Beginning in my late teens, I read voraciously, and a big part of my self-image was Me, the Lover of Literature. There was a time when I read things like Finnegans Wake and Remembrance of Things Past for pleasure. A meaningful, high-quality life was one devoted to reading great literature — which, for the most part, meant reading great novels.
In the past few years I’ve been noticing that I find it much harder to get involved in, concentrate on, or even finish many of the books I start reading. Most recently I more or less forced myself through Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, then gave up outright on a collection of Chekhov’s stories. What had happened to the Lover of Literature? Was this some kind of selective senility? The much-publicized evil effect of the internet on my ability to focus?
Recently I’ve been eagerly reading Two Years before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana’s fascinating account of his short career as a seaman on an American merchant vessel in the 1830s. (He’d been a Harvard student until a case of measles so damaged his eyesight that he couldn’t study, so he went to sea in hopes that fresh air and exercise would restore his health. He got more fresh air and exercise than he’d anticipated, but his plan worked: he finished school and, fortunately, wrote this book.)
While savoring Dana I came to a realization: my problem isn’t reading, it’s fiction. I just don’t enjoy fiction nearly as much as I once did. Histories, biographies, autobiographies, lives of Saints, books of poetry, can all easily draw me in — one of my most-enjoyed books of the last year was a long biography of Johannes Brahms.
I can’t account for this change, but I suspect that part of it is the fact that I no longer see Me, the Lover of Literature as an essential part of who or what I am. How many of our activities in this life are ways (at least in part) of maintaining a certain picture we have of ourselves?
Time to recalibrate the self-image.