American Culture

The reading and writing doldrums…

Even the most avid reader, and the most dedicated writer, and I think I qualify as both, occasionally hits the doldrums – whether from a slow book, personal distractions, or the impositions of silly stuff like work…


The author, much younger,  engrossed in a favorite pastime.

I am still making my way through Jose Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda, a book I began about a week ago and which I’m only two-thirds through. Saramago is a Nobelist and a brilliant writer,but reading him is a slow business. Whether that is due to his leisurely pacing or to the density of his writing (Baltasar and Blimunda is a novel of ideas as well as a historical work), I’ve found myself slogging through a very fine and engrossing novel.

So maybe it’s not my fault that I’m not writing a book essay yet again. Maybe I’ve just run into one of those writers whose work one simply can’t race through.

There are, as I mention above, other factors involved. I am a professor and it’s May, so I’m inundated with papers I have to read and assess. That’s the work thing. One has responsibilities, one meets them. Such, as Edward Lear reminds us, such is life.

I am also finishing my latest book. Some writers struggle to begin; others of us struggle to end. Whenever I reach the end of a book I go into a sort of funk, partly fueled by the fear that stalks all  artists: that somehow this work might be my last, that the well from which I draw my metaphorical water has gone dry. Artists of all stripes struggle with this phenomenon. I’m fortunate that my own funk is of the mild sort; it rarely inhibits me for more than a spell of days. But it’s inhibiting me right now. And as is always the case, that’s at least a touch frustrating and scary.

Oddly enough, one of my refuges in the artistic funk is usually reading. To disappear into a good book is, for anyone who reads, one of the true pleasures of being human. Reading  entertains, educates, and sparks the imagination. It also reminds any writer of the connection between artist and audience. Musicians need listeners; visual artists need viewers; writers need readers. When I have a struggle with my writing, I have always turned to supporting my fellow writers. Almost always this has served as a catalyst and gotten me back on track with my own writing.

Right now, though, I’m spinning my wheels.

I could have fudged and written one of my Jane Austen essays. This year, shoehorned in among the other items on my 2015 reading list and the book reviews I do for publisher and author friends who ask, I’ll re-read both Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, novels which are the yin and yang of the Austen oeuvre. If things don’t pick up by next Thursday, anyone who reads my book prattling regularly will probably find me waxing critical about Catherine Morland as Gothic heroine and Henry Tilney as rational man. Perhaps I’ll be reduced to convincing myself that, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker,  having read is better than reading.

No matter. The reading flow will come back – as the writing flow will. Perhaps the best attitude to adopt at such times – when closed doors give one the willies and one is thinking one should never tell anybody anything for fear of missing everybody and there’s a rapping and tapping at one’s chamber door – is that of Wilkins Micawber: “Something will turn up.”

Something always does. After all, if the human need to end a book with the word mayonnaise can be achieved, there’s hope for everyone. At least it’s pretty to think so.

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