Readers Block

Ever get it? You go to the library, or come home from the bookstore, or unpack the box from Amazon, turn to Page One and…

You put the first book down, and the second, and the third. You go to the window and see a convertible car zoom by with the top down. People in the car are laughing and playing music too loud. You think: I have a convertible automobile. I can put the top down. I can play music too loud. I can laugh and act like I don’t care.

You glare at that stack of books–am I any better for having read them?

I used to think so. My mother insisted that reading books was among the best things to do. Traveling and seeing theater were the others. She was so insistent that I read books that, after I read all the books that appealed to me in the local library, she gave me a nearly unlimited budget for buying them.

I devoted so much time to browsing and spending that money in the small, family-owned local bookstore that I got my first job there. I was reading, and finishing, a book every two days when I met my first girlfriend. My reading slowed down. She is now my wife and my reading has picked up again.

I have also traveled a bit and seen some theater. Did they make me a better person?

I used to think so. When you visit another country, even as a tourist who only wants to see the sights and eat some good meals, your experience is far from simple. Things happen in the neutral spaces between the plane, hotel, air conditioned bus. the olive wood factory, the building-that-everybody-visits, the lunch spot where they mix up your order and the last day shopping spree. You can’t help but get insights into another culture and the people who inhabit it, and those inights belong to you. No matter how hard the tour company, the guides or the government tourist bureau tries to steer you toward what they want you to see, you see other things.

That, and you pull back, adapt or, do as I have done: talk to people in a respectful way, sit for a while in one place, and let that place soak in, or ride public transportation, or pick a direction, trust your feelings and start walking.

When you return and you’ve unloaded all the stories about your adventure on whoever is unlucky enough to drive you home from the airport, you later discover that whenever the country (or destination) is mentioned or reported about, or when you meet someone from that country, you feel a connection, a familiarity. No matter how slight this may be, it helps you evaluate and understand in new ways.

Does this make you a better person? Not necessarily. I know tourists who loathe an entire nation based on an airport transit lounge, a single taxi ride, a surly waiter, or a sleepless night in a hotel room that was too much of this, or not enough of that. But then again, I know tourists who have learned, through experience, to take these things in stride, and have come to see themselves in others, no matter how strange those other people may appear.

What about theater? It’s always more expensive than movies, and, when your seated so far away from the stage that hearing and seeing is difficult, you can’t help but wish you were somewhere else.

Until you suspend your indignation, and disbelief, and the art takes over.  What was impossibly dull on the page (if you had to read Shakespeare in college) becomes exciting when it flows through skillful actors and clever production.  You can’t substitute the excitement of being in the presence of living human beings, or the herd-like thrill of laughing and gasping along with the audience.

Theater preaches several important values, no matter what the play may be, or how many people are on stage. The first, and most crucial, is that it is collaborative: many different people have come together to present this show, and many more (assuming the critics were kind) have come to see it. The second is that it is unique: every performance is different and what can make the difference is the audience.  A good audience can raise the quality of the performance.

Finally, theater is ultimately not like other art forms. Even if the actors are film stars, what happens is never the same as what you see on a film, or even a filmed recording of a live performance. The message theater whispers–how actors show you their character, the speed at which the action moves, and how a darkened platform can, with just a few props, become a Danish castle or a “blasted heath”–is the primacy of imagination and collective will. Theater doesn’t happen unless all in the playhouse are willing to believe that it can.

But inept productions really hurt. They make you fret about the cost of the ticket and the chore of going to the theater (even if you’re in a city and the playhouse is a short walk away). You wonder if anyone involved in this agonizing mess knows how terrible it is, and if they are merely doing it for the money (which, for most, is never enough), how can they sleep at night?

Does seeing a lot of theater make you a better person? It’s nice to have savored the major O’Neills, Albees, Shaws, Pinters, Becketts, Molieres, Brechts, Sondheims, Arthur Millers and Neil Simons, as well as Gilbert & Sullivan, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and so many others. You come to understand a new meaning to the word “immortal.” When my son got a small part in a dinner theater production of The Sound of Music, I thought I grow bored from hearing those same songs so often in a show that, with rehearsals, ran for a month and a half. I didn’t. Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin wrote some of the best American popular music ever. It does not get old.

Then, for my 50th birthday, I saw every Shakespeare play, either in a theater or on a video recording. I got over my difficulties with the language and know why so much of Shakespeare really is the best.

Did it make me a better person? Nahhh.

See too many plays that don’t connect with you, don’t satisfy you, don’t leave you with the feeling that you’ve experienced something you can’t get anywhere else–and you don’t want to do it anymore.

Which brings me to Reader’s Block, when you just don’t want to read anymore.

