Faced with tragedy, people look to what always gave them solace and sanctuary. That means keeping busy, keeping to a routine. For many, this means reading. People online are live tweeting their way through tomes by Tolstoy and Melville. Everyone is seemingly finding solace in the age-old act of reading. But not me. Not right now. I can’t even manage to read more than a few pages. As someone so ensconced in books professionally, I find it troubling… absolutely humiliating. It got me thinking: what if I’m not the only one? A question came to mind, and I decided to ask other writers:
Can you remember a time you were disillusioned with reading? What caused it and what pulled you back?
The response, you could say, was every bit as illuminating as it was empowering.
REBECCA MAKKAI: I graduated college with my BA in literature and thought I had to keep reading in the same way. Meaning, I had to keep reading “Serious Canonical Books,” filling my gaps, etc., but without class discussions, without papers due. I read for fun as a kid, but from high school to age 25 or so I think I read one slightly less “literary” book—The Eight, by Katherine Neville, which actually turns out to be kind of a masterpiece. Probably not a healthy balanced diet. And, of course, a lot of what I thought I was supposed to read was older stuff. The low point was when I stopped reading Emma about a hundred pages from the end. Who stops reading Jane Austen right before the best parts? But I was still reading like a zombie student, not like a reader. I eventually joined a book club that read more contemporary things, some of them great, some of the schlocky. That shook me out of it pretty well.
COURTNEY MAUM: The act of reading has never disappointed me or let me down: ever since I could read, books have provided both a haven and escape. It’s just that sometimes, you pick the wrong destination. Or the wrong traveling companion, let’s say. After all, reading is an act of intimacy: the original one on one. Someone else’s voice whispering into your mind, filling your imagination with images, your heart with surprise or delight. When you have the right book, you have not only a companion but a seductress at your side. When you pick the wrong book, you have a nuisance, a chatterbox, the wrong friend for the ride.
Although there has never been a time when I wasn’t reading something, there have been lots of times when I was reading the wrong book. A lifelong insomniac, the quality of my sleep (or rather the improved quality of my bad sleep) is deeply affected by what I read at night. There’s a specific cadence and lyricism I look for in my nighttime reads. The choppy, clever, shocking and the blunt—these prose styles don’t work for me. I remember, for example, that Cherry by Nico Walker kept me up at night. Raymond Carver used to give me nightmares. The books that make me feel safe and sung to in the evenings are the ones that bring the sandman. I remember reading Arcadia during a book drought—I just couldn’t find the right thing to read until I spotted a copy of Lauren Groff’s first book in my public library, and I went on a Groff jag, read a book of hers a week, experienced deep sleep. Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone was another savior. I had all this “hip” fiction at my bedside then, cool prose, distanced prose, prose that doesn’t allow you, the reader, to know where you stand with it, and although I like reading books like this quite a lot, they frustrate me at night. In bed, I want a book that kisses my neck, you know? Woodson’s Red at the Bone was that for me; it was such a full book, truly full of beauty.
Late this winter, I had another spell of mismatched reads. I was in the mood for memoir, but the voices I was encountering were either too self-effacing or preachy, inordinately proud of themselves for things I considered trivial (which made me feel like an asshole), or judgmental and classist in their humor (which made them the asshole). Through my public library again, I happened on a copy of Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, which was just the voice I needed. Generous, big-hearted, honest in a way that took real bravery.
Today, I am writing this from western Mexico where I was doing book promotion when COVID-19 unleashed its hell on us, and in Mexico, I stayed. I am—like so many—searching for my perfect read. Introspective but not self-pitying, hopeful but acute is the voice I’m searching for right now. In this vein, I enjoyed Rebecca Solnitt’s Recollections of My Non-Existence very much. I think Lily King’s Writers & Lovers will next up for me. I worked as a waitress for much of my youth and I’m comforted by the author’s descriptions of hot pans and emptied wine glasses, people touching salad forks and fingers without a care in their bright world.
LIDIA YUKNAVITCH: When I flunked out of college the first time, after my daughter died in my belly, I went through a depression (and psychosis) that consumed me and caused me to dive down to the bottom of the ocean. Books suddenly seemed so useless, like some kind of trick, trying to get me to come back to a life that I didn’t want, maybe even hated. or like a cruelty: Art dangled like a lifeline I didn’t want. Then someone I could still hear (my sister) showed me Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich. The title poem made my whole body vibrate. I read the whole book on the spot. I read it four times in a row. Then I read everything she ever wrote. then I started reading H.D., and not long after that, Dorianne Laux and Carolyn Forché and Ai and Sharon Olds. Basically, my sister and poetry resuscitated me, brought me back to the surface. After that I wrote. Reading and writing have been my being ever since. I’d be dead without them.
