days ago I finished reading Gravity, The Allure of Distance, by W. Scott Olsen. I bought it a few years ago. It called to me for all the predictable reasons. It’s a paperback. The cover shows an empty highway, a sign for Exit 0, and the kind of big-distance, big-sky terrain that felt like home the first time I saw it (and promptly got heat-induced delirium, because that was in the Mojave and it was the first time I’d spent real time in the desert, but that’s another story).

The book took me a long time to read.

It puzzled me that that was so. The writing is beautiful. The terrain described is beautiful. The author’s sense of what it is like to get on the highway and just keep going, the pull of six or eight big lanes and semi trucks running seventy or eighty miles an hour and motels in the middle of nowhere that you pull into late at night, of gas station rest stop food and diners in the middle of nowhere, seems like a relative of mine. The pull of empty roads through deserted passes, the exhilaration of steep cliffs and jagged rock formations in the middle of nowhere (but is it really nowhere, if the pull is so strong?), is familiar too.

And that’s when I realized: the trouble I had with this book is that it made too much sense to me. It was like reading the inside of my own head, or recalling my own memories. Not to say that I’ve driven the Dempster highway, or stepped over the Arctic circle, or have any desire to – I haven’t been to the Yukon, and thus far when it comes to big deserted open spaces I bias more toward heat than ice. But the mental and emotional perspective of heading for out there, of defining home as how far I can get driving in a day (how long is a day? is it from waking to sleeping? variable, then – and I recall the time I made it from Albuquerque to Indio before stopping for a hotel, then successfully negotiated a bargain because it was so late at night), makes sense to me.

So I read the book. And as I read it, I kept putting it down, because it covered territory already known to me.

Books I’m reading

… or have been reading lately:

Reader, Come Home, by Maryann Wolf
I loved this. Pulled me in, made me think, changed how I’m approaching a number of things in my life, including reading (prior blog post). I’m glad and thankful I read this, and that means I’m also glad and grateful it exists. Just outstanding.

Gould’s Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan
Sort of a (dark) fairy tale or magic realism, sort of an unreliable narrator, sort of an indictment of the early convict years in Tasmania, sort of fantastical, with metaphorical beasts and fish and men…. I recognized that it was literarily worthy but it never fully pullled me in. Perhaps this was along the lines of “the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all”? Or perhaps it just wasn’t my taste.

The City and the Mountains, by Eca de Queros
The second time I’ve read this. A book with a message, arguably a morality tale, and I usually don’t love those – but this was so engaging that not only did I read it once, I kept it around and years later (ie last week) read it again. And I liked it just as much. The second time reading it, it seemed even more relevant than the first: this time I’ve been to rural Spain, which yes is not Portugal, and it’s a hundred years later, but at least the physical landscape isn’t too far away; and this time I’m thinking a lot about information and distraction and overwhelm and the tradeoffs of things coming in vs being or doing (or not-doing) oneself. All that makes it sound boring or dry, but really it’s just fun. It’s also a peaceful and calming sort of thing to read before bed, even during a tumultuous week.

The Achievement Habit, by Bernard Roth
I think I’m about done reading books about productivity. There was nothing wrong with this one, but I keep falling back to the ones I really love (18 Minutes; The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck; Getting Things Done.) That said, a few insights worth noting:

  • Doing things is itself a habit or a muscle. Do stuff and it gets easier to do stuff.
  • The stuff that makes us crazy when other people do it is probably stuff we do ourselves (else we likely wouldn’t even notice when others do it).
  • Let go of concerns and/or tackle any given problem from a different angle by up-leveling the problem itself. Rephrased: ask “why” like a two year old and then answer that question instead.

The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth
I’m just a little way into this. It’s beautiful and wonderful and I love it and I’m so glad I’m reading it.

The End of Mr Y, by Scarlett Thomas
Just a little way into this one too. This is the second book by Thomas that I’ve read. Like the first (Our Tragic Universe) it’s both totally engaging and sneakily intellectual. In spite of that, I keep picking it up and putting it down and losing momentum – which I think is more about the number of books I’m currently reading and/or the amount of chaos in my life right now. So I am likely going to put it down more thoroughly for a while, and then start over.

F*ck Feelings, by Michael Bennett
I picked this up to look at in a bookstore because it had an amusing title and a bright yellow cover (yep, totally judging book by cover). I read a couple of pages and grinned at the book. It was just nice to read something that was both about how a) sometimes life is difficult and b) sometimes (often!) the thing to do is just get on with it anyway. Plus I have kind of a standing joke with a friend about how perhaps feelings are overrated, and what one needs to do is think things through rationally, and why do other people not get this?! And I often feel a sneaking kind of respect for the whole ‘stiff upper lip’ and dry humor approach to life that one finds in the more stereotypical bits of British humor. So, this was appealing. Then I read a couple of pages and felt better. Oh, the irony. There’s good odds I’ll read the rest of it, perhaps in tiny doses as required to deal with chaos.

New Selected Poems, by Les Murray
Because poetry is necessary, and Les Murray is great. I’m reading this one or two poems at a time, and at that rate it will take me a while to finish. I’m good with that. Things I like about Les Murray’s poetry: the sense of landscape and space and how specific it is. Also the use of such a wide variety of words, arranged in such a wide variety of ways.

And that’s all! For now, at any rate.

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.