I experience it almost daily with newspapers and magazines (and those sneaky online news aggregators, that mix the most vital reporting with such crucial journalism as TOP TEN CELEBRITY VACATION HOMES IN MINNESOTA). I’ve written for many publications, so I respect the effort, struggle and sense of commitment required to report the news. But so much of what is reported concerning daily events and personalities I find horrifying, repugnant, irresponsible and (to use a word that was once apolitical) deplorable. This is not, as some allege, because a biased news media hunts for bad stuff. There’s so much bad stuff going on right now that the good is crowded out.

But we need to know awful things are, so that next time we buy a product, see a movie or vote, we understand more about the consequences our choices make.

My love for books is different. As a child, I read all that I liked in the local library. My mother then gave me a nearly unlimited budget to buy books. When other school kids took home one or two books from Scholastic in-class sales, I carried home a box. Later, I spent so much time, and money, inside the the local, family-run bookstore that I got my first job there. The owners permitted me to take home the paperback returns:  books whose covers were torn off and mailed back to the publisher for credit. Many of my favorite writers I discovered inside a book that lacked a cover.

I was reading, and finishing, a book about every two days until I met my first girl friend. I slowed down a bit after that and, with her encouragement, I decided that my dream of writing books might just come true.

It did, but not without the requisite agonies, uncertainties, reversals, rewrites and rejections that blot the author’s path. Writing also brought many experiences that combined my love of traveling (travelwriting!) and theater (theater critic!). I wallowed in a lot of great, and not-so-great plays and places.

But I never stopped reading until I decided to teach high school. Then I came down with my first and, I hope, last case of Readers Block.

I thought high school would be perfect for me because my wife had been doing it in the sciences. I had taught writing and journalism  at the undergraduate and graduate level, so I thought I could “give back” to the kid I was, and the kids I knew, when I decided to make writing my life work.

To get a teaching license I returned to the best graduate school within commuting distance and took education courses.  What I had heard about education courses was still true: while you may get a good professor, most were taught by teaching assistants using texts that were written by people who did not feel they had to charm, excite or interest me, the reader.

Most, but not all. Of the two dozen books I had to acquire, two were wonderful–a commentary on the political nature of public education, and a memoir written by a rather peculiar individual who decided to read the same book over and over for…I forget how many times. The memoir made one point: rereading is not repetition. Things happen to us, and what we think we’re reading, as we revisit a text.

I also got a glimpse of incongruities, paradoxes and puns in post-modern philosophy that made me hungry for more.

After I got my teaching license, fulfilled my internships and was given the opportunity to take over the classes of a high school English teacher who had been put on leave, I was overwhelmed with the daily stress that public school teachers endure. My wife had warned me that there was more to teaching than standing up in front of the kids and saying the things that would set off light bulbs in their brains.

She was right. On weeknights I came home, I ate a quick dinner and fell asleep. I couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to read a book, or anything else.

But the stress piled up. I became too tired to exercise and put on weight. My blood pressure began to go dangerously high. It is no coincidence that I suffered two heart attacks after I stopped teaching.

My sojourn as a high school lamplighter made me doubt myself and what I truly loved about books, literature and writing. For a long time I’d try to lose myself in a book, and not move past page one.

But then I opened what everyone with Readers Block must find: a book that spoke to me, a book that made me feel it was written just for me, a book that took me into a world that made my own possible, tolerable, endurable and just a little bit wonderful.

I won’t name the author or the title because what speaks to one reader can be mute, and worse, to another. When I taught novel writing at the college level, I assigned my students to read, or, at best, try to read, a book that they would consider to be trash, and then be able to talk about the experience. Beyond the the grandstanding accounts of pure disgust, and the vaguely embarrassed comments about of guilty pleasures, were conflicts between those students who thought a specific book was junk, and others who swore that very same book was a source–for them–of inspiration and joy, and possibly a reason they wanted to become novelists.

What I can say is that, if there is a muse, saint, demiurge, boddhisatva, daemon or kindly spirit that strives to repair a writer’s, or a reader’s broken soul, that being manifests itself, not in a cloud of smoke and fire like the Great and All Powerful Oz, but inside a book that may have been written by an author desperate for money, that could be the sequel to an earlier novel that no one remembers, or a hasty knock-off of a best-seller.

What matters is that the book says to us, in a way only a book can, that who we are, right now, no matter how bumpy our past, is not merely adequate, but abundantly capable of realizing dreams; and that what we want to write, no matter how precious, unoriginal, sentimental, half-baked, or uncommercial, is not only worthwhile, but possible, likely and, for the rest of us, necessary.

Does that make you a better person? Let’s say you become a different person, in just the way you imagined.






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