EMILY SCHULTZ: As a recently graduated feminist experimental poet, it made no sense that my first professional job in publishing would be as a proofreader at Harlequin, the Ford factory of romance novels. It seemed completely random for me. Not only that, it was the night shift, which began with an hour bus ride to an isolated office block in the suburbs, where I would scroll through the green-on-black text until 2 a.m. looking for misspelled phrases like “quivering mounds.” My job, as a friend described it at the time, was to “put the rivets in romance.” Of course, it was ironic fun at first. There were five other proofreaders on the nightshift, and we were completely by ourselves. We’d shout out especially bad lines over the cubicles (“She released the thick telltale ridge of flesh from beneath his Parasucos while he begged her to think of the consequences…”) and had developed a The Breakfast Club-like bond. But that fun faded as the books kept coming, three a week, and over that year I stopped reading, writing, and being able to have sex. I know there are probably romance fans out there thinking this would be a dream job but trust this nonfan: I was starting to identify with cynical pornographers in 1990s movies and you would too. Then, one of the best things that can happen to a writer happened—I got passed over for a promotion and then quit. Probably because my numbness was starting to show itself in my productivity. Strangely, it was Nabokov’s Lolita—a horrifically honest and much better written version of the same kind of material——that brought me back to life as first a reader, and then my new life as a novelist.
BRIAN EVENSON: When I was pretty young, maybe 17, someone (probably my parents) bought me a subscription to the New Yorker, thinking that since I was interested in writing and wanted to be a writer that I should be reading that—that was what you were supposed to do. I stopped reading genre fiction (I’d been going back and forth between that and absurdist stuff like Kafka and Beckett) and dutifully read it, but most of the time the fiction, about so-called real people with so-called real relationship troubles, just didn’t do much for me (this would have been back in the early 80s; I feel like what they’re publishing has changed a little since then). So, reading started to feel like a chore to me. Then about a year later, when I was in college, I had a mentor who was a Welsh poet by the name of Leslie Norris. He was one of the most widely read people I’ve ever met and was exceptionally good at recommending books to me that took me in directions I really wanted to go. He turned me on to J. G. Ballard, Salman Rushdie, Caradoc Evans, a whole bunch of others. He wasn’t interested in making me read stuff that I “should” read; he recommended books that excited me and that also did a lot to decimate the wall that everyone else was telling me existed between literature and fantastical genre fiction. That made reading fun again, and when I started thinking of New Yorker stories as one possibility rather than what I should try to emulate, it changed my relationship to those stories as well. I think a lot of well-meaning people end up steering people toward books that make reading seem like a job, and since it’s a non-paying job it’s easy to quit if you’re not enjoying it.
GREG MANIA: I had my nose in a book up until high school. I read and re-read the entire Ramona series by Beverly Clearly constantly. Harriet the Spy. The Hardy Boys. I loved sci-fi, fantasy, and mystery. I stopped reading in high school because I finally had friends. I was also too busy asking myself, “Am I Gay?” I finally found a space for myself by joining theater, which, in turn, helped me find my tribe. The bullying I dealt with—that reading provided solace from—slowly started to dissipate because everyone sort of kept to their own group in high school. I started doing things with friends after school and I wasn’t reading as voraciously anymore. In fact, I was only reading what was assigned in my English classes. So, I dumped reading for going to get McDonald’s with my best friends or going to the mall. And when we weren’t in school or driving around aimlessly in our small town, we were rehearsing for the fall play or spring musical. My mom, in particular, would be like, “you used to read all the time. What happened?” I just wouldn’t pick up a book if I didn’t have to. Not only was my social life finally, well, existent, this was also the dawn of Myspace and, shortly after, Facebook. I was spending all my time on AIM and on chat rooms and forums. It wasn’t until college that I would pick up a book that wasn’t the subject of an essay or assignment. I took a creative writing class during my first semester at Hofstra, and I discovered that I loved breaking the rules that I was taught in high school. My professor, Pat, recognized that I had a unique voice and she helped me hone it. But I realized I couldn’t be a writer if I wasn’t well-read. I discovered writers like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, fell in love with writers like David Sedaris and Nora Ephron. By the time I graduated, my collection of books started to warrant the possibility of a storage unit. If it wasn’t for my decision to write a book—to turning writing into a career—I wouldn’t be the reader I am today. It’s my career now. I’m stuck doing this. And I’m fine with that.
