The Reading Experience

I was talking to a friend recently about how I constantly feel guilty about not remembering significant portions of books I’ve read throughout the years. I remember reading them, of course, but when asked to provide a small review or a mere reply to a friendly “what’s the book about?” question from a stranger in the train, I freeze. I get really nervous and try to search my memory for scraps of the plot, constantly mixing them up with irrelevant articles, poems and even actual life experiences I’ve had, all to try and provide a passable answer and not feel like a complete poser that didn’t actually read that one obscure novel some sketchy character told me about in a hole-in-the-wall bar somewhere in Guatemala City. Trying to remember a book takes me longer than it should, and it makes me wonder if I’m actually paying attention to what I’m reading. It makes me wonder if Twitter and Instagram and 30+ opened and unread tabs have fried my brain, turning long-term memory into a mindless scrolling monster who can’t digest more that 140 characters, emojis included. Thinking about who the main characters of Franny and Zooey did for a living for 20 minutes straight sent me into an existential panic of how click-bait ruined my ability to read and how I can’t process anything fully because my attention goes elsewhere every time I read a reference within a reference within a book.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been surrounded by books. I come from a family of heavy readers. My dad always used to have 5 books in his nightstand, reading them all at the same time. I could never understand why he could do this. Why not focus on one book and commit to it? Why not enjoy one book at a time? But more importantly, how? How does he do it? How can I? My ever increasing and anxiety inducing “to be read” pile of books kept collecting dust and eyeing me with disapproval every time I brought a new book home. A new book that they, the pile of the unread, knew I was probably going to read in about 5 years time, if it was lucky. And so I decided to start setting goals for myself and make lists of the books I was reading. It was a competition against myself, and I’m highly competitive so it was really great, or so I thought. I was going through books as I had never before! It gave me a weird, nerdy rush every time I wrote down book #40 in my little black Moleskin. Looking back on it, and after reading Ian Crouch’s article in the New Yorker, I now realize I wasn’t reading for myself. I wasn’t reading to enjoy a book but to finish it, to ‘conquer’ it. I was also reading out of vanity, to be able to say “Of course I read Barthes’ A Lover Discourse, who hasn’t? It’s brilliant! It completely changed my life.” to a pretentious Ivy League English major who hadn’t actually read it in the first place. I had somehow brought mindless scrolling into the physical book: a travesty.

It could very well be that I’m an absolute narcissist who derives pleasure from finishing books and finding a place for them in my ambitious little personal library or it could also be that we’re constantly and forever bombarded with useless information from whatever angle you stare at this exhausting, hyper-connected giant screen we call existence. It also could be both. What I do know is that reading is never really about the book itself but everything that surrounds it. I think Pamela Paul described it best when she said, in an interview for The Atlantic, that she remembers “[…] the edition; I remember the cover; I usually remember where I bought it, or who gave it to me. What I don’t remember—and it’s terrible—is everything else.” Buying books and reading them has become a sort of ritualistic experience to me. I spend hours in bookshops and museum shops looking for that perfect edition with a painfully beautiful title that invites me to open it. When I finally decide to buy one, I need to find the right moment to read it because they all have specific moments they need to be read at. You also have specific moments when you need them. Then, when it’s time to read, I have to be in a certain mood. I need to tune out, click on that utopian little moon my phone offers me and summon a silence-inducing aura between the world and myself. I am ready. I open the book. I read 10 pages. I open my laptop and look up 100 things I thought about while reading those 10 pages. Into the information void I fall, again.

Although I’ve been trying to be a ‘better reader’ by keeping my own ‘book of books’ (a journal of sorts with quotes, insights, and tidbits of knowledge or nonsense the books leave me with) and taking longer with each edition, I cannot deny my nature. I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is the type of reader I am: neurotic and furious but completely immersed for the time it takes me to read it. I read as if my life depended on it, as if I was hanging by each word and every single word until I just let go. I move on.

I may not remember what Franny and Zooey did for a living (Nothing?) or fully understand what Barthes meant by the ‘amorous subject’s pothos/himéros’ but I do remember how reading these two books made me feel. I remember how every book I’ve ever read has made me feel. I let them take over me, I indulge in every single feeling they provoke in me, I let authors and stories break my heart and ruin my life and I do it time and time again. I experience books but I forget the words.  

By Natalia Castañeda Godoy