Learning to Read
Mar 11, 2016
by John McDonough, Colorado Review, Associate Editor
A confession: Despite being in the third year of my MFA program, an editor at two literary journals, and a teacher of creative writing, I’m not a good reader. That’s not to say I can’t do it—I can, of course (and probably know a slightly above-average number of words, in fact)—but rather, I do it far, far less than I should. What can I say? I’m a true millennial; my potential distractions are endless. I have access to Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, Amazon Prime (thanks to everyone for their passwords!), I have sports and a computer and a PlayStation 3 and a Sega Genesis; I have a dog and a group of friends and a literary community. In other words, sitting down with a book or a story too often feels like the last thing I want to do at the end of the night. It’s my greatest shame and, until now, one of my more tightly held secrets.
Probably more than a few of you know what I’m talking about.
But I’m admitting it now because I’m working on fixing this part of myself. I’m working on reintegrating pleasure reading into my daily schedule, to try to get back to the place I was at as a kid, when I could avoid all the distractions and sit down and devour a fantasy novel in two afternoons. I have a theory that much of human behavior is a simple matter of habit, and so I’m trying to retrain myself to be better.
It started last summer. My partner, fresh out of her own graduate program and newly moved to this town, was dealing with all the things a person in that situation deals with: finding a balance between work and life, finding a balance between work and writing, finding a balance between work and reading. Inspired by a friend who challenged himself to write a song every day for a year, we decided to put our own modest spin on the idea: Every day we’d read a published short story and then spend a few minutes discussing it. We pulled out all our anthologies/collections, set up a Google Calendar, and took turns picking a story for each day.
It went great. Sure, there were a couple of hiccups here and there (some uber-busy days simply can’t be avoided), but if one day got missed, we’d just double down on the next. Reading fiction became a central part of my daily life in a way it hadn’t been in years. It felt awesome.
And as it turns out, learning to read again wasn’t the only benefit. That summer was the first time either my partner or I had lived with someone we were dating, and after having been long-distance up to that point, there was an adjustment period as we brought our lives together. Sharing those thirty stories in the way we did served as a type of bridge I hadn’t expected. It helped us find the balance between individuality and togetherness that can be so hard to navigate early on. Reading is by nature a solitary act, but discussing literature is a communal one. Establishing this mutual goal allowed us to see ourselves as a unit in a field absent of potential conflict (the stakes inherent in disagreeing over a story are much smaller than those involved in cooking, cleaning, and all the other domestic decisions one makes, anyway). It was time we were spending together, not just physically together in the same three rooms.
Beyond intimacy, these conversations offered insight that’s too often lacking even when I do read. I’ve never been a journaler, and for the short period I had a Goodreads account I never wrote anything of substance on it, and so it was electrifying and illuminating to devote real critical energy in the aftermath of reading. It’s too easy for me to finish a piece of fiction, mutter eh or huh or hmm, and move on with my life without interrogating how the work managed to elicit my reaction. Having these conversations with a fellow writer helped me more clearly see the inner workings of the stories, helped make reading more than just entertainment.
After that first month, we let the challenge drop. Not because we didn’t enjoy it, but because other priorities cropped up, because life once again got in the way. And while reading stayed more central to my daily life for a while afterward, guess what: with time, its role again began to fade.
A week ago we decided to restart the challenge, and while there have already been a few hiccups along the way (my fault, always my fault), I can also feel my brain stretching itself out again. I’m not sure we’ll do this every day forever, but I’m going to try to keep it up for longer this time. We’re all different, but what I’ve found is that sometimes a challenge is just what this should-be reader needs.