IDRA NOVEY: The Lice got me through 2000. That fall, after Al Gore won the direct vote by half a million, and Bush became president anyway, I had a hard time staying immersed in a book. I felt drawn to pared-down language to calm my racing mind. My dread for the planet and ongoing climate change denial, inaction that would continue under Bush felt unbearably acute. The dread of what was clearly coming for the planet after the 2000 election left me longing to read something stripped-down and incantatory, which I reliably found in every stanza of W.S. Merwin’s The Lice:
One by one he calls night out of the teeth
And at last I take up
Wheeling the president past banks of flowers
Past the feet of empty stairs
Hoping he’s dead
I love parable-like writing of this sort, where the author writes with urgency about a lived moment translated into a timeless story, fitting an aspect of the present into a larger pattern in human history. “I got to the point where I thought the future was so bleak that there was no point in writing anything at all,” Merwin said in an interview with David L. Elliot about working on The Lice during the Vietnam War. “Most of The Lice,” he said, “was written at a time when I really felt there was no point in writing.” But he worked up the nerve to write anyway, wrote his heart out in poem after poem, and his overwhelming fear for the collapse of the world animated every line. In moments of despair during these weeks of quarantine, I have returned to The Lice and once more it has restored my ability to read with focus, to adore the clarity of a line so much I want to say it aloud and savor it, to remember how alive I feel while reading.
AMBER SPARKS: About seven years ago, I fell into a big giant hole of depression. I was trying and failing to have a baby, and had been failing for years, which was depressing enough. On top of that, the hormones I was on were just screwing up my mood even more. I got into this dark, weird place where the only thing that could lift me out of the sadness was visual beauty—art, theater, and film. I couldn’t read. I don’t know why; I’ve always been a really visual person, absolutely love ambitious paintings and lush films. It was like no matter what, I couldn’t get what I needed from words alone: they seemed so gray. I needed this blanket of color—technicolor, high color, saturation, bright dreamscapes—the kind of color you could eat for days. I watched a lot of film… I think that’s when we started buying up Criterion Classics. I still read my friends’ books of course—I’m not a monster!—but I couldn’t get into much else. It was maybe six months of this, honestly.
Then I read Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins. I think, because a friend sent it to me and I was like, oh shit, if someone sends you a book you have to read it, right? And I did read it, and I devoured it. It was color, too, the kind of desert color I craved. And I remembered how good it was to eat words, too, and how nourishing they can be, how much visual beauty there is in my favorite writers’ works. And I just started reading, like it was spring, and books were fucking blooming, beauty in my face, and it was glorious. And I’ve been reading ever since, even when depressed. Even now. It’s one of the only things I can do right now, truly, and especially late at night, deep in worry. It’s been my salvation.
RION AMILCAR SCOTT: I had to be about sixteen. I played soccer for my high school J.V. team and it occurred to me one afternoon that I didn’t know what Spider-Man was up to, which was unusual because back in the day I knew exactly who Spider-Man was fighting, the state of Peter Parker’s finances, and the strains being a superhero put on his marriage with Mary Jane. Playing on the high school soccer team takes up a lot of time that I used for reading comics. It’s even time consuming if you’re not very good and rarely get into the games. So anyway, me and my friend Sam Sacks, he’s a book reviewer now, walked down to the bookstore before a game and I saw that Spidey had been having a new adventure. There was a clone of Peter Parker who thought he was the real Spiderman. I like when superheroes battle a version of themselves. That made Venom such a great villain to me. Then there was this otherworldly beast called Doppelganger that was some kind of six-armed, sharp toothed version of Spider-man. I had never heard that word and when I looked it up I all of a sudden had a cool new term in my arsenal (the same thing happened when I learned the word symbiote via Venom). So I started reading the Clone Saga. I’m waiting each month to see what happens and then the shit takes a turn. At some point, there had been a massive confusion between clone and original-recipe Peter. They switched places and the Peter Parker I had been reading all my life had actually been the clone and the guy who was introduced as the clone turned out to be the real Peter Parker. I was like, What? This is stupid. I re-read to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood something. It was the dumbest twist I had ever seen in my life. I sat back after reading just staring off into the distance of my parent’s basement. I remembered when my grandmother used to watch soap operas and one dumb twist too far made her realize turning on her stories during the day was a waste and an addiction. These were stories that went on and on could never possibly have a satisfying ending. At some point Granny turned off the soap operas and never turned them on again. Likewise, I figured I’d be like Granny and never again read a superhero soap opera. I stuck to that until my final year in college. At that time, I found myself with a lot of free time, so I drove about fifteen minutes to a comic book shop in Georgetown and got back into whatever was happening with the Marvel superheroes. I learned that comic fans had expressed so much anger about the clone plot that Marvel eventually undid the twist. The damage had been done for me. I wasn’t so much devoted to Peter Parker anymore. Never could gin up the love for him I once had. I decided to take this time to go outside of superheroes as well, reading as much as I could in other genres, but never abandoning comics again.
