A Reader’s Manifesto

I was recently watching a movie where, yet again, the dorkiest and most ineffectual character in the story is also the only one seen reading a book. This character is an all-too familiar type. I’m not even going to tell you what movie I’m talking about, because I can think of 20 others to take its place.

He’s the kid with his nose stuck in a book, and he’s usually sporting thick glasses and a red sweater with white sleeves sticking out. Or maybe they’ll just go all the way and give him band-aid glasses and a bowtie. Why hold back? In fact, I’d like it to be known that in my own long life I have never once seen a guy with bandaid glasses and a bowtie walking down the street holding a book. I say this is an annoying and unfair stereotype, and I think it’s time we speak up about it.

We read and write because we like to. That’s all.

It doesn’t mean we’re meek, or goofy, or clueless. We don’t read to escape from reality. Yeah, try to read Joseph Conrad to escape from reality. Good luck with that. We’re trying to get reality. A lifetime will shoot by us in ten seconds if we don’t halt it sometimes, and think, reflect, challenge our ideals, try out alternate angles, learn some things we didn’t know.

Reading is confrontation. At the end of a good book, you may decide to change your life, and a reader or writer is somebody for whom that possibility is always open. This is why a person who discovers a great work of literature (or music, or art, or any other form of creative expression) often appears for the moment like a crazed animal, twitching and mumbling, incomprehensible. Don’t talk to this person — give them time — they are emerging from some cocoon right now, and you are an unwelcome witness. But if you are a reader and a writer (isn’t it really the same thing? or shouldn’t it be?) you know what that thrill of change feels like. You crave it yourself, even though these kinds of changes can have dangerous consequencees, and may alienate everyone you know.

Meek? I don’t think so. In fact the world is filled with meek people, and most of them don’t read. I look around me and I see them everywhere — the henpecked husbands, the forgotten wives, the slavish employees, the frightened bureaucrats. I don’t see any of these people reading “Ulysses”. And if they tried, maybe it would inspire them to break out of their shells a little bit.

Meek? It’s rush hour on the New York City subway, and I can easily spot ten Willy Lomans sitting or standing around me. But if I see one of them pull out a book — some Toni Morrison, some Chuck Pahlaniuk, some Charles Baudelaire, it really doesn’t matter — well, it’s like spotting a living breathing mind among the walking corpses. That one, I think to myself, that one will survive.

Here’s another stereotype — we readers are stuck in the past, lost in nostalgic reveries, like Alonso Quijana with his bookcase and his rusty armor. Well, yeah, we do read the classics, but this is just because that new stuff they’re churning out over at Random House and Doubleday isn’t good enough to satisfy our needs. It doesn’t mean we’re in love with the past; rather, the past imprisons and oppresses us, and we’re trying to understand it so we can break the chains. Which is more than anybody else seems to be trying to do. And these chains need breaking.

Literature is what reminds us to take good care of our souls — that part of ourselves the outside world will not keep safe for us.

I’m proud to be an obsessive reader and writer, and I’m not going to let anyone put me down for it. If you’re an obsessive reader and writer, I hope you will proclaim it proudly too.

* * * * *

(The photo on the top of this page is of a beautiful statue of Eugene O’Neill as a child that can be found at the shore of the Long Island Sound in New London, Connecticut.)

26 Responses

  1. Here Here!Here here! I doubt
    Here Here!

    Here here! I doubt if any of the Meek out there can remember feeling half as alive as you just made me feel and as for the movies that angered you so much, let me ask you this: did any one of them inspire you? did any one of their characters seem remotely believable or real? did any one of these stories even teach you anything? force you to question something? do anything other than waste an hour and a half of your life?

    Let them keep their stereotypes because I’m not watching. And those that accept the stereotypes, well, I hope Hollywood keeps feeding them movies, because it keeps them out of my way.

  2. I Read!That feels better. In
    I Read!

    That feels better.

    In fact, I read lots and lots and lots. I probably average about five books a week. Unfortunately, most of it is academic reading, which isn’t the same. Skimming and skipping isn’t the same as reading, but at least I can recognize when it is time to slow down.

    I don’t read fiction all the time, but when I do, I normally read two or three books at once, putting one down and picking up one of the others, according to mood.

    But I read!

    My wife and kids don’t read, unless one counts Kurt Cobain biographies, Teen People, or historical romance novels (the main characters of which I cannot hope to measure up against). I think, to them, I am wearing taped over glasses. Maybe it is time to disconnect the cable; I’ve done it before.

