The note in a coffee-stained spiral bound was made during graduate school, an instructor’s advice on how to read a book: “Read first to wallow, a second time to rake up ideas, and a third time for craft.” If you’re counting, that’s three reads—consecutively if possible. I never doubted this was the way to get inside and discover a book’s inner workings, but the triple-read was impossible during graduate school. The reading list required at minimum one book a week, but stories could be triple-read: Tim O’Brien’s “On the Rainy River,” Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies,” Chekhov’s “Lady with the Dog.” These brought my first experience of close reading, an understanding of how each story was built, and enabled me to see how my own were built too.
After two years of extensive and careful reading, at graduation I vowed to continue the pace, one book a week—no, I would read more! I would read like Junot Diaz, a book a day (a statement I’m still trying to get my brain around). Well, maybe not—my daughter was in kindergarten after all—but fifty books a year minimum, slightly more than one a week. With my reading skills honed and revved, I was confident I could tackle all the books on my post-graduate reading list.
The list was ambitious: Bleak House, The Way We Live Now, War and Peace, Moby Dick. These were all books I wish I’d read early on—and ones I likely would have read, had I stayed true to my early reading habits. I recall as a third grader, the local branch librarian and her look of concern as my mother signed the permission that enabled me to borrow Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy. At eight, I was a voracious reader of The Narnia Chronicles, Madeleine L’Engle and the entire oeuvre of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but Stone’s novel was my first precocious read. The librarian, as I recall, was especially wary of my exposure to the novel’s “adult” content, a point which my mother breezily dismissed, and in the end I was allowed the book. I can still recall the heft of it on my crossed legs, along with what seemed a very small font and innumerable characters amid a confusion of Italian streets, cities and surnames. But I plodded forward out of ambition, a love of art and artists, and a determination to prove myself, and in the end, made it halfway through the 776 pages.
By high school that early ambition was lost, and I squandered what turned out to be an essential period for reading: my youth. For, as I know now, there are essential works best tackled then: Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Camus. I managed a few of them in high school, a handful in college, but my ambition for reading was already lost to other pursuits—music, art, boys.
Books and time have a distinctly unique relationship. As Lewis Buzbee writes in his memoir, The Yellow Lighted Bookshop (2006),
Books are slow. They require time; they are written slowly, published slowly, and read slowly. A four-hundred page novel might take years to write, longer to publish, and even after the novel is purchased, the reader can expect to spend hours with it at one sitting over a number of days, weeks, sometimes months.”
It makes for slow going. It took me a month to get through Moby Dick; nearly two for War and Peace. In my desperation to get through the ever-growing list, I sacrifice the triple-read, at least for now, knowing how much is waiting in the queue.
Here is Lewis Buzbee again:
If you read one book a week, starting at the age of 5, and live to be 80, you will have read a grand total of 3,900 books, a little over one-tenth of 1 percent of the books currently in print.”
So how to explain the feeling I get when I enter the public library? How I feel climbing the familiar stairs to the fiction stacks? It’s the sense of an impossible undertaking, of knowing books are slow and time is fast. And the feeling is worse in a bookstore, where the inverse time relationship is multiplied by the desire to possess, a drowning feeling of knowing there is more than you can ever possibly want or have.
As it happens, my husband loves hanging out in book stores, a pastime I should love too. But there is something about a book store, despite its perfection as a place—those books, those shelves, those like-minded book buyers—that fills me with a unique and terrible dread. I have a term for how it feels, I call it biblious. Not to be confused with bilious, that Victorian term for queasiness. No, biblious is the difficult and troublesome sense brought on when encountering the dilemma of books versus time—a shelf in a bookshop, a stack in a library, a long and ambitious reading list. It’s a new word for an old problem, that books are slow and time is fast. Faced with an ever-dwindling amount of time to wallow, rake up ideas, and understand the craft, there is but one cure for that biblious feeling. You have to open a book.