ERIKA MEITNER: I am often disillusioned with reading, and if I’m being honest, I can go months at a time without reading a book. And by “book” I mean prose—I read poetry books perpetually, but you can scatter poetry books around your house in the bedroom or bathroom or foyer, and pick them up and put them down, which is an inadvisable way to read a novel or a memoir or even an essay collection. I think my trouble with reading began with graduate school, since I was a graduate student in perpetuity from 1999 to 2013, and the state of being a graduate student meant there was always something I was supposed to be reading that I hadn’t yet read. Doing all of your reading in graduate school, someone once told me, is like trying to drink from a firehose, and this is accurate, and it leads to much guilt about your assigned reading, which means there’s no way to jam in pleasure reading before your assigned reading and still have it be pleasurable. Then I had kids while I was teaching full-time and in grad school too, and I started fantasizing about being incarcerated so that I could catch up on pleasure reading, which is a totally inaccurate picture of incarceration, I know, but I’ve discovered this is a not-uncommon fantasy for writers with small children and full-time jobs other than writing. Some people are binge drinkers—I’m a binge reader. This leads to the other reason I go months without reading prose: when a good novel ends, I’m absolutely emotionally devastated—it’s like the worst kind of break-up—the kind where they say it’s not you it’s me, but it turns out they met someone else, and you forget to wash your hair or open your mail for weeks on end. Plane travel pulls me back into reading, as did my discovery about five years ago of the e-book checkout feature from my library and my fortuitous acquisition of an iPad mini with the Kindle app on it. I can finish an average novel in a 3-hour sitting—or one flight from ROA to CLT and another from CLT to MIA. In the air, I’m responsible for no one who needs a snack, or their ass wiped or is bored. In the air I can vanish onto the page. If I have two or three good novels queued up, it’s like dating in volume. I can start another great book right away and ignore the mourning period of a good book ending, dumping me, taking its characters and vanishing into the ether.
ELISA GABBERT: Five or six years ago, I went through a period I thought of as reader’s block. I wasn’t in the mood for anything I picked up. I’m not really sure what caused it, but it may have been a kind of fatigue with what writing teachers often call “reading like a writer,” or reading for technique. Everything felt very obvious to me, very “I see what you’re doing here.” This was especially true for essays and articles on the internet; the structures and the gambits all felt tired and cheap. I’d feel fed up with things after a few sentences. With books, especially new books, I’d get hung up on the packaging and marketing, the way the jacket copy was trying to sell something to me. In retrospect, I clearly should have just read Moby-Dick or something. But at the time, I was fretting.
I broke out of it by changing my reading habits. I used to feel some vague sense of commitment to books I had started, and when I wasn’t in the mood for them, I’d just do something else, something that wasn’t reading. Now, if a book isn’t holding my interest, I just abandon it without guilt and start something else. I still go through occasional periods where I start a lot of things I don’t want to read more than a few pages of, but I get through those periods faster. I also, and I’ve talked about this elsewhere, stopped watching TV. It takes up too much time and is too easy an alternative to reading. It’s too available. So I don’t allow myself to think, I’ll read that book tomorrow, but I don’t feel like it tonight. Now, most of the time, if I don’t feel like reading a particular book, I have to find another book. There are times when I’m too tired or distracted or anxious to read, but in that case I watch a movie, because it’s a brief, contained, non-addictive experience. Or I go for a walk and listen to podcasts, or do a crossword, etc… something that’s less easy to binge. I also started using the public library way more, so there would always be piles of potential things to read around, and generally aestheticizing the reading experience to a greater degree. I like to read with a beverage—coffee in the morning, wine at night—and be as cozy as possible, which makes reading more enjoyable in winter. In summertime, when coziness is out of season, my husband and I like to read outside for an hour or two at a café before dinner. I get less reading done in public settings because I end up people-watching, but it’s still enjoyable to sit out in the breezy air with a little pile of books. I always read with a pencil and/or sticky tabs and/or a notebook, which makes me a better reader and gives me ideas for things to write about. Finally, I started keeping tracks of the books I finish and publishing notes on the books at the end of each year, creating a record. Since I adapted all these habits, I read a lot more books, I write more about them, and I remember more about them too.
JEFF JACKSON: I was having a crisis, or maybe I was bored. In my mid-twenties, it was sometimes hard to tell the difference. I knew one thing for sure: my life was a sham. I was working in publishing because I wanted to be around literature, but I spent my days writing marketing copy for catalogs. I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t writing. Even worse, I was barely reading.
Colleagues had told me that I needed to keep current with the latest literary sensations. They passed on copies of plot-heavy novels that held the reader’s hand through every emotional twist and turn. The books were stylish, coated in a literary patina, and often racked up award nominations. But these well-executed middlebrow works weren’t the literature they claimed to be—they were shams. Maybe it took one to know one. For a year, I’d been on a steady diet of those books and they left me feeling less connected to both to the publishing industry and my own taste. But then, what was my taste? My cramped apartment was filled with books by modernist masters like Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Marguerite Duras, and Ishmael Reed. A few years before, I’d thrilled to these authors, but now they no longer excited me. Had the books changed or had I?
