Wednesday Within: The Tension of Reading

Book-books-page-35496-lLike so many other writers, I came to writing through reading.  From the time I first learned to recognize words on the page, I was fascinated with those words.  And from the time I figured out that somebody actually put those words there, that's what I wanted to be–a writer.  I remember back when I was a freshman in college, discovering that I could major in journalism, and more to the point, that there was actually a practical application for my love of writing.

But, as I said, before my love of writing came my love of reading.

For something that has had such a big impact on my life, you'd think I'd remember the moment when it all came together and I started to read.  But I don't.  I don't remember if someone taught me, or if I figured it out myself.  What I do remember is my excitement about it, and proudly sharing this accomplishment with a fellow first-grader.  (We were a bit slower in those days–nowadays kids learn to read long before they hit elementary school, it seems.) The other student–all I remember was that she was female–sneered and said, "You can't read!  You're lying!" (I'm pretty sure this scarred me for life, in subtle ways like sometimes being unwilling to step into the limelight for fear someone will shout the adult equivalent of "You can't read! You're lying!")

I thought about all this recently because I read a really good book.  Now, I read a lot, as all writers should, everything from magazines and newspapers to blogs and books.  But even with all that reading, it has been a long time since I read a book that transported me as much as this novel did.  It is called Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, and you should go buy it or get it from the library NOW.  Don't let the subject matter turn you off.  On the surface, it is about the world 15 years after a flu pandemic has wiped out most of the world's population, and all of the infrastructure we take for granted, too, like electricity and the internet and cell phones.  But really, it is about the importance of art to our lives, the strange and wonderful connections between people, and hope.  (It was also a National Book Award finalist this year, one of the first science fiction novels to have been so nominated.  Though I would not really call it science fiction.)

And it reminded me of the tension of reading. 

What do I mean by the tension of reading?  To me, it occurs in two ways:

1. Between wanting to find out what happens and not wanting the book to end.  I have this thing I do when I'm reading: I get so curious about what's going to ensue that the tension becomes unbearable.  So I open the book further ahead and peek–just a quick glimpse–at a page. Yeah, sometimes this backfires and gives away big spoilers, but often it gives just enough of a hint to defuse the tension and let me keep going.  And sometimes it makes me think one thing is going to happen and then something completely different does! (Serves me right.)

2. Between wanting to start a new book to have the same transporting experience again–but not wanting to leave the world of the book you just finished.  When I finished Station Eleven, I wanted to start another book immediately because I wanted to duplicate the reading experience I just had.  I'd just been to the library and brought home a stack of books–a particularly good haul, I'd thought.  But when I went to peruse my pile and choose what to read next, none of them appealed.  Much as I wanted to enter a new reading world, the old one of Station Eleven still lingered. 

This was really the first time I've identified these tensions in such a direct way.  I've felt each of them for years, of course, but never really fully named them.  And, as a writer, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that tension is the most important element of any work of fiction (and I daresay non-fiction, too). I'm quite sure the tensions of reading and writing are related.

So those are my Wednesday thoughts this week.  Please leave a comment--do you have a weird reading habit?  I know one of my loyal readers, who shall remain nameless, reads the end of the book first!  So c'mon, fess up–what are your reading habits?

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2 Comments on "Wednesday Within: The Tension of Reading"

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J.D.
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J.D.
12/03/2014 05:03
Your comments are the first I’ve heard of “Station Eleven.” I clicked on the link to Mandel’s website. I wondered to myself if the book was self-published. So I ran it down in Amazon. Turns out Alfred Knopf, a division of Random House, is the publisher. It was difficult for me to discern that until I actually found the credit. As I searched for the publisher, I saw “Station” was a nominee for book of the year or something–that doesn’t sound like self-published though it won’t be long. Her first book (I think it is the first) “Last Night in… Read more »
Charlotte Dixon
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12/03/2014 06:01

Yeah, I wish I knew the answer, too.  She is published by a big house and had several novels out before this one.  On her website, she has a collection of links to published essays and one of them is a eulogy to her first agent, who apparently plucked her out of the slush pile.  As to how much her house helped her, I'm guessing when they saw the quality of the book, a lot.  Or so I like to think.  🙂

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