Reading Downtime

“I would solve a lot of literary problems just thinking about a character in the subway, where you can’t do anything anyway.” Toni Morrison

Let’s talk about reading. You read a great deal—you must read fast. I read less--I read slowly. But we both keep reading, one thing after another, day after day, month after month, books, articles, essays, papers, the Web, etc.

Isn’t this a little bit crazy? I wonder if it can be compared to eating, constant eating, one meal after another, never a pause to digest or savor. When it comes to books, isn’t it also a bit unfaithful? We read a book we cherish, we admire the author and the way the books was written, we love the story.

And yet no sooner have we finished, then we move on to the next book, the next story and writer that we love. We have become bookizers, after womanizers. Wouldn’t it be better if we stopped reading for a while, took a walk, or went to the beach to mull it all over?

Yes we write about it, blog about it but all the while we are writing about it, we are already into the next book, one after another, like spending the night with one mistress and the next night with another.

Is this what reading is about?

I thought about all this recently after finishing a long and melancholy reading of Silence in October by Jens Christian Grondahl. No sooner had I finished than I started to read Per Petterson’s latest novel, I Curse the River of Time.

I had to stop. Both Scandinavian novels are dark and gray and the days are damp, so full of turmoil and unsettling memories. I needed some sun, perhaps an Italian novel, perhaps simply a vacation from reading for a while.

Have you ever had this experience? The metaphor of digesting a rich meal is not inappropriate. You have a fine meal one night and the next morning you don’t feel like eating a thing for a week.

The other day I finished Nicole Krauss’s second novel, The History of Love. Quite frankly, all I wanted to do was come up for air. I like the way she writes so much. Maybe I like it too much. Maybe I like Nicole Krauss too much. Her first novel is Man Walks into Room. I will probably read it for the second time too.

Can one read too much, too much without a pause for reflection and review? Isn’t it like doing anything too much? After a strenuous workout, physical or otherwise, isn’t is it a good idea to rest for a while? Perhaps the Greeks were right: Everything in moderation.

Physiology professor Loren Frank put it this way in the Times yesterday, “Almost certainly downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long term memories.” He said that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

And yet some of us read two or three books at a time. How can we possibly read a really fine work of literature deeply and immerse ourselves in it when we are also reading two or three others at the same time?

I am not suggesting we read less, only that we slow down a bit. It is like the slow food movement. Take a break, a seventh inning stretch, read your book more slowly. Ruminate about the book you just finished, what does it all mean, is it important or not, review your notes if you took them, talk to your roommate about it, your cat if necessary, give it a second thought

OK. That’s enough on reading. Next time, we’ll talk about trigonometry.