I fancied myself a serious writer, even though I’d stopped writing. I was seriously deluded, if that wasn’t clear. And while I had plenty of youthful energy to keep my delusions alive, my books increasingly came to resemble props in a literary life that existed only in my mind. Reading was no longer a pleasure. When I stepped inside a bookstore, I found myself filled with despair. I almost always left empty-handed and sometimes didn’t even make it past the front door. I hadn’t read anything in ages, but I was leaving on a trip and needed something to kill time on the flights. I recall a friend recommending this book and though I don’t remember buying a copy, it was sitting there on my shelf. It looked the right length for the journey, so I grabbed the trade paperback of Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers and stuffed it in my carry-on bag.
As I settled into the novel, the first thing that struck me was the story. Normally plot machinations left me cold, plus I was firmly convinced that serious writers didn’t concern themselves with story. But here the story wasn’t just gripping, there was a system of images and echoes, rhyming actions and fragments of language embedded into the narrative. The action was vivid and dramatic, but Robert Stone left enough ambiguity, so you were forced to form your own reactions to what happened. His propulsive story about drug deals gone wrong and gurus run amok operated on unseen levels. Stone’s prose could reach a fine-tuned lyrical pitch, but it also had elements of hard-boiled swagger and psychedelic vision, mixing high-and-low registers with ease. Dog Soldiers was a formidable work of art about the disintegration of the 1960s utopian dream, but it was also remarkably, well, fun. There was an undeniable pleasure in the storytelling that didn’t negate the book’s rigor, it only enhanced it.
Something shifted as I finished Dog Soldiers. The book reignited my reading life and eventually brought me back to my beloved modernist texts with a fresh perspective. It also inspired a new direction in my own writing. But mostly, it did what only the best books can when they appear at the right moment. It showed me that the stories I’d been telling myself about art, my appetites, and myself—they were all wrong.
MARY SOUTH: While I’ve never been disillusioned with reading in and of itself, there have been phases in my life, due to depression or anxiety, where I’ve found it difficult to concentrate on reading. During those times, I’ve found it really soothing to listen to music or an audiobook. What also works is taking a book I really love, an old favorite, and either reading some favorite passages aloud to myself or having a friend read from it. There’s something meditative in having to slow down, to really immerse oneself in the cadences of the sentences. A beautiful sentence can both relieve and enliven me, remind me why I love writing so much. I remember reading parts of Donald Barthelme’s Sixty Stories out loud to myself in a particularly low period, and the wit, absurdity, and invention, when recited, held in my body that way, started to make me laugh. It would be a challenge, I believe, to read without laughing a little at lines such as, “The sixth grade at Horace Greeley Elementary is a furnace of love, love, love.” Or paragraphs such as, “Inge stretched her right and left arms luxuriously. You have brought me so much marvelous happiness Paul that although I know you will go away soon to consort once more with Hilda, that all-time all-timer girl, it still pleases me to be here in this good Dansk bed with you. Do you want to talk about phenomenological reduction now? or do you want a muffin?” Then, for the rest of the day, you can carry around the sound of your voice performing someone else’s words. It’s a lovely thing; it helps a lot with melancholy.
JANICE LEE: I don’t know if disillusioned is the right word. To be disillusioned, you have to believe in the illusion first. But reading isn’t an illusion to me, or something to be believed in. Honestly, I hate the hierarchy between the terms “belief” and “knowing.” I know how important radical imagination is, the spectacular worlding that language can manifest, the resilience and wild becoming that narrative can cultivate. But have I always depended on reading? Have I always wanted to? No. There have been several times in my life I couldn’t fathom picking up a book. Not because I no longer depended on its power, but because I despised rejuvenation itself. I didn’t want to feel anything. In those periods of acute sadness, of depression, of unredemptive grief, I resisted anything that might make me feel something. I was afraid, perhaps, of what might surface, of the continent difficulty of having to feel anything during periods of performed apathy. I didn’t actually not care. But I wanted to not care. It felt easier. And I knew that I wasn’t quite ready to handle the vulnerability that reading would draw me out into. It was easier to get lost in terrible television show. Or to sit outside in the rain, expressionless and haunted, not quite ready to unhaunt myself. Yet. But always eventually it subsides. Past the end and into the middle again. New cycles of living and the constant arriving of self in these moments of grace. Ready for uncertainty. Ready to be open. Because that’s what it takes. For me, reading is about opening up oneself to possibility, to be permeable and to constantly fall apart, over and over again. So it’s like the tide. The ebb and flow. I resist and am pulled back. The effect of bodies of text on human bodies. Isn’t it true that I’m just incessantly looking for home? That I’m arriving and leaving again, and that fractures that are created in the process, that is what makes it all worth it?
DENNIS COOPER: The only time I can remember is when I was a teenager and used to take lots of LSD. The LSD was very strong back then, and it could occasion these seeming life-changing revelations about the simplest things. One cool aspect of being on acid was that things you just did unthinkingly when you weren’t high, like opening a book and starting to read, seemed fascinating and complex in and of themselves.