    But I read, and will keep reading!

  3. VoraciouslyYou know when you

    You know when you look up a word and the definition tells you to see another word, so you look that word up only to find that you’re directed toward another word, and pretty soon you’ve spent an hour chasing meanings and maybe you don’t even remember what got you started in the first place?

    To me, reading is like that.

    Although the number of books I read has grown considerably smaller over the past year (but since I’m not so horrifically busy all the time now, I’m trying to get back in the habit), I read almost all day long every day. From the news to articles ranging in subject from the literary stylings of William Faulkner to the daily lives of lobsters (lobsters are strange creatures), I’m always reading something. I read a chapter of the Bible every day because it really does give me fascinating things to think about (and sometimes argue with in my head) all day long.

    And then there are the books. I’m surrounded by books. My house is full of them. They’re kind of like a catalog of my life, in that they can serve as a record of what I was interested in at any given point in time. When I pause to think about it, it is kind of amazing that I can start with one book or author, which inspires me to read another book or author, and I travel through all of these ideas and topics and literary styles on and on and on without having a single idea of a stopping place. But then, what reason is there to stop?

  4. A Discerning Reader NowMy
    A Discerning Reader Now

    My tastes run to the new and I want to read something that was worth my time rather than something I peruse through and read the ending. As I text-messaged a student who I had lunch with on Saturday: “The narrative’s what a novel’s about. The way David Mamet creates his characters may be choice.” She had been being a mouthpiece for other academics’ views.

    The only people I ever saw reading the classics were travellers who always seemed at the beginning of their paperback tomes. That’s where I am in Brothers Karamazov and my pragamtism reader.

    Undiscerningly, I read too much infotainment online. It’s my way of staying sane, I lie to myself, wasting valuable time.

    Personally, I’ve never known any readers. I got turned onto reading my brother’s comics and he still copiously subscribes to them.

    Today, I got home around five, did some text messaging on my phone, cooked dinner and washed dishes and
    checked bulletin boards and played chess and now it’s nine.

    I know that since 2/18, I read the 9/11 Report, McMurtry’s Last Picture Show, 200 pages of The Corrections and half of Rushdie’s Fury.

    The progress with my current project bothers me but I placate myself with the fact that I once did 20,000 words in Dec.03 for my last novel.

    Reading the original post made me remember Cronenberg’s film eXistenZ and there was an image in my mind of the poster surrounded by clay-faced suits, with the poster looking out the window of the subway for a sign that would light up “Transcendence” in capital neon red letters.

    Morning commuters on San Francisco’s BART were always reading paperback thrillers. On my way home from my tech-writing or to my part time gigs in Taipei, my eyes were usually too tired from looking at a monitor to look at a book.

    Last month, I took a 23-hour train ride down south and only saw Chinese reading magazines or newspapers. I had my copy of Rushdie’s Fury with me but I didn’t crack it on the trip. The book I usually have with me is my Oxford Chinese-English, English-Chinese dictionary which I used a lot during a 2-hour conversation at the beginning of the trip.

    Last night, I spent three hours writing a 20-sentence composition last night in Chinese and staring at the tiny font with my bifocals and magnifying glass seems masochistic. My mother-in-law forbids me to do this in her presence because she’s afraid for my eyes.

    Now it’s time to exercise and then study Mandarin. I want to finish the economics text I found in Seoul and am also playing with online.

    Lack of writing nags me terribly as I mark time here.

  5. To Read is to Be!Yes, Levi,
    To Read is to Be!

    Yes, Levi, there is necessity to read. As certainly as knowledge and learning and words exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were nothing to read! It would be as dreary as if there were no Ashers. There would be no need for self discovery, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which books fill the world would be extinguished

    Ok… So, I’m not original and I totally plagiarized this now classical bit. But if I didn’t read, I would never know that this remarkable piece of writing even existed.

    I – I cannot exist without something to read: A magazine, a book, a cereal box, advertising signs along the highways. Whatever I am doing, it is essential to me to have something with words to occupy my head and give it reason to be. Heck I can’t even talk on the phone without some kind of diversion going on. (What is that about? My daughter tells me it is just plain rude). So if you call me on the phone and feel that you don’t have 100% of my undivided attention, you probably don’t. That’s OK isn’t it?

