A Reader's Lament - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
A Reader’s Lament

I’m off reading.

I’m about to give it one more try. My older son has checked out several books of collected Dave Barry columns. I can probably get through one of them. I’ve read them before. For two weeks, a book has sat on our public library shelf, untouched. I ordered it specially from the on-line catalog service, it seemed like it would be so attractive and easy to read: Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season, by Stewart O’Nan and Stephen King.

I can’t open it.

The last book I read was one of John Feinstein’s on golf. I had read that before, too. Must have been a month ago.

No, I’m off reading, just the way an animal goes off his feed.

Reading is a long-standing habit, deeply dug in. Back in second grade, I used to bedevil the teacher by getting all my worksheets done, going to the library, and bringing back chunky hardback books on astronomy and history and such. By the fourth grade I had memorized the Hardy Boys and pages of humor from whoever was popular at the time, Art Linkletter, probably. (And I tormented my elders by quoting the stuff, too, just the way my older boy torments his mother and me by reciting Dave Barry riffs, whole columns of them sometimes. He can’t remember his homework, but he retains pages of written humor. Figure.)

High school found me in my own basement room sneaking cigarettes, curled up in a discarded easy chair, and swotting down Proust, Tolstoy, and such by the stack. I hauled along 300 books to my first college dorm room from Minnesota in a trunk, and when my randomly assigned roommate arrived from Texas, I discovered he had lugged in 300 books, too, and we had no duplicates. We were both delighted.

I BLEW UP MY COLLEGE CAREER, as recounted in “My Vietnam War,” and found myself living in a back bedroom in my parents’ new house in Florida, with my aging and failing grandmother for a companion, the good old pal of my childhood. She was fairly addled, too, and we got along fine.

I couldn’t read then, either. All those months home, every time I tried to crack a book, the pages would just swim away. Probably no wonder, all the LSD molecules still racketing around in my head.

By the time I moved back to New York on my own, I had begun to read, and it was mystery novels of some kind that got me started again. After all these years and all the different mysteries I’ve read (in the thousands), I still can’t remember the particular author who grabbed me. But once again I had discovered that you could read for fun. I was such a grind as a kid, me and my tiny circle of friends who read Balzac and Thomas Hardy and the like. Just what you need for academic achievement, perhaps, but hard on the heart.

And of course I moved beyond mysteries and resumed my usual pace of four or five books a week. One glorious week I spent reading alternate chapters of John Barth’s Giles’ Goat Boy and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Another wild three-day period I read consecutively Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and Congo by Michael Crichton (decisively his best-written — or perhaps best-edited — book; the others are crude).

That long period came to a flourish in San Francisco in the early ’70s, when I met my still-good friend Lillian at work, and she introduced me to the greatest library I had ever known, the Mechanics’ Institute, and to P.G. Wodehouse and Helene Hanff, to Samuel Eliot Morison and Ben Hecht. I continued to read right up through my initial kidney failure, and a good thing, too, since I spent long hours on a kidney machine in the days before cable TV. Hooked up to a dialysis filter, I read every volume of Morison’s History of Naval Operations in World War II.

BUT NOW I’M OFF READING AGAIN. At least the sports season is good. The pennant races wind down, with the Red Sox in parlous shape. The world’s saddest sporting event, the U.S. Open (tennis), with its first week in baking heat and its second in chill, has announced the coming of winter to the East Coast. Several good golf events remain. Football — what else? — kicks off.

Television in general, I can report, is truly awful. The trash (or “reality”) TV trend has infected everything, even The Golf Channel, with its appalling “Big Break” series and other productions. I have not, even in my equivalent-to-illiterate couch potato state, watched any series or network news and will not. When celebrities show up at pro-am sporting events, I don’t know who they are.

I keep up with the news on the Internet. But do you get this feeling, too? More and more often, I know what a story is going to say just by reading the headline and the lead.

I have a barbecue outside my study door. All I need is beer. But that, old alcoholic that I am, I am not going to get.

Come back, books. I miss you.

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