We are at the end of our ten week reading challenge, and I am nowhere near finishing. The books I didn’t get to are still piled up on my table. The poems I haven’t read are set aside for later. The essay collections I started are still half-finished, and all the New Yorker, Boston Review, and n+1 articles ten weeks ago I was sure I would plow through without a problem are still waiting for me to start.
But I’m sure I read much more widely these ten weeks being focused on a page count which leveled the playing field–I didn’t need to stay tethered to one book at a time just to cross it off my list in time to get started on the next one. And a lot of my reading was necessarily unplanned–thinking about the number of pages gave me a great deal of freedom in how to fill them. So many days my reading consisted of essays in LitHub or links to articles I came across on (gasp!) FaceBook–Jacket 2, or other online journals I might not have found on my own if I’d been looking intentionally.
I did read several books that were on my must-read list–the best was the shortest, Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers. Paul Listicky’s The Narrow Door was a close second, probably tied with Eula Biss’ The Balloonists. I still need to finish Sven Birkert’s The Art of Time and of course, Kay Redfield Jamison’s biography of Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire. I’m moving slowly through this book. There is such sadness in Lowell’s affliction, this disease, bipolar disorder, that he suffered from, and the ignorance and misunderstanding of mental illness that made his life so much more challenging. And yet he was able to keep writing even after the extremes of his illness took so much from him. This, more than anything, underscores the importance of true parity for treating mental illness, not just medically (which it supposedly is), but also socially and politically. Humanity must be extended to these most vulnerable, suffering people all over the world, even the ones who don’t come from wealthy families, as Lowell did or have the ability to write poetry as a way to heal themselves.
And this week, I also read Leslie Jamison’s article in the New York Times, “In the Shadow of a Fairy Tale” about step- parenting, and I learned that “step” comes from the Old English “steop” meaning “loss.” It has nothing to do with a staircase! And since I have many step-parents, I had been perplexed by this word for a long time. Jamison’s article makes clear many of the dynamics in this kind of family role, and she writes in a way that helps me understand what my own step-parents have gone through–but certainly not excuse some of my more egregious behavior towards them.
For the KWH online reading group this week, I read Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” and J.M. Coetzee’s “The Philosophers and the Animals.” This was a fun four week-long experience, with Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” Nabokov’s short story, “Signs and Symbols,” poems by Mina Loy and Gwendolyn Brooks, and Anne Waldman’s “Jaguar Harmonics.” The Coetzee work is part of a series of lectures he gave at Princeton in 1997-1998 which enraged many people because instead of giving a standard lecture about some aspect of literature, he delivered a short story about a person giving a lecture–a meta-lecture–and this became the basis for his later novel, Elizabeth Costello. Which of course is now on my ever-growing book list of must-reads…..
And so another ten weeks has sped by. I’m fairly certain I read 2017 pages altogether, but I failed miserably at keeping track. What I should have done was draw up a syllabus for myself, at least for the books and essays I had set out to read, while still leaving room for the serendipitous daily discoveries. Something about writing down the number of pages I read after I read them just escaped me, perhaps because I ended up getting so absorbed in what I’d been reading that I forgot I was supposed to be keeping track. This reminds me of when I was asked an odd question in the middle of an interview I had for getting into a private school in fifth grade–this was when the public schools in New York City were failing and a long strike by public school teachers was being threatened (that year, public schools were out until January). The headmaster asked me if I had any hobbies, and I looked at him as if I didn’t know what he meant. I didn’t collect stamps or capture butterflies or paint portraits, but then my mother, sensing that I was floundering, quickly spoke up for me and said, “She reads! She loves to read!” And that saved the day. I had no idea that reading could be a hobby, but it turns out that it is. I just read because I loved to read, and apparently that was enough to make the headmaster smile. And to get me into that school.
Thank you everybody for posting over these weeks, and thank you again Alison for the logistics of organizing our blog. I’m intending to continue, maybe with a better plan for page count, but certainly towards working through everything I still have yet to start. I hope to “see” you all here again for the next challenge in the summer.