Saturday, October 26, 2002

I think that everyone knows what writer's block is, but I occasionally go through a related phase that I've never seen addressed, so I'm wondering if I'm alone in this. I call this phase reader's block.

I'm a voracious reader; my deeply held belief is that as a writer I have to be. A writer who claims to not be much of a reader is, as far as I am concerned, no writer at all but a mere dabbler-in-words. And of course, I own a rather impressive number of books. (I've never counted them, but after recently having to box them all up and move them in six days, I'm pretty confident that I can claim ownership of a lot of books.) So, I am never lacking for reading material, and in many different genres, to boot.

But occasionally I experience a "rough patch" in my reading, where nothing I pick up satisfies. It's not uncommon to "bounce off" a book, to have a book be curiously uninvolving and unappealing. This generally manifests in a growing sense, particularly around and after the 100-page mark, of "Why am I reading this?" And it can be positively deadly if one reaches the halfway mark and can honestly say, "I don't care what happens to these characters." Most times, I take this as a sign that I simply don't like the book and leave it at that -- although I can name a number of instances where I've had this reaction to a book, only to return to that same book months or years later and discover how wonderful it really is. Isolated cases like these are to be expected in one's reading life, and I take them in stride.

More problematic, though, are when a string of such instances occurs -- when I start, and subsequently stop, reading four or five books in a row. I suppose it is actually possible that I've happened on a string of duds, but when I change my genres with each book I read and when my tastes are as diverse as they are, I find that likelihood rather low. I suspect in times like this that the fault lies not with the books but with the reader.

I'm bringing this up, naturally, because I've just gone through a rough patch in my reading of precisely the kind I describe here. I've "bounced off" four books in the last two weeks, and in at least two of the cases when I did so I could tell that I was reading a book that was, well, not a bad book. To draw a food analogy, I think it's like going to The Olive Garden and searching the menu, knowing that everything is going to taste fine and be well-prepared but not really realizing that I'm really in the mood for Mexican and not Italian.

So, I've decided to change things up a little bit. I'm now reading The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, as part of my long-standing desire to read the classic works of literature that I somehow got through high school and college without reading. (Side rant: when I was in tenth grade, I was in an "advanced" English class. Our class was required to read Ordinary People by Judith Guest -- who reads that book, anymore? -- while the "normal" class was required to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. I've always wondered just which class got the better of that deal.) I am also changing my media a bit, by reading some of the graphic novels I've been piling up but still haven't got around to. Warren Ellis's Planetary is the first of these.

Slumps are strange things. Sometimes the best thing to do for a slump is to change nothing and wait for it to end; other times one needs to take a different tack altogether. It's hard to know which way is right for each slump, but right now change seems the way to go.

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