It’s not you, it’s me. Or is it?

I’m in the process of compiling a list of books I read this year. In previous years, I’ve been much better about keeping track of what I’ve read, but this year, not so much. Which could be a symptom of how busy I was, or how involved I was in my thesis…Or the fact that I moved back to SF from Boston, and then we bought a house and moved again just a few months later. Did I mention writing a book?

It’s probably a bit of all of the above. But there’s also something else: This was not a good reading year for me. The first half of the year I was in classes, so my reading list was determined for me. All nonfiction, all the time. At the end of the semester, I was thrilled to be able to choose my own reading — Novels! I wanted to read novels! — and dove into it. I zipped through a few fiction selections in just a couple of weeks. But since then, something has happened that has never really happened to me before…

I haven’t felt like reading.

And not only that, but when I do feel like reading, I have been hugely unsuccessful in finding books that I like. In bookstores, I pick up books, read the back covers and then put them down again. Ho-hum. Sometimes I buy, but then when I get home I find that the books that seemed so intriguing in the store are not really doing it for me. (Witness: John Irving’s Until I Find You.) I started a lot of books this year that I didn’t finish, which is not a pattern I normally follow. I’m a stick-a-bad-book-out-to-the-end kind of person. Except that these days, I’m not.

Every so often I think, there’s nothing wrong with taking a break from reading, right? Except that for me, there is. I’ve been finding the near-absence of reading in my life unsettling. It’s like having a good friend disappear, or turn on you.

So I’ve been thinking… Is it me? Or is it the books?

One possible explanation for this odd blip in an otherwise blissful 30 years of reading: Could this be what happens when you finish an MFA program? Is it possible that I am so burned out on words that I don’t want to read? Or maybe, though I don’t quite beleive it, it’s the sudden return to having to choose my own reading material after two years of class-mandated books? Is it reading fiction after two years of reading mostly nonfiction? And then there’s this: I have heard quite a few MFA grads complain about how being in an MFA program ruined reading for them — two-plus years of constantly critiquing others’ writing can definitely make you hyper-critical of any artistic endeavor. We’re trained to look for flaws, particularly certain types of flaws, and we’re trained to write in certain molds and patterns. People say that writing can’t be taught, but I would argue that that’s not true: It can be, but to do so, writing has to be boiled down to patterns and frameworks. Not everything that’s published fits these standards, of course. In that light, how can someone who’s been through an MFA program not find fault with a lot of the writing that’s out there?

Then again, perhaps it’s not the MFA program, though it’s an easy scapegoat. Maybe I’m just having a hard time finding books that fit my mood. But maybe it’s not just me.

Is it the books? I was discussing this with some friends a few weeks ago. I’m not the only one having this experience… When I look for a book to read these days, I find bookstores don’t have quite the same allure that they used to. (I know, heresy!) I pick up books, read the back covers, and soon feel like I have read them before. The stories seem familiar, the plots recognizable, even the moods are clear. Maybe I should stop reading back covers. Hmm. Probably I shouldn’t be judging books by their back covers, based on copy written by who knows who (some intern in the publisher’s marketing department?) But the point is, it’s rare to find a book that is really and truly different; intriguing; moody but not overwhelming; with characters that you want to get to know, and a plot that’s really going to transport me (not alarm me or depress me or bore me).
Is it the times? Have Sept. 11, the Iraq War, the tsunami, Katrina, and other such calamities made for dark, humorless, plodding writing? Grim, formulaic books?
(In the back of my mind I suspect this theory, too, is flawed. Look at all of the amazing literature that came out of WWI or Vietnam, or…)

Maybe my lackadaisical reading habits can be blamed on all of these things and more. There’s the Internet and TV, which suck up more time than I like to admit. And it’s true, reading is more active, requires more focus and thought than any TV show or website. So perhaps technology is a culprit, too.

Whatever the problem is, here’s hoping 2007 is a better year for publishing and books, for growing beyond MFA program analysis (or whatever thinking constrains you) and for settling into bed with lots of really, really good books.

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3 thoughts on “It’s not you, it’s me. Or is it?

  1. I myself didn’t want to read anything after graduating from my writing program, and it took me maybe half a year to get back into the pleasure of the text, without looking over my shoulder for that grade.

    You know, I think you’ve touched on something that many have been trying to articulate about the usefulness of MFA programs: and that’s to learn how to read. Yes, the programs are there to give us time to write, but reading, as they say, is fundamental—to writers most especially, because we’re training ourselves to learn what patterns and frameworks (I really like this phrasing) of a story work for us and what doesn’t.

    I might be stretching it, but I kind of like this conclusion.

  2. I recommend you drink a lot of alcohol and go see some really bad movies. It sounds like your brain is overloaded. I’ve certainly been in that state before. When I couldn’t bear to read anything, I did other stuff like watch DVDs, play video games and paint really bad paintings. I even took up embroidery once, with appalling results. I’m not reading much these days myself, which is very unusual. But no matter — my husband bought me an iPod for Christmas. (He gave it to me early; he just couldn’t wait.) Now I spend my reading time creating painstakingly crafted playlists. When I’m sick of that, I’ll probably get into the gin and go see “Unaccompanied Minors.”

  3. Ha, ha! Maybe I do need to have a couple of drinks and watch something mindless. I wonder if “Snakes on a Plane” is out on DVD yet? I suspect that watching “An Inconvenient Truth” last night didn’t do much to reduce my apparent brain overload.

    W, I think you are right that MFA programs teach us how to read — as writers, anyway. It only makes sense that writers would (and no doubt should) read with a very careful eye toward how stories, paragraphs and sentences are constructed. This is an incredibly helpful skill when it comes to improving your writing, but it can be incredibly suffocating to the joys of reading just to read, huh?

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