Reading by force: How I rekindled my love of books

Something wasn’t sitting right with me after I wrote that article about reading during the pandemic. The post ended on a bittersweet note in which I hoped I would get back to reading. But just hoping things will happen isn’t my style. I prefer action, so I decided to try reading by force.

After all, I still viewed myself as a book lover, and it’s weird for a book lover not to read. I didn’t feel bad about going so long without reading – it’s totally fine to take breaks from your hobbies, intentionally or otherwise – and I had no regrets. I just felt like it was time for a change. After thinking about it some more, I realized I missed having my nose in a book. The pandemic anxiety is still there, but now I have a good reason to the question of what I would be reading for: because I want to. I figured I’d fight through the anxiety somehow.

It turned out to be not as difficult as I feared. I mentioned before how exercise and video games are great anxiety killers because they activate multiple senses at once. Well, I figured I could achieve similar results by throwing on some lofi beats to relax/study to. Indeed, I could. I wish I had a treadmill or an exercise bike too, as that would probably lead to both more exercise and more reading. Alas, I do not.

Anyway, here’s the story of how I learned to love reading again. By force.  

Chapter 1: Starting small

The smallest book on the shelf was Sadness by Donald Barthelme, so that’s what I started with. It’s a collection of short stories from the early 1970s, and my copy is from 1980. A pencilled number on the first page suggests I paid $6 for it at some used bookstore, but I have no memory of the transaction.

If I had to guess about the circumstances of the purchase, I would imagine I had recently emerged from a Wikipedia rabbit hole that began on the page for postmodern literature. This is not the kind of book you read unless you have a deep interest in the literary movements of 20th century America. You don’t read it for the storytelling; you read it for the formal innovation and associated gimmicks it offers.

Barthelme’s style is fast-paced and playful, but tricky to follow in a narrative sense. Most of the time, it’s debatable whether there is a narrative path to follow. Given my literary and aesthetic interests, it’s no surprise I bought this book.

Still, I probably would have been better served starting with something a little more accessible. Sure, it’s only 160 pages of mostly brief short stories, but it’s a book you need to mull over for a little while to properly appreciate. A reading of the book that lacks post-read reflection does not serve the material well. It might have been a mistake to choose Sadness.

Chapter 2: The glow-in-the-dark bookmark

Another mistake was choosing the glow-in-the-dark bookmark from among my pile of page-marking technology.

Booksellers love including freebie bookmarks with every purchase since they’re basically eternal advertisements that also serve a useful function for the customer, and so I have dozens of them. It’s no wonder they are so common: Avid readers will interact with them multiple times a week and the bookmark will remind the reader about the bookseller each time, possibly for years.

That’s certainly the case with the Book Depository, which offers the best selection of free bookmarks. Theirs give the reader interesting tidbits of information or fun activities to do, presumably before or after reading. The glow-in-the-dark bookmark is from this series. It is monster themed and asks trivia questions about famous creatures from literary history. (It also remains a functional advertisement for The Book Depository, who I recall having incredibly low prices on the books I needed for classes in university. Hence why I have so many of their bookmarks.) Regrettably, it is so old that the web page it tells you to visit for the answers is no longer online. The bookmark does, however, still glow in the dark.

I know all of this because I wasted several precious minutes that I could have spent reading Sadness interacting with the damn bookmark. I had not yet discovered the lofi hip hop trick.

Chapter 3: I finally began reading by force

When I finally did start reading Sadness, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It connected me with a past version of myself, the one who fell into that Wikipedia rabbit hole and emerged with a yellowed, mass market paperback copy of a book none of my peers have heard of. It rekindled my love of writing that is as interested in form as it is in content. You better believe it led to more Wikipedia scouring.

I love the punchy prose that defines Barthelme’s style. In that regard, Sadness is close to my ideal of what writing should be. I prefer a story that moves quickly to one that drags on and on so the writer can show me how good they are at describing objects. Barthelme instead demonstrates his skill at getting to the point.

But Sadness also kind of exhausted me. For one thing, postmodern writing and its penchant for intertextuality occasionally requires the reader to have their computer open so they can google the myriad references they don’t understand. I’m fine when Barthelme brings in King Kong as a character attending a party and who has become “an adjunct professor of art history at Rutgers,” but when another story references The Genius by Theodore Dreiser, some research is required.

On top of that, some of these stories seem to have come about because Barthelme thought “what if I did this,” then did whatever “this” was for seven or eight pages. I enjoyed a lot of his experiments, but the act of reading an experiment play out on the page is different from reading something with an explicit narrative. More than anything, it forces you to think about what just happened before you fully appreciate it.

