The years of not reading

Which means I might as well have called this post The Years of Not Writing. Isn’t most (all?) good writing a response to what our betters have written? “The paradox is that the more indebted the artist,” Joseph Brodsky wrote, “the richer he is.”
I remember doggedly working my way through Dostoevsky in Penguin Classics when I was 20, living my own version of Raskolnikov’s life on the streets of London, not Peterburg. (His name is tattooed in Cyrillic on my neck.) I’ve heard writers talk about their immediate connection to Dostoevsky, but at that age I read to make sense of the sentences, nothing more. I’d have needed help to appreciate his wild comedy of tragic humans in extremis.
At least I had an idea that I was missing something important, a residue of that bookworm child back in Ulster. What followed in my twenties was a classic defense: When I realized that I couldn’t match my early success, I stopped respecting what I knew I couldn’t do. Or mostly convinced myself that it wasn’t worthy of respect. As a journalist in London I read only for information. I read about books.
As a student in my thirties in New York I took literature courses for a requirement or an easy A. I knew what to say about the books but I read without pleasure. Though I remember one day sitting on a bench in the sun on the Columbia campus, grinning ear to ear as I turned the pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I’d rediscovered that good books can be fun, which means that reading had become a chore. But Solitude is the most accessible and instantly rewarding of great books, daring a reader not to be delighted.
After I moved to San Francisco in 1981 I tried to make up for the years in school by “living,” a lot of it repetitive and wasteful. I’ve calmed down a bit, but I can rarely focus on a book for more than 90 minutes. Part of the trouble always was that I thought something great was happening someplace else and I’d better go and find it, though I rarely knew where to look.
What got me back to reading was my rediscovery of Europe after the years in school. For a while I wanted to be an old man in Prague, where I’d first been in 1968 to cover the Russian invasion, 30 or 40 years later maybe wandering on the islands in the Vltava with a big dog. So I gravitated to the language and its literature. Russian language and literature were just a hop away, and I’ve stayed there, feeling like that 20-year-old struggling in a London night class with the Russian alphabet on the flimsy pages of a textbook imported from Moscow.
Fiction leaves you behind if you don’t keep up, though not as far behind as poetry leaves you. These days I tend towards nonfiction, towards what I can or could do. I’d still rather read Brodsky on Mandelstam’s poetry than try to truly read the poetry, but Nadezhda is totally my cup of tea.

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