Thursday, January 26, 2012

Practice Thursday—The yoga of reading

Abbe passing judgment on  Jamaica Kincaid

No, my dog Abbe--talented as she is--does  not know how to read. But she does like to sleep on books, which I'm afraid is a habit she's picked up from her mother. 

Here's my confession: though I'm an English professor, a writer, and someone who has built a life with words, I feel as though something has short-circuited in my brain and I no longer know how to read. I'll still hold a book in my hands in bed, but only as a prop; I know it's time to turn off the light when it thumps on my chest. 

Oh sure, I can decipher the words on labels and instructions readily enough, and I can read magazines like nobody's business; current and past issues of Bon Appetit, New Yorker, More, The Bark, and People (yes, People, people! You're my friends, I can trust you right?) lie stacked about the house, on every surface, all in various states of being consumed. And yes, I can still read  my students' work with great interest, and I'll read blogs late into the night, in the way that blogs are read, skipping here and there, following the path on which  they lead me. 

My beloved, decrepit  Elwyn....
But a book? A real, live, full-length book? It's a struggle. I rarely find myself deeply involved in a book's story, voice, ideas for more than a half hour at a time.  It makes me nostalgic for the person I once was, who would love a book to death, who would remain oblivious to the call of the world until I swam up to the surface, dazed and changed.

I'm recalling my younger self because I've been re-reading E.B. White with my students (yes, dear reader, how lucky am I to have a job like this?). Elwyn has always accompanied my inner self—my favorite book as a child was Charlotte’s Web; I must have read it at least a dozen times. Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that E.B. White, as an essayist, would also be one of my favorite writers in later years, that I would read his essays over and over, trying to learn how to be both so vulnerable and so strong on the page. 

Recently I went back to read Charlotte’s Web again—my same battered copy that has somehow stayed with me all these years, with its soft corners, its torn cover—and I saw that this story is really a Buddhist tale, a lesson in mindfulness. It’s about being truly content with whatever and wherever you are. It’s a narrative of kindness and compassion. Consider this passage that comes at the very end, after Charlotte has died (yes, I cried again!):

"Life in the barn was very good—night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything."

The true moral, for me, emerges in the last lines of the book: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” I'd like to believe this is true: that friendship and writing go hand-in-hand, that the writers we love best befriend us with their words.

And perhaps that's why I'm mourning the loss (perhaps temporary?) of my former reading self. My students tell me not to worry; that I'm just learning to read differently, that there is no good or bad involved here. Our reading brains evolve with what we're reading. And I love the blogs I'm following (in fact this post is inspired by my former student Brandi and her post about the artifact of the book, as well as blog conversations with current students); these online authors feel like a whole, chatty community of new friends, always willing to talk. 

Still, I'd like to remember to practice the yoga of reading: to stretch my reading mind every day, with words that speak to me alone. An intimate conversation, punctuated by meaningful silences.  Even if it's just a poem whispering in my ear. Even if it's an old, familiar friend calling me over for a long-overdue chat. 


  1. I recognise this feeling about reading, too, Brenda. By the way I'm new to your blog via, our comment on Mark Doty's blog about Joan Didion's writing and the importance of good sentences. I'm with you on both counts, here in relation to reading and there in relation to writing.

    I've just finished reading Didion's Blue Nights, a short and wonderful book, but I read it over time in grabs, rather like the way I now read blogs, in patches, in a rush and like you I long for the days when I could allow myself to immerse my mind in the world of a good book, and not just sleep on one.

    I suspect it has something to do with our on-line lives. I tend to read words on the computer screen more often these days than on the printed page of a book.

    I'm delighted to have met you and your blog here.

    1. Thank you Elisabeth, nice to meet you too!
      Blue Nights is on my list for spring break....

  2. I feel like graduate school killed the adoring reader in me. I often read whole books, but it has been so long since I loved a book wholeheartedly. But I also love Charlotte's Web and agree that it has lessons for all of us.
    And I relate to the yoga aspect of everything, as I am taking a yoga teacher training class, and so see yoga everywhere.

  3. Hi Lynn! I didn't know you had a blog; I'm now following you.
    And yoga teacher training! Living the dream....

  4. Hi Brenda - I didn't know that you had a blog before today. I saw your post about it on facebook so followed it. I too lament losing my reading self. I used to love to curl up with a book and not put it down until I had thoroughly engulfed it leaving me both satisfied and sad that it was over. I haven't had that feeling for decades. I agree with the comment that our on-line lives have squeezed out the the printed page. That's certainly true for me. I also lament the loss because my eyesight has gotten poorer making it harder and less enjoyable to focus on the printed page than when I was younger. I do appreciate tablet computers since they allow me to see the words better than on paper and perhaps I will recapture my reading self that way. Well, that is, after Aria gets a few years older. In the mean time, I am relearning how to read books with a three (almost four!) year old who is overjoyed to hear the same book over and over as she digs into it more deeply.

  5. Hi Ted! I was just thinking of you. I'm thinking of getting an iPad just for my online reading experience. It's a brave new world...
    I checked out your blog; Aria's gotten so tall!

  6. Spa, Yoga, Reading--it all sounds so inviting. Lovely to find your online space here, and having pictured your dog agog for cinnamon toast so vividly, I'm delighted to get to see a photo as well.

    A dreadful confession: I've never read Charlotte's Web! Perhaps because I wasn't raised in the US, but by all accounts it's a big gap. Thanks for the reminder to work it in at some point.

    It sounds like you are reading "differently" at the moment. Using it continually as a tool, not enjoying the use of its pleasure quite so much. Like anything that involves taste, my hunch is that that will shift with time also, especially with the beguilement of a childhood favorite.


    1. Hi Ela! Nice to see you here, thanks for your thoughts.

  7. Interesting post. My girlfriend, Ari, loves reading--still does a fair bit too though not as much as she used to. It's true though, the way we read changes. I never read that much, just here and there, but I'm honestly really enjoying reading these blogs--something I never thought I'd like. So there you go. Honestly, it's amazing to me how quickly you've picked up and adapted to the internet. Not to bash the generational difference, but you are eating this internet world up. It's really cool :)

  8. Last week I made the decision to give up watching tv at night, and instead of flopping down dead in front of the box, to take myself up to an early bed where I had left an enticing novel waiting upon my pillow. Oh it feels so dam good to be back reading again. How could have I forgotten the almost sinful pleasures of reading under the covers? Yes I love blogs, like this one of course, but a book is something special, a sensuous experience involving not only the eyes, but the sense of smell, and touch too.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Edith! I need to get away from the lure of the t.v. and into bed with a good book. Thanks for the reminder!

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