Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Reading Bunker

When I was about ten or twelve, I read William Sleator's Singularity, which is fairly well-described by Wikipedia:
Sixteen-year-old identical twins Harry and Barry learn that their mysterious great-uncle has died, and his house and possessions now belong to their mother. The brothers travel to Sushan, Illinois to examine the house and its contents. Inside the cobweb-filled home, the rivaling brothers find mysterious animal skeletons and other odd objects. Outside Uncle Ambrose's residence, Harry and Barry find a small metal-reinforced building, which according to the accompanying keys, is called the "playhouse." When the twins explore the playhouse, they discover that the properties of time are altered inside, and the playhouse may explain the eccentricities of their great-uncle. When their quirky and cute neighbor Lucy enters their lives, competition between the twins escalates, and Harry makes a decision that will change the nature of their relationship forever.
Harry has discovered that the playhouse somehow sits over the bottom-end of a singularity, which is actually less scary than the "portal into terror" described on the book's cover, although the gruesome-looking thing you see there does provide a menacing subplot. The upshot of the singularity's presence is that time is incredibly accelerated for whoever is in the playhouse, such that a few external minutes can equate to several days or months for the playhouse's occupant, a fact that the boys clock onto by accidentally leaving their dog locked in, returning an hour later to find only disintegrating bones. My ten-year-old self took this part really hard, I recall.

Because of the aforementioned rivalry between the brothers, Harry decides to remain in the playhouse for what will amount to a playhouse-internal year, aging himself substantially to mark an irrevocable separation (in appearance and experience) from his brother, and presumably giving him a better chance at Lucy. The gripping part of the narrative is Harry's preparation for this isolation and the obscenely intense self-regimentation program he puts himself onto to remain sane—reading, exercise, diet, everything is minutely controlled. It was kind of like Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, only for nerds—extreme feats of self-reliance, but with fewer arrows and a lot more books.

The fantasy of removing oneself from time's regular course in order to read uninterrupted is a natural one, I think. A very lovely recent example was Aleksandar Hemon's essaylet in this year's Summer Reading issue of The New Yorker. I think there's also a pleasant fantasia near the middle of Murakami's Kafka on the Shore where Kafka (not the author) finds a secluded cabin and spends a month or so reading. But the darker side of this fantasy is famously presented in the "Time Enough at Last" episode of The Twilight Zone, where the bookish bespectacled Burgess Meredith finds himself the sole survivor of a global catastrophe which has very kindly left books alone and intact. While rejoicing at his luck (he can now read all that he wants, something he could never do when other people were living around him), he drops and breaks his glasses, dooming him to a Rod Serling voice-over meditating on his paradigmatic misfortune.

I'd be kidding you and myself if I tried to pretend I haven't thought about this reading bunker trope a lot: maybe it's my version of the "man cave," although actually I don't think the reading bunker is necessarily gendered. But I also try not to kid myself that such isolation would really work out for very long, or would even be ultimately desirable in the first place. I could probably subsist on ramen and granola bars for a few months, but I question whether such reclusive asceticism would really make me a more productive reader. Absent the "distractions" of the Internet, cell phones, and other human beings generally, would self-discipline really come more easily? Would I read for longer chunks of time? Would I lose myself in books more readily? Or would I find myself just as likely to switch books, let my mind wander, and endlessly multiply unnecessary tasks, like making stupidly detailed reading queues?

I've been thinking about these questions a little more recently because I've noticed that since classes started I have found it easier to read for longer stretches of time without interrupting myself, and because I recently (finally) read Sam Anderson's "The Benefits of Distraction and Over-Stimulation," which was on my "Read It Later" menu for too many months. Now, I think the increased attention span effect is more due to the sudden presence of real (and not self-imposed) deadlines than to a surprise development of greater self-discipline, but I find that I'm less often drawn away from non-class-related books as well. I look down and find five or eight pages gone, instead of two or three.

But in the most important ways, how I'm reading hasn't changed much. While I'm reading longer chunks of books more easily, I'm still caught in some of the same patterns. An intriguing footnote or reference sends me on a quick trip to the online library catalog or to some academic journal database, much the same way a promising hyperlink causes me to break up my online reading. I still read mostly non-linearly: although I've finished the books assigned in my classes, I have finished only one or two of the books that I've brought home from the library, and I can't help but thinking of this fluttering between books as the offline equivalent of tabbed browsing—it's just a different way to distract myself with too many open tabs.

Part of the appeal of the reading-bunker trope is precisely that it presumes a one-to-one correspondence between what you want to read and what you end up reading, a correspondence which I find very, very dubious for the vast majority of people. I think most "serious" or devoted readers—people who call themselves "readers," basically—prefer to think that their reading "goals" or a "reading plan" is the best, truest, most accurate expression of who they are both as a reader and as a person, when it's quite obviously only an expression of who they want to be. Just because I want to be a voracious reader of Henry James doesn't mean that I am, but because so many readers seem to think their goals or plan or queue define them as well and completely as their actual reading does, it's sometimes difficult to remember the difference.

This non-correspondence is aggravated, I think, by massive resources, such as the for-all-intents-and-purposes infinite choice and access that a good university library gives you or the infinite time imagined in the reading bunker fantasy. In other words, I think what you want to or plan to read (continuously, fully, not in fits and starts) diverges further from what you will actually end up reading fully the better your reading situation becomes.

Unless, that is, the best possible reading situation you can imagine is a highly restricted number of books and massively extensive time, but that's too much like the scenario at the end of Waugh's A Handful of Dust for me to sign on.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The cover: vagina dentata?

Also, for your reading list: Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture.

If you haven't already read it, that is.