On Just Being a Reader

I am drowning in good books these days.

I just got back from a long work trip, where I read Stephen and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties. It wasn’t fantastic, but I love Stephen King and the way you just get sucked into his insane plots. This was perfect to read on the long plane rides and in the middle of the night as I struggled with jet lag. Then I got home to a backlog of holds at the library. I breezed through Daniel Handler’s All the Dirty Parts. Are teenage boys really that obsessed with sex? I realize that sounds like a stupid question–of course they are–but I was sort of freaked out by just how much the protagonist thought about sex. Like more than seemed possible.

From there I blew right through Fangirl, which was funny and sweet (and fast), and then I started Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps that Explain Everything About the World, which is really fascinating. It’s probably something I should have learned in school, but as you probably remember, I spent an awful lot of time at school doing shots and skipping class. Before I could get very far on that one, though, I cheated and started John Green’s newest, Turtles All the Way Down. That John Green, he’s amazing. I stayed home an extra half hour this morning just because I couldn’t tear myself away from it.

My TBR pile is promising, too. We’re reading Lincoln in the Bardo for book club, and I bought the new Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust. I have a memoir by Michel Faber called Undying that will probably make me weep, but I still can’t wait to read it.

It’s luxurious to have so much good stuff to read.

For a long time I was really worried that my career-change meant I wouldn’t get to enjoy this kind of heavenly excess. I worked in books for almost 20 years, in a ton of different roles, from bookseller to publisher. There were SO MANY good things about being in the books business. Tons of free books. TONS. I was surrounded by people who loved and lived books. I got to talk about my favorite subject at work all of the time. I always knew the latest scoop on new books, on authors, and on controversies. Authors were my rock stars, and I got to meet so many of the very best of them.

I worried for years over leaving that world, so afraid of losing all the benefits.

But in the end I was just burnt out. The pace was insane. Media coverage of the work I was a part of was relentlessly negative (and often wrong). And those periods of not being able to finish a book–those black holes where nothing at all is connecting with you?–I kept having more of them, and they seemed longer and more precipitous every time.

I finally left books in early 2013, at least five years after I’d begun to think it might be time. In hindsight, I wish I’d left earlier.

The change was good for me in a lot of ways, right away, but I also felt like I’d lost the right to have an opinion on anything books- or publishing-related. I was an outsider. It took me a few years to get myself settled into my new life and career and to settle my brain, and of course I’ve realized that I am still entitled to my opinions. And I’ve found that I actually love and enjoy reading MORE now than ever before.

So what’s different?

Reading isn’t work any more. Even with all of the great things that came with working in books, at the end of the day, opening up a book to read was, at some level, working. It was an excellent type of work, no doubt. But it was work. And in many ways what I chose to read felt like a political decision. Maybe the book was self-published, or published by someone we had difficult business dealings with. That meant something. Was the editing a little loose or the cover not quite right? I would think about the person I knew who was responsible for those mistakes and fret about whether I had something to do in order to fix it. Now I just peruse covers, read reviews, and decide whether a book is something that floats my boat at the moment. No politics, no work.

I decide which books are important. There’s no pressure to read all of the big new important books. There was never a set rule that I had to read a specific list of books, of course, but it was expected that you were current on everything that was important. One of the things that made me realize it was time to leave books was when I was at a dinner in New York with two publishing people, catching up on what we’d each been reading. I mentioned a memoir I’d picked up about a woman who spent a year in Japan. I really liked it. One of my dinner mates, a lovely woman, said, “Hmmm, I don’t know that book.” And the other one said “Don’t worry, it’s not an important book.” Ugh. So gross. That elitism was my least favorite thing about publishing. Anyway, now that I’m not in the books business I can go on benders and read nothing but YA or memoirs or books about hiking the Camino de Santiago for months on end. I don’t have to feel guilty about it. I can even go back and read–or reread–backlist titles, something I couldn’t imagine doing when books were my job.

My opinions are finally my own. There’s no need for me to be diplomatic or to champion titles purely for business reasons. I am proud to say I never lied about liking books that I sold or published, but there were certainly a lot of things I chose to remain silent about. I never even made negative comments about books published by other houses–who knew who might end up being inadvertently offended? No longer! I am free to say, for example, that I hated Alec Baldwin’s memoir, Nevertheless, with the burning intensity of the sun. What a narcissistic fucker that guy is.  Also, e-books are too freaking expensive! Publishers ripped off American readers but somehow won the PR war against Amazon on the subject. I still refuse to buy any e-book that’s more than $10. Instead, I go to the library. Speaking of which,

I’ve rediscovered the library. I’ve had a library card my entire life, but I didn’t really use it when I was working in books. Now my local library is an important part of my everyday life. I was there this morning and will probably be back again before the week is over. I love how busy it always is–full of kids and all kinds of adults and people learning English and old men sitting in the carrels in the back watching romcoms on their laptops (at least that’s what I hope they’re watching). It’s a little microcosm of our entire city. I feel good in there. And going there regularly makes me feel like I’m really part of my community.

I guess all of this is to say that I thought I was the luckiest person in the world because I got to work in books every day. It certainly was a wonderful experience. But there is an awful lot to be said for being a reader, just a reader.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s