Thursday, July 01, 2021

Eat and Reading

 The story is told of an American Buddhist teacher -- I can't remember which one -- that a student, finding him eating lunch with a book before him, asked if this multi-tasking didn't running counter to his mindfulness principles. Shouldn't he be doing just one thing at once, with all his attention?

The teacher fixed the student with a baleful stare. "When I eat and read," he replied, "I eat and read."

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This story passed into the idiolect of my marriage, so that "eat and read" was understood, and sometimes conjugated, as a single verb: "I was eat and reading yesterday when the phone rang..." 

I was binge-eating the other day, after a visit with my father -- those visits reliably precipitate binges -- and I noted that suddenly that as I ate, I was reading as I used to read: cruising through a hundred or a couple hundred pages per day. The penny dropped: so that's why I got through so little reading these days! I've been reading The Old Curiosity Shop for nearly a month, and I'm only two thirds through it: time was I would have dispatched it easily in a week. The reason I do so little reading now is that I no longer eat and read. I just read when I read, and reading by itself is a different activity, one that doesn't keep me bound so tightly into its orbit.

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Not sure what to do with that realization. Maybe I'm not a reader: maybe I was never a reader: maybe I was just an eat and reader. Being the sort of person who reads a Dickens novel in a week has been part of my identity for so long that I have difficulty even bringing the notion that I might not be that sort of reader into focus. It's taken me four years to notice that there has been a change.

My knee-jerk response is, well, I must simply make myself read more. Or take up gum, or something. I can't actually read less. That would mean I was no longer me.

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Or I could just not read as much. I don't need to be me, after all. Often I wish I weren't me. Why defend this identity? What do I really stand to lose?

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Meanwhile, I got Eric Foner's classic history of the Reconstruction out of the library. (I have a couple more recent books on the same topic on hold, but they're taking forever to come in.) I realized at some point that much of my history reading was undershooting the target. Long ago I decided since that wars change things, I should read about the wars. It's useful to understand these things -- I often wish lefties understood more about military matters -- but for understanding the changes, what you really want to know is what happened after the shooting stopped. So rather than reading yet another history of World War II last year, I read Tony Judt's Postwar Europe. And now I'm reading about the Reconstruction. I've always shied away from it, knowing it would be grim reading, and that it's largely (from my perspective) the story of how the bad guys won after all. But all the more reason to dig in.

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But I think one thing I am doing wrong -- if I want to read as I did back in the old eat and read days -- is that I am reading too many books at once, and taking my books as medicine, rather than as psychedelics. The whole point is opening the doors of perception, nicht? Washing the windows. Instead I've been primly reading improving books. No wonder my attention flags. I should take my reading in heroic doses.

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As I walked this morning, before dawn, there was actually a little rain, or a least a heavy dewfall. It felt miraculous. A post-apocalyptic blessing.

3 comments:

am said...

¡Maravilloso! Gracias por esto. Psicodélicos (-:

Dale said...

¡Mil gracias, am!

Marly Youmans said...

Love he eat-and-reading construction. There ought to be a perfect word. Though when I say "read" in Russian, it reminds me of "chew."

Partway through, I thought of this:

In my foolishness I tried to grasp it,
And I closed my hand, thinking that I held it fast:
But it escaped, and I could not retain it in my fingers.
Full of sadness, I unclenched my grip
And I saw it once again in the palm of my hand.

That's a translation of St. Symeon the New Theologian talking about the Holy Spirit, but somehow I thought it apt for you--your chase after meaning, your resolutions, your love of what is hard to seize.

I like to think of you on the other edge of the continent, rereading The Old Curiosity Shop. And will you be Wildean and laugh at Little Nell when she flies away?

xoxo