I remember, once, when I was tripping I picked up a book and opened it. But rather than automatically beginning to read it, I looked at the pages themselves. Instead of instantly absorbing words, I saw all these little printed black symbols organized in blocks. And I thought about how my face was a foot or whatever distance away from the pages and how my eyes were looking at nothing more than a field of symbols. Not only could I not “read” the symbols, I realized that reading itself was a trick, a lie that merely exploited my mental laziness when I wasn’t high, and that the whole thing with books and readers was a hoax. I realized that when I had thought I was reading, I’d just been daydreaming randomly, and the symbols printed in books had nothing to do with the daydreams I’d had.
After I came down from the acid I not only stopped reading for while—a few weeks, a month maybe—but I went around preaching to my unenlightened friends about the lie that so-called “reading” really was. No one believed me, and everyone told me I was nuts, etc., and eventually I just got lazy and started reading again.
CHRISTOPHER ZEISCHEGG: I’m not sure I that have felt truly disillusioned with reading. In recent years, I’ve become more career-oriented, and with a career that has nothing to do with literature. So, I think that reading and writing have become much more personal to me, things I have to make time for, and that I insist bring me pleasure or else there’s no reason to indulge them. So, if I’m thirty pages into a book and I don’t like it, I stop reading. I move on to something else. And because I’m a kind of addicted to novelty when it comes to media (I’m always trying to find something new), I typically have about three books that I’m reading at any given time, so that I’m able to jump between styles and narratives without one or the other feeling stale. For example, if I read too much contemporary literature at once, I start to pick up on the zeitgeist and it becomes overwhelmingly boring, so I have to travel back to the TBR list of novels from a 100 or so years ago. Or I’ll read some genre literature, like fantasy or horror. It’s just a natural process of keeping myself interested.
JENNIFER BAKER: When I was a student in undergrad/grad/high school and in my early to mid-20s when I wrote super short book reviews for pretty much nothing but “experience.” The forced aspect of reading in those instances was detrimental to my enjoyment of what I read. On the one hand, I was introduced to books that I may not have had a chance to read had it not been for an assignment. On the other hand, the consistency of a lack of connection with me and various books I was assigned either for school or an unpaid/low-paid freelance gig created a kind of disassociation and also a hesitation to pick up another book due to the worry that this will be another disappointment. I was also resentful because I needed to do this for an assignment and felt that I could never give up on books when it was clear this wasn’t something I was connecting with. But all this reading, “forced” or not, made me a better critic in ways. When instructors assigned me projects to read and explain the core of the work their request was more so “Explain what I’m already aware of about the text.” In many cases, especially in high school and undergrad, my viewpoint on what I was or wasn’t seeing/feeling didn’t necessarily matter because there were rubrics to keep in mind or pedagogy to keep consistent because ultimately I’d be graded on building an argument and that argument needed to be something someone else understood. And this didn’t necessarily mean my thoughts mattered, it meant how could I concede to what was already part of the larger discussion? For me my voice wasn’t really valued in the critique of books, so why critique them if I could just read whatever I wanted in the first place? Once reading is stripped from being pleasurable or immersive or emotional that’s when I tend to lose interest. When that happens, I may take a break to focus solely on other mediums, but I always return to books, in one form or another.
ELLE NASH: My disillusionment with reading threads in and out so constantly, it’s hard to pin down a specific moment. One most glaring: that seven-figure book that gets hyped so high. It’s hard to tell what exactly is the marketing machine and what is genuine opinion. I read the reviews, wait until it’s been out a while, and finally take the dive in. Then I find myself completely bored and confused; the language lacks, or the plot or content just isn’t there for me. I know it’s about taste. Being a best-seller doesn’t mean it’s a masterpiece, this is obvious. Like any long-term relationship, reading has its ups and downs; a lot of my disillusionment comes from expectation. I find myself putting the book down, feeling restless and annoyed. I want to feel surprised, I think. I want to escape into the story. That, honestly, is the difference between myself as a young reader and myself as an older reader: my expectations are different, now.
Before I took writing seriously, meaning, before I ever tried to get my work published, reading was my purest escape. It was better than doing drugs or any of the self-destructive habits I loved so much; even carried me through the worst mental health moments of my life. But now, reading is so tied up in how I work, how I form lesson plans, and how I think about what I’m going to write. It’s less of a fantasy. Less of an escape. The guileless freedom of hiding in my bedroom and simply forgetting anything else exists happens much more rarely. Lately, I read because I want my mind to move, because I want to read what my other writerly peers are reading, because I want to understand ‘the state of fiction.’ I read because I want to be inspired, to consider the structure and form of language, to be surprised and delighted by it. Rather than reading being my escape into fantasy, it becomes my way of escaping into work.
