On a sort-of whim, I picked up the Winter 2012 copy of Granta Magazine at the LA Festival of Books last month. While I was vaguely familiar with it beforehand, it was the eloquence of Granta’s editor that prompted me to buy the issue; he had acted as the moderator for a panel I had seen earlier that day, and he was one of those personalities I’m automatically drawn to — I won’t say more than that, it would be tedious to read (and write, for that matter). But in any case, I stopped by their booth and grabbed a copy in the afternoon, and plopped down near the poetry stage to read the first story.
I didn’t get very far. I’m ashamed to admit what I’m about to, but it’s been plaguing me for too long, now — perhaps if I tackle it in writing…
I’m not a very good reader. There, I said it. This isn’t me saying I don’t read well, that I have difficulty in comprehension. This is me saying I have difficulty in attention, and in absorption.
My mind wanders every few sentences; I skip over chunks at a time. I get bored easily and sometimes that boredom makes me indignant, angry at the supposed subject of my boredom. I skim a lot, and abandon even more.
And while I’d quite enjoy adding this to the list of symptoms my generation is exhibiting due to the Digital Flu, this is a problem I’ve had since childhood. I distinctly remember, for instance, sitting in a classroom taking a standardized test (I believe it was an ACT practice in early high school) and arriving at the “reading” portion and suddenly catching myself staring at the wall. I was bored. Really? I have to read all this? It became a chore. Everything else in the test — dreaded mathematics included — involved problem-solving, thinking on multiple levels. English/grammar and science were the same. Reading comprehension, (absorbing tiny details and having memorized them all throughout to answer questions) despite high test scores, always seemed to require much more of me.
Reading does not bore me! In fact, reading is one of the most satisfying things, when it actually happens to me. Because the truth of the matter is, it’s an area of activity that utterly prevents me from multitasking, from pursuing many branches of thought at once — which is how my brain seems to operate. I can’t see one thing without seeing ten possibilities, and if I’m considering ten possibilities, I can’t possibly follow this horizontal sentence to its linear, conclusive full stop. I used the phrase “happens to me” for a reason; reading feels like a passive experience, one in which I must completely surrender, clear my head, meditate, in order to pay any attention to the words at all. I’m no good at it.
Further, even mere attention aside, any desire for complete absorption requires having a go at each sentence at least twice. The first time around I can’t help but pay attention to the sounds, the rhythm of the words. The meaning of the sentence is so secondary sometimes — it’s like introducing me to a woman dressed from head to toe in neon pink and asking me immediately what color her eyes are. Give me a goddamn minute… I’ve got to deal with the pink, first! Or, even more precise, I find it damn near impossible to pay any attention to what someone I’ve just met is saying to me. I’m concentrating on their body language, their voice, their patterns, mannerisms. How on earth do you expect me to actually hear them right away? That’s how I feel about reading new material. I’ll get there… but it might take me a bit longer than it should. My brain seems to have other things to worry about.
So, Granta. Today was a day of “I don’t knows.” I didn’t know what I wanted for lunch. I didn’t know if I wanted to submit to a certain magazine, or contact a certain editor, or if I wanted to sit up, lay down, get in bed or stay in bed. I didn’t know if I wanted go to yoga. I didn’t know if I wanted to watch TV. So when I didn’t know if I wanted to sleep or not, I picked up Granta, and I began to reread the story I had started the day I bought the issue.
The first story is (I’m presuming) a memoir by Claire Mussud called “The Road to Damascus.” The back cover says: Claire Mussud searches for her father’s Beirut, long since gone, as he himself lies dying in a hospice in Connecticut. My indecisiveness and lack of having a better activity cleared my mind enough to let reading happen to me, and — despite fighting with my brain at certain slower sections of the short text — I made it through to the end, and all the way until the last two sentences before the tears came.
It was an incredible piece — one that I’m never going to let leave me. My chest still feels like something’s lodged inside of it.
There sounds like there should be a moral here, like I should say, “look what happens when I allow myself to read, and fully read!” But that’s really not it. I rather praise the strength of this piece, and perhaps comment that what arose from my mental openness was emotional vulnerability. I’m a very emotional person, but the emotion seems to arise from mental frustration, mental stagnation — from turning everything in my mind so many times that it all becomes tangled, unusable. This piece incited what it did in me because I used another part of myself to connect with it. It’s something I need to work on. Eliminating thought.
I did end up going to yoga tonight. Perhaps more of that.