Taking the pledge: a resolution to read more books

Where does time fly?  Over two weeks since my last post and, in that interval, I’ve been occupying myself with hours of scribbling.  Filling dozens of notebook pages…unfortunately, very little of this material will ever make it to publication.  Lots of meditations, strange aphorisms, gleanings from the subconscious.  Here’s one example:

“How many failures turn out to be posthumous geniuses?  Not very many, as it happens, the proportion disappointingly low.”

What does that mean?  A subconscious dig from my wily Muse, a nugget of wisdom…or mere prattle?  And there’s pages and pages of the stuff, much of it spiritually oriented.  Many of the entries make for uncomfortable reading, nakedly honest and personal.  What should I do with these raw ramblings?  This is material not intended for public consumption…but at the same time some of it packs undeniable power.  Save it for the archives, hope someone will find it interesting or insightful.  Bury it deep, amid old tax receipts and early drafts of stories.

The end of the year is always a time for reflection for me; I settle into introspective fugues where I consider the past 365 days and look with anticipation (and trepidation) to the year ahead.  What have I accomplished? Where do I go from here?  Point me to the next mountain to climb…

A few things have become clearer to me during this time—the first is that I’d like to make the act, the process of writing more fun, not bear down so hard, subjecting my system to so much abuse and stress.  I’m obsessive-compulsive by temperament, a perfectionist in every aspect of my life.  Everything has to be done just right or I go ballistic.  No half-measures, no band-aid solutions, no excuses for failure.  That’s the kind of cat I am.

But that has to change.  I’m older and my body is starting to manifest some of the punishment it has absorbed over the years.  My fingers, neck and shoulders.  My back—Christ, my back.  The mental and spiritual damage has been even more substantial, but I won’t get into that.  A different approach is required…and I’m not exactly the best person when it comes to new approaches (see:  aforementioned obsessive compulsiveness).  Maybe voice recognition software is part of the answer, I dunno.  I recently bought myself a better office chair, adjusted the height of the monitor so it’s more ergonomically placed, added padding under the keyboard—that will, hopefully, allay some of the physical symptoms.  But in terms of approaching my vocation/obsession from a healthier psychic perspective, well, that requires an effort of a whole other magnitude.

I need to write in order to feel settled, sane.  But how can I make writing more of a pleasure, less of a chore?  I’ve devoted a lot of thought to that over the past while and I think I’ve come up with a few answers, partial solutions.  Some of it involves very personal mini-epiphanies that presented themselves to me, insights that are, frankly, too private to share.  They relate to my spiritual beliefs, the ridiculous expectations I place on myself.  The pain that causes.  It’s also about deriving a sense of accomplishment from some of the fine writing my pen has produced over the past quarter century.  I don’t have to keep trying so hard to prove my worth, establish my artistic credentials.  The work speaks for itself.  Stories like “Invisible Boy”, “Daughter” and “Bedevilled”; the novellas and prose poems.  And, of course, my two novels.

Just write.  Write without a sense of self-consciousness; write from instinct, letting the words flow unimpeded from their original source.

It’s all about the words.  The right one in the right place.  Over and over again, sentence by sentence, until something precious and timeless has been created.  The masters of language show us how it’s done.  They showed me.  It was reading that made me want to compose stories of my own, tales no one else has told.  I read voraciously, learned my craft at the feet of giants.  Books were entertainment and professional development all at once.

But something’s happened over the past decade.  I’ve read less and less.  In the past few years I think I averaged between 60-65 books a year and that’s a pathetic number for someone who fancies himself some kinda hotshot author.  I’m talking about books read for my own enjoyment, stuff not related to research or my work.

So one of the other changes I’m making for the new year is that I’m resolving to read more.

I’m taking my own, personal “100 Book Challenge”.  I want to recommit to the printed word in a big way.  It means switching off, tuning out.  “Off the grid” days, spent hunkered in my rocker recliner, reading a novel or collection of stories.

Because I have no doubt all the hours I’ve spent reading on-line, scanning news articles and items of interest, has screwed up my concentration.  I find it hard to focus on a book for more than ten pages at a time without needing to get up, make some tea, stack the dishwasher…and then come back for another crack.  Ditto movies.  How many times has Sherron complained because I’m pausing a film to go to the john or grab myself a drink?  Okay, part of that has to do with a pea-sized bladder but I also think all that time in cyberspace has had a deleterious effect on my attention span.

I read an article in the Manchester Guardian that talked about similar matters so I know I’m not alone in this feeling.  The piece quotes me old chum John Miedema, who is a noted proponent of the “slow reading” movement and I found myself nodding along at various points.  And then a chap in my LibraryThing group posted a lecture by Susan Greenfield in which she talks about learning and brain plasticity.  Fascinating stuff.  Ms. Greenfield makes a distinction between the information one finds on-line and “in-depth knowledge” that can only be gained from reading a book.  I hope folks out there are apprising themselves as to some of the new theories that are emerging relating to how computers are fundamentally changing the way we think.  I think the evidence is absolutely compelling and parents, in particular, must be educated re: how all those hours playing video games and “World of Warcraft” are rewiring their kids’ brains.

