One day before Easter, she and I were sitting on the screen porch of a house on Sanibel Island with cups of coffee and our books (George R. R. Martin’s Ice and Fire series for me, Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project for her). She asked what I’d been writing lately. I told her that instead of writing much I’d been reading short stories during my “work hours,” and that I’d started a journal of the stories to try to teach myself to be a better reader. She burst out laughing.
“You need to be a better reader?” she said. “I guess that’s why you always spend so much time with your nose in a book – you’re just practicing your reading.”
Joan knows me too well. She cooks and spoils our children for recreation; I hide, avoiding housework and other responsibilities, with my nose in a book. Have been like this ever since I was small. I don’t remember ever being unable to read, or anything about the process of learning to read. According to my mother, this is because I could read alone before my second birthday. Books have always been my escape from unpleasant reality. I’m almost never without a book in my bag, two or three half-finished on the nightstand. When I get a really good one, I don’t read it – I devour it. I ingest it as sustenance, make its words a part of my flesh, trade cells with the pages and bodily fluids with the ink. I am what I read.
For years I was satisfied merely to feel the power of literary art and craft when I read texts in English. I read too fast to appreciate the mechanics or the subtleties. I didn’t learn to read critically until I took up the Russian language in college. After two years of conjugating and declining variants of the diplomatic, persuasive, and relevant sentence “Tomorrow there will be no French cheese,” we began to read the great Russian writers in Russian. I had to look up forty or fifty words per page; the story lines vanished into thickets of vocabulary with tangled Slavic roots. A year later we hacked our way through Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, ten or fifteen stanzas a night, three nights a week, for seven weeks. Somewhere around Canto III, Stanza XXXVII, the morphologic and syntactic jungle suddenly resolved itself into an orderly garden-plot of words, sentences, metaphors, similes, parallels, themes. I fell in love with literature all over again.
I still find it difficult to slow down and read anything written in English critically, though. And I’ve never wanted to read or write short stories. In writing program workshops, I always submitted chapters of (probably) never-to-be-finished novels. I read short stories that were assigned. I smiled gratefully every year at Christmas when someone in the family gifted me with a copy of the most recent volume of Best American Short Stories. I even read two or three of the stories each January. But I never really meant to spend much time on them. The short story reading jag was merely an excuse to put off the difficult work of writing. I was surprised – and more than a little distressed – to find it so addictive, and to find the desire to slow down and read more thoughtfully so compelling.
Back to Sanibel. My “reading practice” became a family joke, which kept it at the forefront of my mind. Joan also made me read a chapter of The Happiness Project, which I enjoyed so much that I started sneak-reading it when she was otherwise occupied (that is, when she was cooking dinner for me and my children). Finally she caught me.
If she was annoyed, she hid it well. It hasn’t been a great year for our relationship, and that week we were both making a conscious effort to get along better. We began to talk about starting our own “happiness project” together. We brainstormed a little about things that make us happy – my list included reading (duh) and writing. We also started thinking about conditions that “create an atmosphere of growth,” to use Gretchen Rubin’s words. I said I’d like to start a blog, but had no idea what I’d write about. I’d also been greatly moved by Jonathan Franzen’s recent essay “Farther Away: ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude”, in which Franzen went off to the Chilean island of Masafuera in the South Pacific to read Robinson Crusoe in solitude. And I loved the idea of taking a year out to explore something and to write about it. Gretchen Rubin explored the idea of happiness for a year and wrote The Happiness Project. Barbara Kingsolver spent a year eating locally produced food and wrote Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I couldn’t escape to a deserted island for a week, let alone a year – and my garden grows more weeds than vegetables – but I did want to spend a year doing something consciously and deliberately, and writing about the experience.
In October 1991 an area of low pressure, an area of high pressure, and the remains of Hurricane Grace met in the North Atlantic and created the ideal conditions for a terrible storm at sea. When writing about the loss of a fishing boat in that storm, Sebastian Junger appropriated National Weather Service meteorologist Bob Case’s phrase “the perfect storm” to describe the phenomenon and to title his book. Suddenly, there on Sanibel, was my own “perfect storm”: a low-pressure, beach-town atmosphere (though not quite a deserted island) to foster creativity; the high-pressure environment of trying to improve a strained relationship by reading The Happiness Project with my sister; and the tail end of a maelstrom of short-story reading that stirred up thoughts and feelings about my deficiencies in reading and writing. The confluence led to the idea that reading short stories for a year and blogging about the experience would help me become happier.
Of course, this could be just an excuse to hide out with my nose in a book for a year, “practicing my reading” instead of buckling down to finish a manuscript.