Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Reading Again

I can’t remember a time before I was a voracious reader. As a child I would sit on the heating vent in the corner of our living room, reading books for hours. I once negotiated with the Tooth Fairy to get the next installment of my favorite Enid Blyton series instead of cash. I have cut myself shaving because I couldn’t put down my book. 

My whole family and extended family are also notorious readers. You will walk into a room and find multiple Leishmans or Phillipses, each sitting silently with his or her book.  In the 1990s I spoke at a conference in Utah. Every day I would make my pilgrimage to the Salt Lake Roasting Company.  It was a caffeinated oasis in the Mormon desert, back before Starbucks was everywhere, and before Mitt Romney made Utah liberalize the state's quaint liquor laws so they could host the Winter Olympics. One morning as I clutched my Americano, a stranger approached and asked if I was one of the Leishmans from Brigham City. I told her our family had moved to Bellingham years before, and asked how she remembered me. She said she worked at the local library, “and your family were the only people in that town who read books.”

As years went by, books got longer and days got shorter, and my tally of multiple books a day became merely multiple books a week. Paper and online magazines (and life) competed for my time, but I would always read for pleasure. I continued to be a reader throughout college, grad school, law school, legal practice, and parenthood. 

During those years, I observed an inverse correlation between my anxiety level and my book consumption. My longtime colleague Steven, who is personally responsible for Amazon’s dominating position in the book market, had the same experience. Being a litigator at a large law firm means relentless stress. Steven would try to compensate by compulsively running every day, grinding his knees into dust, just to make it through one of those three-part New Yorker profiles. 

“Anhedonia” is the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable. It is a symptom of various mental disorders, but it is a core clinical feature of depression. Last year as I descended into darkness, I completely stopped reading for the first time in my life. (Obsessively checking political news is the opposite of pleasure. And of reading.)

When the fog lifted a bit at the end of October, I still couldn’t read. Instead, I found myself binge-watching all kinds of TV shows, most of which I had never even heard of: Veep, The Crown, Empire, Man in the High Castle, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, etc. I still couldn’t pick up a book for more than a few minutes. But I was encouraged, correctly hypothesizing that binge-watching was reading-adjacent. 

This spring when my mood substantially improved, I again started binge-watching.  (This is Us, Legion, The Magicians, Feud, Class, Riverdale, Super Girl….) Meanwhile I kept a close eye on the carefully-chosen books I had placed on the shelf next to my bed to entice me. Finally I actually read one. John Cleese’s autobiography, So, Anyway..., is 375 pages of witty anecdotes about post-war life and the Golden Age of British television. Over the next few weeks I started reading several more books from the shelf and managed to finish one, as well as a couple of new books from Amazon I couldn’t resist. (I needed them for research.) 

This week I took the kids to the Bellingham Public Library to sign them up for the summer reading program. I also got my own library card and checked out three books. (Funny, the library didn’t have a record of me from the summer I lived with my parents during college, in 1982.) One night after the kids were in bed, I stayed up till 3 am because I just had to finish my book. The next day I went back to the library and checked out its sequel. 

It’s summer vacation now, and my children begrudgingly put in their 30 minutes of minimum daily reading. Two weeks ago, instead of doing laundry and cleaning the kitchen, I began sitting together with the kids and reading my own current book. In a break from family tradition, most days I’m the only one reading for pleasure. But I’m hopeful. Last night Eleanor stayed up past midnight with the book she chose for her birthday. Life is pretty good.

(From Grandma's refrigerator door)

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