  6. If you’re not performing
    If you’re not performing surgery or driving, it’s OK to be distracted. There was a sci-fi series called Dune where humans had become supercomputers, and the Greek rhapsodes, e.g., Homer, came to mind, or a logios – that is, a reciter of prose, logoi or stories, as Herodotus was; just like those guys in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, who had memorized books; viz., one could argue that we’ve lost something with our books when before we relied on the spoken word.

    By the way, I almost never leave the house without something to read. This guarantees I’ll have no delays nor waits.

  7. Dharma BumsI never read a
    Dharma Bums

    I never read a book till 1973, at least not on my own, my Dad read aloud to me to get me through H.S. Then in ’73 after I said nothing really interested me enough to read, a friend in a group house in Palo Alto California said, “here read this!”, it was the Dharma Bums by Jack and I’ve been hooked ever since.

  8. The Readers I KnowMy friend
    The Readers I Know

    My friend Buffalo, who reads more than anyone else I know besides myself, would hardly fit the stereotype of the geeky, feeble reader that Levi brought up. On the contrary, Buffalo is reckless and dangerous. He used to race motorcross before the accident, and it is a good thing he is physically indestructable and believes that a few broken bones and the rod that penetrated his skull a few years ago do nothing to impair his reading comprehension. We have a yawlping good time.

    I myself hardly fit the stereotype either. When I’m not reading, or working, I’m spearfishing or freediving, a competitive form of snorkelling, where the diver goes as deep in the ocean as possible on a single breath of air. We dive over 200 feet deep, it takes exteme physical strength and endurance and mental toughness and courage, and it’s a good thing the hypoxia does not (as most people think) cause drain bamage, because there is nothing I like more after freediving all day than to pick up a good book about fire engines or choo choo trains.

  9. Now Levi……you have to
    Now Levi…

    …you have to avoid using stereotypes yourself – just because I don’t always read on the subway doesn’t mean i’m a walking corpse…sometimes I have some pretty heavy stuff on my mind, and by reading a book i would have to not fully pay attention to one or the other.

    At any rate, I’ve rediscovered over the last little while my love of reading. Just got through Huxley’s “Brave New World”, and your mention of Conrad has inspired in me the desire to pick up “Heart of Darkness” for the first time… think I’ll borrow my sister’s copy.

    You know what’s funny though – when I was a kid I totally lived up to the geeky reader stereotype, right down to the taped up glasses (electrical tape, as my old man was an electrician AND a helluva hockey player)…I always had my nose in a book. And now look at me. King Awesome.


  10. Another reason OTR should be
    Another reason OTR should be a movie

    Movies like Barfly (based on Charles Bukowski) and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas show a decidedly less wimpish version of writers.

  11. Wimp.I only say that because

    I only say that because you aren’t here to kick my ass again like at the Bowery Poetry Club. But you had an advantage because I was into the Pabst Blue Ribbon.

    Folks, despite Jamelah’s cutish nature, she is dangerous.

  12. Ashcan Rantings As I’m
    Ashcan Rantings

    As I’m reading this discussion, I’m starting to pack up all of my books to move out of my apartment (and by “packing up”, I really mean taking them off the shelves one by one, and disappearing inside the written word for hours on end–it’s a long process.

    Friends who helped me in the move complained about the boxes and boxes of books, although of course I was bitter that I could bring so few. The way I look at it, I could either have brought huge amounts of clothes and movies–which go in and out of style–or good books, which never do. And hey, once classes started, I already had a lot of my reading list covered–suckers!

    Obviously, the written word is important to me. While I cannot remember a time when I was not literate, it was awhile before I learned to read “in my head”–I can remember walking down the grocery aisle with my mom , calling out the names of everything within reach of my insatiable mind’s eye. I was excited to read then and now–it’s just an amazing gift that I try never to take for granted.

    So, no matter how readers are portrayed in the unremarkable movies that come and go these days, we’ll always be part of something that’s more meaningful and more lasting. Literature can provoke, assure, challenge, arouse, disturb and astound. These are the emotions and experiences that make living here worthwhile.

    I guess my attitude seems somewhat elitist. Meh.

    Either that, or you know, we start a LitKicks colony…

  13. Blessed are the meek…For
    Blessed are the meek…

    For they shall possess the earth. It seems to me, that as readers and writers, we not only possess the earth, but the heavens, and the darkest recesses of the heart and everything in between.

