Reading Habits

each book at its proper time

If you had told me twelve years ago that I was going to see a nighttime circus right now, I would have laughed. Maybe even snorted. It was one of those books that everyone was reading then, and it’s one of those books that everyone seems to be reading now. I’ve carried a copy with me for so long that I don’t even remember where I got it. I didn’t realize it was autographed until this week when I finally opened it.

Everything about this particular copy of the book is a mystery to me, including why I haven’t read it yet. So I started that night, and read four or five chapters before I looked up and realized it was bedtime.

How did this happen? Why does it sometimes take so long for a book that is clearly for readers to find them?

Of course, there is no answer to this question. Books come when they come, either in their time or not. It’s hard to project the precise, perfect moment to read a book, although it’s often possible. You can pick the right book for a trip, a vacation, a long weekend away; you can decide to drink the same cocktails as the characters, or eat their meals, or do whatever it takes to bring out the story world around you. You can create the perfect moment, but you have to know what it is. And you have to have the time and willingness to design it, not seize the moment.

Still, sometimes books are late. Or earlier. Or just shut down. A friend and I were recently talking about The Secret History, a book I haven’t read but have wanted to read for at least a decade. Most people she knew who read the book for the first time as adults hated it, she said. (Do I see this as a challenge? Just a slight one.) On the other hand, those who read the book as young adults were enthusiastic. Another friend told me more than once that I must read “The Secret History” in winter. Maybe the cold, dark, gloomy start of the year is just my time—or it’s this book’s time.

My thinking is that every book has its timing just right, but every reader’s timing is different. In any case, it’s not finite or singular, and in most cases it isn’t – and it doesn’t have to be. (Sometimes, reading backwards, reading the wrong book at the wrong time and being completely right in an odd way.) Sometimes the only time a book is fun to read is when everyone else is reading it, when the vibe is euphoric and Common times, when you become part of something bigger. Sometimes there are books that you read once at a certain point and never read again—the associated feelings are too big, too heavy, too confusing, too much to reread at will.

But I think the most important thing is that you can find the time to read. That’s why I keep a list of books I haven’t finished reading. This isn’t a breakup for good (unless it’s a breakup for good). It’s just a break. I tried to read Victor Laval’s “The Exchange” at the wrong time; but here it is. I struggled through 100 pages, admiring the prose, but feeling unable to open the door to the core of the book, and put it aside. I haven’t gotten to read that book yet, not yet. I started re-reading Shadow and Bones thinking I’d finish the series this time around, but was intrigued by the promise of new content. But I might come back to Ravka later on.

Timing is everything and timing is nothing; you never know what’s going to land in your lap or go through your feed at any moment. It took me almost a year to finish How to Write Autobiographical Fiction by Alexander Chee – not because I didn’t like it, but because when I started reading it, I knew I wasn’t ready let it end. I moved it from one year’s spreadsheet to the next and continued to do so slowly and steadily. When you’re a speed reader, someone who wants to read everything at once, this is something to savor – a book that absolutely asks you to slow down and live by its time rather than your own.

I know not everyone is constantly thinking about what they’re reading when and how that fits into the grand scheme of their reading life, or into the lineup of everything else they’ve read. But the patterns are all there, all the same; the books we skip or linger on, the ones we return to after years, sparkle in new ways. I think so because I write books, but I also think so because I’m a magpie always distracted by something new and shiny, and because I’m a generalist in many ways. I grew up reading a ton of sf and still do a ton of sf, but I would go through several phases: emotionally devastating teen fiction; really concrete non-fiction about ritual or community, “women solve their problems” in literary fiction, or not “bending”; and my own bookish comfort food, like fairy tales rewritten and retold.

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