“To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by – it’s hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities.” – Philip Roth
I have a problem remembering books. It’s a problem that I mentioned in my chronicle of the 55 books I read in 2011, and when I think back to most of the books that I read last year, I come up with patches of the story (and, if I liked the book, usually patches of inner character workings), and a whole lot of fog.
Aside from putting an insidious terror in me, my memory’s failure made me consider how we pay attention and what we choose to pay attention to when we read. I’m not sure how much of a problem memory is for you out there, but it made me think, with my rickety brain, if tweaking a few reading variables might put a little grease in the old mental clockwork.
1. The time it takes to read a book. I read a book, on average, every 6.63 days last year, which, at first, sounds like an ideal amount of time to read a book, especially if you consider Roth’s two week window. But, as I mentioned in my earlier article, many times last year I was reading for numbers and treating the next book like the nearest hurdle I had to get over. This year, I’ve been reading without numbers in mind and though I’m not downing book after book in 2012, I’m remembering more of what I read and–here’s the important part–I’m enjoying more of what I read. The conclusion I’ve drawn here is that maybe it’s best not to have a future reading regimen mapped out but rather to progress and discover the next book more leisurely.
2. Reading more than one book at a time. How many of you do this? Because, to me, the concept was completely foreign until a few months ago. Now, I’m reading Infinite Jest, while also visiting The Ice Balloon by Alec Wilkinson and Forty Stories by Chekhov every now and again.
(Not-so-quick aside: The whole idea for this post came to me because of Infinite Jest. One of the many things David Foster Wallace can do is concentrate. In point of fact, I think he can concentrate better than anyone else. Read one of his books, watch one of his interviews, and you see that every thought that comes into his head or every word that comes out of his mouth is so carefully considered, to the point that it’s hard not to concentrate like him. It almost feels like an insult to not give as much attention to Infinite Jest as he put into it. Which is why its taken me two months to read it. Which is why, despite breaking Roth’s rule, I can remember a ton of the book.)
I’m finding that having a short story collection as a literature sidearm is particularly useful. The other day, I read 20 pages in Infinite Jest, and then took a break by reading through three very short Chekhov shorts as a sort of palate cleanser. Having the nonfiction adventure account in The Ice Balloon provides an additional variety of narrative to keep my mind fresh. Maybe there’s something to this.
3. Keeping up with your “Favorite Lines” document. This one is my favorite. In 2008, I was reading Blood Meridian and I got to the long passage in chapter 11 in which the Judge tells a story about the harnessmaker welcoming a traveler into his home, seeming to repent and becoming a brother to his fellow men, and then killing that man out by the road and stealing his money. I opened a new Word document and copied out the whole little story. Since then, I have a never-ending document in which I retype passages and lines that I like whenever I come upon them. I underline in books I read, so I save the document for only the best of the best. A lot of lines from A Sport and a Pastime are in that document, as is the entirety of “The Symphony” chapter from Moby-Dick, that perfect self-contained piece of writing that is one of the very best things I’ve ever read.
I hope memory isn’t as much of a problem for you as it is for me. I always find it fun to talk with a friend about a book we’ve both read. My friends almost always end up telling me about massive chunks of the book I’ve forgotten. But whenever that happens, I just go home and start scrolling through that Word document. It’s a pretty comforting thought to know that I won’t ever be done adding to it.