Years ago, when we were still living in Iqaluit (on Baffin Island), I gave a presentation on books and reading to an audience of about twelve people.  I remember becoming quite emotional as I spoke about how books had literally saved my life.  I believed then—and believe to this day—that was not mere hyperbole.  My childhood was hardly idyllic and my love of reading gave me, at once, an escape from worldly travails and spurred and fired my imagination.

I want to recapture that, the allure and beauty of the printed word.  The thoughts and visions reading inspire in me.

A hundred books in one year?  Can I manage it?  Will my hellish work ethic fight tooth and nail with my desire to settle into an armchair with some Jim Shepard stories or the latest David Mitchell effort?  I’ll let you know via periodic blog posts how I’m doing.  My progress (or lack of same).  I won’t cite every damn book I’m reading but I’ll drop in the occasional review (maybe even resuscitate my “Burning Moonlight” column, you never know).   God knows, I’ve got enough good books lying around, gathering dust.  I search them out, I buy them…but can’t seem to free up the time to actually, y’know, read the f***ing things.  Pathetic.

But no more.  I’m turning over a new leaf.  2011 will involve a serious reboot.  I’ve made my resolutions and I firmly intend to keep them.  Ease back on the throttle.  Stop trying to impress.  Create for the sheer love of creating.  Rediscover the joy and wonder of my craft through reading the best contemporary authors and the finest of past masters.  Work to improve myself through a process that doesn’t involve self-flagellation.

I wrote in a blog entry a couple of years ago that after more than two decades as a professional author I finally felt like the apprenticeship period was over.

But, I amend, that doesn’t mean I’ll ever be too old to go back to school.

9 comments

  1. Pingback: Taking the pledge: a resolution to read more books « Beautiful … » Free Online Books to Read
  2. driftlessareareview

    Wow Cliff, sounded like you were channeling a little Thomas Bernhard there. Time to ease back the throttle. But I also agree with your outlook: the enjoyment of creation, etc.

  3. Kathy

    Never too old to go back to school? Of course not! Maybe you need a sabbatical? Physically it could be advisable, maybe even mentally and psychologically. I know the idea would be terrifying to you. Letting go . . . is it in the realm of possibility?

    “Create for the love of creating.” I like that and encourage that. Reading 100 books sounds like a worthwhile challenge. But does having a goal in any way impact on “reading for the love of reading”? Just a thought.

  4. Cliff Burns

    “But does having a goal in any way impact on ‘reading for the love of reading’?”

    Good question–and a real conundrum. But I’m a goal-oriented guy and if I set a target, my competitiveness will make me try harder to attain it. But, really, the point is to read more period, recalling a time when a book gave me solace, instruction and inspiration. I want to capture that again.

    Thanks for the note.

  5. The Necromancer

    I don’t necessarily see the correlation between being a writer and a voracious reader. After all, while reading, even if something compelling and sharply styled, I would often be thinking: “I should be writing.”

    But I certainly agree with your argument about the virtual realm and how it takes away from the true “life of the mind.” This is, I think, effecting writers and scholars these days. And it may be having a permanent and dramatic effect on the intellectual and social realm. The brain is the first computer, and we can use it to fight the force of virtual idiocy and “hack the system.” The programming is there, we just need to find the out where those files are hidden on the hard drive…

  6. Cliff Burns

    Well said.

    Reading has always fed my imagination, the seat of my inspiration. I’ve never taken any creative writing classes, have nothing but contempt for them. Everything I’ve learned comes from a book; reading it, immersing myself in it, dissecting it to figure out how the author managed a certain effect. Beckett, Borges, Pynchon, Celine, Crumley, McCarthy…those guys have been my teachers and they set the bar mighty high. I can’t meet their standards but I do my best with the talent I’ve been given. I’m curious to see the effect all that reading (100 books) will have on my work. I’ll let you know…

  7. mikecane

    I don’t want to derail you from books, but even so, now and then we can’t reach for the next one and want a break. To that end, you must track down a TV series called “The Sandbaggers” I was turned on to. British, from late 70s/early 80s. Absolutely incredible writing that will make your jaw drop. Would make a fitting video break from reading, it’s *that* good.

  8. Cliff Burns

    Thanks for the feedback (as ever), Mike–good God, another cult series to look up. And you know how fanatical I am about these things, Michael. I’ll just have to find “The Sandbaggers” (which seems vaguely familiar to me; it might have run on CBC-TV in days of yore).

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