Maybe it’s because I read fiction more voraciously than ever, however. I am always reading, even if it’s not a book—submissions, friends’ manuscripts, my own work, constantly. I am always analyzing the language, thinking about why a word makes me feel the way I feel, why this pattern of words, if there is a way to improve the emotional impact, if there are technical errors that could be improved, if it sounds good when you speak it. If I read something that floors me, I think, is there a way I can write like this, do I want to, what can I learn from it? I am always trying to improve the fictive dream in my head. Before I was writing seriously, I didn’t look at reading this way— I let the dream wash over me without complaint. I miss that sometimes, the effortlessness of it.
I would never give up reading no matter how disillusioned I felt by it, though. I’ll probably always wonder if that super hyped book really is as amazing as everyone says, and take the chance. You might find new sentences or new scenes that expand your understanding of experience, or move you to your core—that keep the dream alive. Like a hungry animal I keep searching for that.
JIMIN HAN: I’ve quit reading when I’ve felt hopeless. And by reading, I’m talking about novels, memoirs, poetry. The stuff that reminds me I’m alive. When I feel shitty about myself, I quit reading. It’s a form of punishment, the deprivation.
One specific time I quit reading: I was eighteen, and my father said if I wanted to major in English, he would send me to a state college because money was wasted on a private school. And he told me that I’d never make it as a writer. My father was a popular physician in town but we lived as if we’d be kicked out penniless on to the streets at any moment. We never took vacations; my mother bought our dressers and beds on layaway at Sears. My father always said we never had enough. I believed him. I went to Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences and took an assortment of upper level philosophy and history courses. I’d taken AP courses in High School, so I placed out of introductory courses. I also threw in intensive Japanese—six of the sixteen credits for which I registered that first semester. Korean wasn’t offered back then. I’d often been mistaken for being Japanese and the professor of this course seemed to think so too. He was harder on me than the rest of the class—or maybe I imagined it.
I was miserable in college. But I kept at it. I remember sitting in the library and looking at all the novels around me and punishing myself by not taking them off the shelf. My father didn’t understand how an English major would prepare me for law school. Instead I had to change who I was. I had to earn a living someday for my parents’ sake—all our sakes. Philosophy and history seemed like the straightest road directly to law school. And Japanese would help me. Prepare me for international law, maybe? My father seemed pleased with my course load. He hadn’t yet seen my row of C’s and D’s. The book that saved me, the book I saw on a table through the window of Ithaca’s Borealis Bookstore on Eddy Street, had a boring looking brown cover. I went inside—worn down at last—picked up this plain-looking book. It was Claude Simon’s The Flanders Road. I read a few sentences, and there it happened, I felt the rush, alive again. There would be other times when I’d deny myself and quit reading. But I wouldn’t remember coming back again in quite that way as I did that day.
C PAM ZHANG: The last time I couldn’t read books, my life—a city, a relationship, a purpose—was falling apart. I was impatient with literary fiction; I wanted candy, not well-balanced meals. I binge-watched sappy television, but what got me back into books was horror. There is solace in genre, in the control of knowing what pieces will be laid down next—just not their exact size or shape. I wanted worlds that swallowed my sense of self completely and spat me out only on the final page. And though it isn’t technically classified as horror, the one great book I remember reading during this period was Alissa Nutting’s hair-raising Tampa. Also, it made me laugh.
LINCOLN MICHEL: While I wouldn’t say I’ve been disillusioned with reading (writing is a different story), there have been many times when reading fell by the wayside. Sometimes because of workload, sometimes stress, and sometimes terrifying, global pandemics. Other times simply I was watching too much TV. Life has a habit of getting in the way of things, and it’s easy to let pleasure reading fall by the wayside. Especially if you’re, like me, someone whose jobs (editing, teaching) involve lots of reading already. Or if you, like me, waste a lot of time on Twitter. During these periods I notice feeling irritable, melancholy, and, somehow, smaller.
I always get pulled back to reading because I think it expands you. Literature is perhaps the best way to learn to think in different ways, see through different eyes, hear different voices. I want to have all those voices inside of me. Voices from the past, voices from other cultures, voices from around the world. Sometimes I think of my mind as a kind of Winchester House in which I’m constantly adding new rooms as I read. Each author I read is a room I can revisit, a mindset I can sit inside. Some days I want to sit in my Shirley Jackson antechamber, other times creep into the Franz Kafka attic. I inhabit these rooms—these authors—best when I’m rereading, but even when I’m not the room is there. Something of the mindsets of Thomas Bernhard, Octavia Butler, Italo Calvino, Yoko Ogawa, or any of my other favorite authors remains, like ghosts. I can always recall them. But, like the widow Winchester, I’m always looking for new rooms to add, new books to read. When the construction stops, I get restless. Already, I’m ready to go to my to-read stack and think about the next addition.
