Repeat Performance

This post, “The Promiscuous Reader,” originally “aired” here on March 22, 2008. I’m almost through Delicate Edible Birds, so look for thoughts on that Wednesday of this week.

How many of you out there are promiscuous readers?

Not sure what I mean by that? Let’s say you go to the bookstore or to your favorite online bookseller, and you carefully select four or five books that you’ve had on your wish list for a while. As you’re driving home with your books, or as you’re waiting daily for the books to be delivered, you develop a plan. You know, for example, exactly which book you will read first, and it makes your heart pound just to think about it.

When you arrive home with your books, or when they are finally delivered to your door, you plan the best time to read, a time when you know you’ll have minimal interruptions for the longest possible stretch of time. If you’re the impatient type, like me, you may flip through several of the books and read the first few pages. But “the chosen one” remains in its virgin state, spine uncracked, until the appointed hour.

Finally, the moment arrives. You’re in your favorite chair, or propped up with pillows in some cozy reading spot. You have the right lighting; you have a cup of tea or coffee, a glass of wine or a Diet Coke. You open the book. You read the dedication and acknowledgments, just to make that divine suspense last a leeetle bit longer, and then: There it is. The first page.

As you settle in and start to read, you think to yourself, “This is so exciting. I’m finally reading this book! The use of language…oh, that phrase there! That dialogue!” But in the back of your mind, something else is happening. You notice that your enthusiasm feels forced. You keep reading and hope it will begin to feel more natural. After all, haven’t you been waiting for this moment for hours, days, or weeks on end? Didn’t you picture how great it would be a thousand times over when you finally settled in and started to read, how you would be carried away, forgetting work and chores and all the troubles of the world for a few hours?

You keep reading, but the more you read, the more conscious you become of a most disturbing fact: You’re faking it. Sure, you’re looking at the words and turning the pages, but be honest. You’re not really present. And why is that?

Because you’re thinking about another book, that’s why. You might even be thinking about several books, or a whole other genre. “This book is so serious,” you say. “Beautifully written. Amazing. But maybe I need something lighter. I had such a long day at work, and I just need something to help boost my mood.” Maybe you’re reading a novel and you realize you’re more in the mood for short stories. Maybe you’re reading fiction but you also bought a couple of new biographies you’ve been wanting to dig in to for a couple of weeks. Or maybe, just maybe, you got a new copy of your favorite magazine in the mail that day, and you can hear it calling to you from the coffee table.

You put your bookmark (always use a bookmark, people!) in the book to keep your place and set it down. You tell yourself you’ll come back to it tomorrow, or on the weekend, or next week when you’re off for a few days and have more time. Then you start the search. You go through your TBR pile, your bookshelves full of things you’ve already read, your magazines. You think it’s only going to be this one time, but it continues for days, weeks, this restlessness.

You cannot commit to a book. The book you thought you wanted sits untouched where you left it, gathering dust. All over the house are books you’ve picked up and discarded, bookmarks noting the exact moment you abandoned them. You think maybe you should just stop reading for a while. You should watch movies or television. You should listen to books on your iPod. You should go for a run, clean out your closet, wash your car, or repaint the house.

As you go on distracting yourself in any number of ways, something happens. One day, a book pops into your head. Maybe you hear someone else mention it, and like a word or song that suddenly seems to be everywhere, it’s constantly on your mind. It makes you a bit nervous and concerned. What if it happens again? What if you pull the book down from the shelf, or make a special trip to the bookstore (“If they have a copy, I was meant to read it now,” you think.) to buy it, and the same thing happens? You get so far, and then you start thinking about other books? You wait, but eventually you decide to throw caution to the wind. Maybe you and the book can make a go of it. Maybe this time will be different.

Oh, sweet relief when it works! The book is just the thing you needed! You read and read it; you think about what will happen next when you’re away from it. You recall your favorite scenes during boring meetings, think about especially well-turned phrases in chapter fifteen as you drive. You finish the book, and you can practically hear the Rocky theme song playing as you snap the book shut after the final page. You did it! You finished a book! You are back on your game! Things will be different now! You will pick up other books and read them in full. You will be committed and serious. You will not cheat.

Okay, so, I’ve been using “you,” but I suppose you all know: I’m talking about myself. Perhaps you’ve noticed the Winesburg, Ohio image that’s been in the sidebar for–oh, I don’t know–a month? Six weeks? I haven’t changed it because at certain points it would have meant changing it almost daily. Here’s a list of books I’ve started and stopped in the meantime: Conversations with Woody Allen, The Emporer’s Children (Claire Messud), Away (Amy Bloom), Quakertown (Lee Martin), Jenny and the Jaws of Life (Jincy Willett), Rare and Endangered Species (Richard Bausch), Remembering Ray (essays about the late, great Raymond Carver), two current issues of Real Simple and Domino, plus several back issues, and Getting Things Done, for work, by David Allen. I’ve also listened to Selected Shorts on my iPod, short story readings that go on at Symphony Space in New York, and I’ve actually listened to Ron Carlson’s “Towel Season” and John Updike’s “Walk with Elizanne” repeatedly. I also got addicted to Project Runway, but as soon as it ended…well, let’s just say it was difficult, and I seriously considered renting the first three seasons.

The book that finally broke the spell for me, as you probably know because of the image on the post, was Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld. I read this when it was first released, as a “summer read,” and I remember being surprised at how good it was, how solid and non-chick-lit it seemed. I’ve always meant to re-read it, and a week ago I decided to give it a shot. I had nothing to lose (as long as I ignored my ever-growing TBR pile). And I’m happy to say I’m finding it quite good the second time around, and I’m almost finished with it.


*image from

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