It’s almost June and I have crossed off exactly one requirement on my reading syllabus. It’s safe to assume I might not get this done this year. According to Goodreads, I am, at 15 books, four books behind schedule if I am going to get through 50 books this year. Four of those books are the Harry Potter series on audio. Not included on that list is Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series, which I’ve been re-reading on nights I cannot fall asleep. This isn’t to say I haven’t been reading. I have subscriptions to The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post. I catch myself reading the same articles in the morning Post that I read online the night before (yes, I get the daily paper in print. I also have a landline, recently purchased stamps, have bar soap in my shower, and write longhand in cursive. I am an old millennial.)
This isn’t the sort of reading I enjoy. It’s not the sort of reading I should really do before bed or having my blood pressure taken. This is the sort of reading that makes me check the time stamp at the top of an article before skimming it for the fifth or sixth time for new information about North Korea’s nuclear program. It’s the sort of reading I measure out in hash marks, thinking that counting out the number of times I check Twitter or that stupid news widget to the left of my home screen might convince me to just keep the phone in the other room. So far, it has not worked. Neither has turning off notifications. The other day I went for a short run only to notice the flag of the local parochial school at half-mast. I stopped my run to check the Washington Post app. I checked the Times and Twitter for good measure. I still don’t know why the flag was at half-mast.
Even now, I’m getting a little itchy and my chest is hot. When I am done writing this sentence, I will check my phone again…
President Trump asked senior intelligence officials to deny collusion between the campaign and Russia. Sounds about right for a Monday evening.* Right now, I can’t muster the energy to be appropriately horrified or even surprised. Tomorrow, there will probably be another story about the president attempting to quash the Russia investigations in a way only a routinely guilty party might. It may be the country’s good fortune that he appears to be at least as incompetent as he is nefarious.
But this sort of reading—skimming article after article in an effort to better understand what “throw-weight” means or the distinction between ballistic missiles categories or how Robert Mueller’s role as “special counsel” is not as secure from Trump administration meddling as Ken Starr’s role as “independent counsel” was from the Clinton administration because a statute has lapsed—isn’t reading. I am not served by knowing what I know, at least not in the manner in which I am learning it.
“[R]eading as a means of understanding and resistance” was an excellent idea on January 1st, when I hadn’t started doing this. I wasn’t tired yet. Right now, Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s My Own Words, and The Federalist Papers are all sitting unread on the stack of books I keep next to my reading chair. I’m probably not getting around to The Painted Bird or On The Beach anytime soon. I can’t seem to get through more than a chapter or two of Lincoln in the Bardo before dozing off at night and Alyssa Mastromonaco’s memoir of her time in the Obama administration is due back to the library in a few days. I haven’t even cracked the spine yet.**
What I’ve been doing looks enough like reading that I can trick myself into thinking it is. It’s not surprising I don’t have the patience or energy for book-length reading. I’ve only exercised that muscle 15 times this year. Almost everything is harder the less you do it. The not-quite-reading I have been doing feels enough like reading that I don’t even always realize I’ve set aside my book for my phone until I’ve already read a couple articles.
Saturday, I largely did not check my phone. I didn’t read. I didn’t write. I didn’t keep busy with an endless series of chores that feel like being productive but are not. Instead, I sewed a pillow and two foot stools my dog will no doubt claim as her own within a week. It took me hours and I screwed up spooling the bobbin three times before I figured out what I was doing wrong. They all look fine from far if you don’t pay very close attention to the finishing and I am fairly certain the one I filled with bean bag balls only has one small hole that needs fixing. I didn’t check the news most of the day because I cannot sew one-handed and sewing machines are loud enough to drown out a lot of thought. I played old episodes of The Simpsons in the background to drown out the rest of them. In a lot of ways, sewing’s probably a better hobby for me to have right now. I’m not good enough at it that I can get away with not paying particular attention to what I am doing. It takes two hands. Unlike writing, I know when a pillow is finished.
I want to read. Abandoning the syllabus doesn’t stop me from reading, but it frees me from spending more time thinking about Russia. I’ll finish the Saunders soon, and the Mastromonaco. I might even get to the Snyder—it’s a very short book—but I don’t see myself getting around to anything by Masha Gessen in the immediate future. I may never get around to Nevil Shute’s post-apocalyptic novel about radiation from a nuclear war reaching the shores of Austrailia. But I have a bunch of poly-fill left, and some vintage fabric and notions my mom gave me still in the Woodward and Lothrop’s bag (the bag also included a photocopied handout from LaLeche League because my mother rarely throws anything away.) Maybe I’ll even make a dress or two if I can find a simple enough pattern—I’m not ready for sleeves, darts, or zippers yet. An apron. I’ll make myself a new apron. Mine all have cake stains on them.
*I wrote this bit before news broke about the explosion at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. I’ve actively chosen not to write about it because, while it’s easy to speculate, I have no idea what happened yet and I’m not going to make the deaths of kids at a concert about my anxieties. That would be indecent.
*I don’t really do that to library books.