For the past few years, I’ve been on a reading quest to try to fill the many gaps that exist in my relationship with literature. It has resulted in a useful experiment, one that has taught me a lot about reading, writing and how to accept my limitations.
It started when Gabrielle had to read The Scarlet Letter in, I think, grade 11. Because the Canadian literary curriculum includes a lot of books written by Canadians, this book had never been assigned and I’d never taken it upon myself to read it on my own. But with Gabrielle wading through the rather dense book (especially that intro), I figured I’d give it a go.
Of course, Gabrielle finished the book in about a week. I, on the other hand, took about two months.
Reading, for me, has always been one of my greatest pleasures, even as I have had to accept how slow I am at the activity. My problem is I feel I have to bite into, chew through and digest every word before I can move to the next sentence, fearful that I won’t understand what’s coming if I haven’t understood what’s already happened.
When a book is tough, I am capable of reading about 10 pages per hour. Hence, this is how I proceeded through The Scarlet Letter, which I ended up very much enjoying, adding the words “inexorable” and “ignominy” to my vocabulary.
Next came a book by John Updike, which was risky as Updike is such an amazing writer, he tends to give me writer’s block.
Still, my lifetime goal is to have read all of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for Literature winners, and Updike won the Pulitzer twice for two of his “Rabbit” series books. The first one in the series is Rabbit, Run.
Though not as difficult a read as The Scarlet Letter, it was so emotionally explosive, beautifully worded, and theme-packed, I was again usually reduced to 10 pages an hour, largely so I could take seconds away from the page to really let myself think about what I’d read.
Then came East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Then American Pastoral by Philip Roth. Then, finally, my current selection, Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe.
You’ll note that I’ve focused on eating giant, meaty novels written by American men. While I sometimes wish I were more of a fan of Brit lit, I can sink into North American-made characters and settings like settling into Laurel Lake in July; it doesn’t take long for full immersion.
Along the way, I’ve learned a few things. First, I can only read these books first thing in the morning, when the house is quiet, the dogs are sleepy, and I am as sharp as I’ll be all day.
For the first time, this has prompted me to have two, sometimes three books on the go at once, which I had never been able to do until now.
I keep another book for before bed, one that’s lighter, easier to digest. This is how I read Educated by Tara Westover and Paula McClain’s Circling the Sun. I’m reading Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis now.
I’ve learned it’s nice to have this ping pong going on between books, especially when they’re so vastly different from each other. Kind of like you’re applying your appetite to different parts of your day.
I’ve also relearned the beauty of taking my time. Look Homeward, Angel can be especially tough and sometimes I don’t even meet my 10-page goal. But facing something hard and coming out the other side enriched, experiencing a little bit of that each day, is deeply rewarding. And when I finally put the book on the bookcase among its peers (yes, my bookcase shelves are themed), I feel kind of, I don’t know, proud that I’ve filled in a gap. And maybe even a bit smarter.
Of course, not everyone in the world is going to be excited by the prospect of plowing through Philip Roth’s words. But there are so many other applications to this exercise, which is really just about dedicating some time to something hard you want to conquer. And realizing you still can.