The Shame of Reading
by Tess Crain
This past year, I set out to read a hundred books. All had to count, more or less, however subjectively, as “literature.” As I had read fifty-two not without effort the previous year, the goal was to read more, not more quickly; and since my schedule had not changed in any major way, doubling this number required I make time… mainly by skipping parties, putting off work, and puttering less. The project was self-conscious but—books being central to my life as a writer—seemed worthwhile.
Time began to register in volumes—three collections until the road trip, fifty-nine novels since we met—and memories correlate to texts: New Year’s Day, I read The Lost Daughter by myself in a bar; at Far Rockaway in mid-September, “clouds scudding,” I read The Names; a lonely, hospital-bound Christmas: The Mezzanine and Perfume; on New Year’s Eve, I finished Purgatorio, my hundredth book.
My greatest surprise was discovering that, throughout the year, my predominant feeling was one of shame. Not at the books, but at the time spent reading. No more than a few months in, I began to feel an intense self-disgust more than half the time I read.
The dismay was scalable based on some personal judgment of quality of the specific book in question but not statistically significantly so. I felt worse reading Nesbø than Hamsun but bad reading both. I felt bad reading Berriault and I felt bad reading Borges, bad reading Mahfouz, Lispector, Saadawi, Spark.
The question arose: Would I feel better if I were being paid?
The answer—Yes—registered as ibuprofen does, suddenly implicit in the absence of a headache. Not only the answer, but the idea of the answer: the pain had not been an indicator of something wrong with me but an unfortunate side-effect, to treat and ignore, of a social ill.
This was corroborated by the fact that, generally, completing even the most clerical tasks—organizing files, making a schedule—for money, I feel no self-recrimination. If anything, there is a vague satisfaction. Although booking a plane ticket for my boss seems hardly as valuable a use of time as reading the deepest of Roth’s deep cuts—When She Was Good, I’m looking at you—where the latter has left me feeling indolent, slovenly, contemptible, the former does not.
But then I thought about writing, which, although I would certainly rather be paid, I spend a lot of time doing for free—without shame.
Several days’ stewing and asking around led me to the following. The issue seems to be whether or not reading feels productive: first, in terms of capitalist production (“Time is money”); second, in terms of contribution to humanity (“My friends are teaching middle school and I’m reading Balzac?”); and third, in terms of creating something to endure beyond the mortal self (few of the authors above are alive yet here they are).
It is this last, per Proust and Sartre, that to me seems not only especially terrifying but the strongest drive from consumption to production: the finitude of consciousness as a factor of time.
Save for as-yet-unrealized developments in technology, under capitalism, amassing information differs from amassing money in that your money can live on: as inheritance, endowments, scholarships—even, if you’re rich enough, as a name: Rockefeller, Vanderbilt. Writing—and art generally, along with scientific discovery, legislation, superstardom, etc—also serves as legacy. All this to a point (Look on my works, ye mighty), but the point is this: reading is an acquisition of wealth that dies with you unless converted into another form.
Someone once told me about running into Philip Roth at a wake. She said that, in a roomful of geniuses, Roth radiated intellect like a lighthouse. There was something about him, she said, a luminous intensity that gave you the sense he had read everything.
I think about this—and the erudition of writers like Borges and Ingeborg Bachmann—often. It seems to me that, if the frozen assets of reading flow upon melting into the likes of Sabbath’s Theater, Seven Nights, or Malina, it may be worth living with the shame.
Tess Crain is a graduate of the NYU Creative Writing Program, where she served as a Goldwater Fellow. Her writing has appeared in the New Republic. She lives in New York City.