Stepping Out on William Styron

June 6, 2018

A confession: I’ve been stepping out on William Styron lately.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading “Sophie’s Choice” (I know, what an idiot for waiting so long), and I’m totally in love with Styron’s lush and elegant prose.

But I’ve got to pull away from it occasionally. I’ve seen the movie, and I’m clear that the Holocaust drama gets more heart-wrenching with every page. So after absorbing a few pages at a time about Sophie, Stingo and Nathan, I zip down the metaphorical street to check in with Michael and Kit in the memoir, “Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies,” or take a sharp detour by reading a chapter or two of “Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.”

In other words, I’m reading all three (and a couple of others as well) simultaneously. I once considered such a flighty attention span nothing short of sacrilege. I mean, how was I supposed to do justice to the neurotic idiosyncrasies of Harry Angstrom if I was alternating chapters of Updike’s “Rabbit” series with the off-the-wall weirdness of John Irving’s T.S. Garp? Switching back and forth would have been a frivolous and immature approach to reading . . . right?

Whatevs. I’m not nearly as goal-oriented about reading as I used to be. The seventeen-year-old me wanted not merely to read a great book, but to interpret it, dissect it and ideally channel it in manuscripts of my own. Present-day me isn’t nearly so serious, lofty or pretentious. Sure, I still absolutely relish a good book, but now, I live in the moment (even if the moment happens to be set in the year 1948, in the case of “Sophie’s Choice”).

Switching between multiple books isn’t the only way my reading patterns have changed through the years. For instance, in the past, I would never have left a book unfinished, no matter how little I was enjoying it or how hectic my schedule. My rationale was partly economic: I’d paid for that book, darn it (or at least schlepped to the library to check it out), and I wasn’t about to leave it half-read. It would be like abandoning half a package of Oreos. But my penny-pinching wasn’t the only motivation; I was also an eternal optimist, hoping the book would get better. Now, I don’t hesitate to ghost on a novel if need be. I used to feel that I owed something to the book. Now, I feel that the book owes something to me.

Not that I’m fickle. I like a wide range of genres, and the older I’ve gotten, the better I know my taste. In other words, I’ve become better at judging a book by its cover (or its author), and I’m generally not disappointed. But if I am disappointed, I’ll walk away. I should have enjoyed “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” for instance, but four or five chapters in, I was just wasn’t feeling it, and there were too many promising books in my queue to keep plowing forward. Let’s face it: Reading a book you love is like coasting downhill with the wind at your back. Finishing one you don’t like is an uphill slog, and, hey, life is short. 

Then there are the books I shouldn’t enjoy but inexplicably do. True crime ranks high on my list of guilty pleasures, for example, and it’s only in the past few years that I’ve discovered how captivated I am by natural-disaster books.

I guess the upshot is that I enjoy reading now just as much as I did when I was a kid, and I think the reason is that I go where the spirit leads me. I hope my reading habits continue to evolve, always keeping things fresh and leaving the door open to new adventures, because absolutely nothing is as pleasurable as losing oneself in a good story.

Or two.

Or three. . .

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