GABRIELLE CIVIL: Look, I was the kind of girl who carried books around in her purse. Silhouette Desires. Danielle Steeles. A paperback copy of the Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson (Because I could not stop for death…) My friend LaChenna Cromer actually gave me the Dickinson book for my birthday. La Chenna, pronounced la-sheena-a, like me was a black girl from Detroit (although she was light-skinneded and cute). She loved Emily D and I kind of loved her too. Or loved her enough to keep her close in my purse or by my bed in a pile of other things. I could go high and I could go low in my reading tastes, but romance was the through-line. If Beale Street Could Talk hung out with my godmother’s copy of Judith Krantz’s Mistral’s Daughter. Then and now, I’m not a book snob. All kinds of books have sheen, like all good things—like Afro Sheen!—like LaChenna did, whether you saw it or knew it at first. For me, then and now, books radiate love. Books are a ward against death.
What was my vision of death then? Boredom. Working all day then coming home to feed some man and some kids? Oh, as a teenager I was so dismissive of everyday life, so accepting of everyone else’s labor while I burrowed into books, so sure that this was glamour. Seduced by Jane Eyre, I imagined amazing love affairs interspersed with deep proto-feminist monologues. (“ . . soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you?” …still indomitable was the reply: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” Yessss! Speak it, Jane! SPEAK! This was Beyoncé’s “Me, Myself, and I” with a corset and without the Caribbean wife locked in the attic. Yes.) In this book, she got to do everything—the soothing, saving, loving, telling she loved him and telling him off—and she somehow got to care for herself and claim her self-respect. She got to run off and still be called back. She got to have principles and she got to be loved. He got punished for acting up at the end and she got to stave off death. This book—and maybe my entire romance with reading—set me up for serious trouble. (Don’t even get me started on my love life. I’m like “Look, I just don’t think what we’re doing lines up with my black feminist values” and the supposed beloved is like See ya! And then years pass and a tumbleweed rolls by my feet.)
You ask if I’ve ever been disillusioned with reading. It’s like asking if I’ve ever been disillusioned with eating or walking or seeing or loving. These things are essential to my life, the core of who I am, how I exist and move through the world. And I have done some of these things badly or at times, they have not felt like enough. It’s scary to admit it, but yes, there have been times when books have led me astray or felt like they weren’t enough. This is scary because it can feel like books are all I have.
Right now, I’m self-isolating alone far away from my parents and my sister. I have no partner or children or pet. I haven’t lived in my apartment for very long. My neighbors wave back to me from afar, but I doubt they even know my name. I do have many friends who call, text, FaceTime, and Zoom, but like most people right now, I remain physically and socially distant. I am profoundly lucky to be in a beautiful place with windows and light, to have a job that I can still work from home, to have Wi-Fi and candles and roses and tarot and stones. I am also profoundly alone. Surrounding me in every room are books. In stacks or piles or fortifying bookcases. My romance with them now feels especially urgent and passionate. From my past to the future, they ward off death. I pull down from the shelf the Emily Dickinson book that LaChenna gave me years ago. It is a living memory and a hedge against oblivion. I hold it in the purse of my hands.
JOHN MAHER: Reading is bad! I honestly have no idea why people read books! Imagine asking your imagination to actually do its own goddamn active work in response to a text, rather than just passively letting visual storytelling force you to see exactly what it wants. In all honesty, I haven’t felt disillusioned with reading or with literature so much as with literary culture and the industry that produces, promotes, and sells books, each of which fetishizes books as sacred objects and conscripts them as tiny little soldiers into the army of capital in somewhat equal measure. I’ve felt disillusioned with reading about reading—the endless hot take culture on one big new book or another, the literary beefs on Twitter, and the like.
I’ve also felt disillusioned about the state of reading in the U.S.—that something around 3% of books here are translated from other languages, and that few people buy or read them outside of the literary world, the way few people buy or read poetry outside of the poetry world, and that authors are by and large unable to make a living through writing because our culture prioritizes the almighty dollar over collective human imagination and knowledge. I’m sure I’ve felt other disillusions, too, but I’m too disillusioned to think about them right now.
But in the end, it doesn’t take much to pull me back in. None of the things that I listed are really about reading. They’re about people. People often suck! But people’s ideas? Now those I can get behind. All I have to do is look at the stack that never stops growing on the side of my desk to prove it, the one with books by Fleur Jaeggy and Natalia Ginzburg and Steven Millhauser, Hanif Abdurraqib, and Mieko Kawakami and Mircea Cărtărescu, Thucydides and Frank O’Hara and and the Mabinogion in it right now. It makes me feel like a teenager again, more than eager to hide from the horrors of the outside world in the pages of an interior one.
And if that fails, I think of the people I do love, and all the books I’ve loaned to them, eager to get those little dopamine hits when they text and say, “Wow, that poem by Louise Glück wrecked me.” I want all those beloved of me to get word-wrecked! I want them to feel what I have felt from books at the times when I’ve needed them most: an overwhelming sense of awe at what people can dream, and make, when the bullshit is put to the side. That’s when I wonder what the hell I’ve been complaining about, and what the hell I have been waiting for. It works like a charm, every time.