Conveniently, outside events took place as I was reading by force that might help me explain what I mean.

Chapter 4: A diversion that is, I promise, germane to reading by force

As I reintroduced myself to reading, Wizards of the Coast showed off cards from its next Magic: The Gathering set. Some of these cards form a subset of special spells and include unusual artwork to make them stand out. None of these cards look like typical Magic cards, but one was the subject of controversy, essentially because its artwork was particularly challenging.

The card is Faithless Looting, illustrated by Carly Mazur. It features a photorealistic person juxtaposed against blocky, unnatural shapes with varying levels of texture. The shapes closest to the person have little texture at all. That creates a jarring effect, and one that many players had strong negative reactions toward. The YouTuber PleasantKenobi released a video that offers an excellent breakdown of the situation, as well as a great critical analysis of the artwork in the context of Magic art more broadly. I won’t rehash his words, but I will offer my own analysis (yes, this is all relevant, I promise).

This tweet shows both the card in question and the uncropped artwork.

It’s important to note that Mazur works in traditional media. Several Twitter critics failed to realize that when looking at the photorealistic person in the artwork and they assumed this was an edited photo. (For those interested, it is “acrylic and oil on 18″x24″ masonite panel,” according to a post Mazur made on Twitter.) The other elements of the painting range from having nearly no texture to featuring obvious evidence of brushstrokes. There’s a tension here between the possibly real elements and those that are obviously artificial. The former call into question the medium at hand, while the latter affirm this is a painting. To borrow a term from literature, it is metafiction in the context of a painting.

Mazur’s painting is doing something similar to Barthelme’s writing. Both are works where part of what’s relevant about the content is the way in which it is delivered. They exist in contexts where the viewer or reader expects a brief, shallow story, and both subvert those expectations. Both require the reader or viewer to think differently about the medium in question.

If I had not seen Mazur’s Faithless Looting artwork and PleasantKenobi’s video about it, I would be writing a very different article. I may not have finished Sadness. Instead, they helped remind me of how to approach technically innovative and challenging works.

Still, those sorts of works are probably not the best ones to start with after some time away from reading. I decided that the next book I read would be one that doesn’t seek to subvert my expectations, and I headed back to the shelf to grab something.

Chapter 5: The experiment in reading by force experiences a setback

This endeavour failed.

Chapter 6: Meet the new book, same as the old book

Remember when I said it was no surprise that I had bought Sadness based on my literary and aesthetic interests? Well, most of the other books I need to read appeal to those same interests. The ones that don’t are philosophy books tangentially related to classes I took in university. In other words, material where reading by force is likely to end in failure.

I kept my post about reading struggles focused on factors that I thought also affected other people. Maybe I should have mentioned some that are unique to me, such as the selection of books I have at my disposal. It’s a far higher hurdle to clear than some others I face. I have made a note to research fast-paced books whose central purpose is not formal trickery. (Please leave any recommendations you have in the comments or on social media!)

Thankfully, I also have a stack of graphic novels and manga that I need to read, so I turned to it in this time of need.

The first book that caught my eye is R. Sikoryak’s graphic novel Terms and Conditions, an illustrated version of the iTunes Terms and Conditions.

So, essentially, another failure to avoid what I was trying to avoid.

Chapter 7: Accomplishments

Thankfully, it was an outlier. The rest of the books were your more standard plot-driven fare. Still, many raised questions about the medium of books more broadly. Specifically, do people consider most of these things as books in the same sense they consider Sadness a book? Is a collection of serialized comics that has been compiled into a trade paperback a book? Does a volume of manga count? Can anything with a major graphical component be a book?

My answer to all the above is yes. To avoid as many pedantic arguments as possible, I opted for a stand-alone graphic novel: Sakuran by Moyoco Anno. (Though it, like most manga, was serialized before being collected into one book. If serialization is a problem for you, you’re going to flip when you find out literature used to be distributed similarly. And if you really want to fight, call me out for reading Sadness. Nearly all its stories first appeared in magazines.)

Here’s the thing though, I haven’t finished it yet.

Not because I’m having difficulty reading again or anything like that. In fact, the opposite is true. I picked up Sakuran (and a couple other smaller comics) because I wanted to read it. I am no longer reading by force; I’m doing it of my own volition.

It seemed at best pointless and at worst actively counterintuitive to impose a certain pace of reading upon myself just so I could continue this gonzo journalistic look into activities I did while lying on my couch. I began reading by force so I could rediscover my love of the hobby. Insofar as that is done, so is this article.

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