    I relate so much with your description of someone who has just had a particularly creative experience. It happened to me in MOMA and the colors swirled around my inner eye for days, not letting me sleep. It was like a new, non-existent color was added to my palate. The same thing after a recent reading of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. If the price of this rich inner experience is a stereotyped understanding of me, especially in popular media (which I can’t stand most of the time anyway), so be it. Meek geeks rule!

  14. Yes.I move quite often, and

    I move quite often, and folks are always complaining about all the books, including my wife, who thinks I should throw them out.

    No way – the books stay.

    I’ve demanded my next house have a den or study. I’ve always used this big old-style desk I have (you know, the industrial one with two sets of drawers to the left and to the right, with the big veneer top. I love those desks), which has always gone into the family room because we’ve always gone for 3-bedroom houses for us and the two kids. So my books get relegated to the insides of cabinets, boxes, etc., because the family room space is meant for family, and apparently I’m not family, except when it comes time to make money, then we are ALL family.


    So anyway, the next house will have a den or study, and it will be big enough for the following:

    – my big desk
    – a large comfy chair with padded arms, and a footrest of some sort
    – a tall, stand-up lamp
    – shelves lining the walls, full of my books
    – a filing cabinet for my work
    – my computer will be in there, but i’ll buy a second computer…this is MY room, dammit!

    I don’t think I can swing the beer fridge, though.

    And yes, we’ll be moving all those books into this room of dreams in those cardboard boxes, and they will be heavy. Toughen up, princesses!

  15. nostalgiaWhen I pick up a

    When I pick up a book and suddenly I’ve finished it – that’s what I call a ‘read’. God of Small Things was like that – pure poetry from beginning to end.

    There are few books that can entice me like that, but when I find such a book and time dissolves and there is no physical reality than that of the book – what could be better.

    It is sex. It is enlightenment. It is everything that creative being in the now promises.

    Reading something written by a flawless artist, with the rhythm, scent and sound of utopic otherness is the true glorification of human manipulation of language.

    I need such a book. I know I’ll find it.

  16. Thanks, only-me. To answer
    Thanks, only-me. To answer your question, well, the truth is, these stereotypes in movies and elsewhere don’t really anger me at this moment, because they gave me something good to write about. It’s great to read all the responses below and see that many others share my feelings about this!

  17. Vinny, don’t you sometimes go
    Vinny, don’t you sometimes go by the name Napoleon Dynamite?

  18. I’m with you all the way. Let
    I’m with you all the way. Let our geek flags fly!

  19. Each of us shall memorize a
    Each of us shall memorize a book…live in the woods until it’s safe again…

  20. Definitely, Vinny. Actually,
    Definitely, Vinny. Actually, you’ll often find me on a train staring straight ahead in a dazed stupor, especially if I’m coming home from work. I spend a lot of time “processing”, and I do not mean to say that anybody who isn’t reading must be an idiot. I meant more to stress the positive, that if somebody *does* pull out an impressive book, I think there’s a higher probability that this is a person with an interesting mind. But this doesn’t mean that anybody who doesn’t pull out a book doesn’t have an interesting mind.

    Vinny, wasn’t your CD called “This Could Be A Book”? There ya go.

  21. Sorry if it appears I was
    Sorry if it appears I was slaggin’ ya Levi – didn’t mean to do it. Yes, you’re right, “This Could Be A Book” was the title of my last band’s debut…but it really had nothing to do with reading…it was an Irish expression our drummer introduced us to – it could just as well have been called “This Could Be A Soap-Opera”…bands, eh? Crazy. In other news, my new band’s debut CD is out and pressed and looking lovely. As soon as I have a spare minute I’ll mail ya a copy. My way of saying thanks for having me mucking up yr boards!

    …and Bill…what’s all this talk of Napoleon Dynamite? I can’t dance nearly as well as that cat. I do, however, have an uncle who can throw a football over a mountain.

  22. PersonallyDoes anyone else

    Does anyone else think it slightly ironic that reading is associated with people with poor vision and glasses. Is it one of those things where you want most what you have difficulty attaining? Nothing worth having comes easy?

    As to other stereotypes, I need them to get through life. I know that when I get on the metro, anyone else reading will be blowing through Clancy or Brown (the new Clancy). I know that if I enter a frathouse people will be binge drinking and if I enter a library bums will be residing.

  23. I am glad that I am not the
    I am glad that I am not the only one who spends almost the entire day, every day reading. I see my writing as fire, the reading as fuel.

  24. A Man of LeisureI fantasized
    A Man of Leisure

    I fantasized for years about having the time to read and write at leisure. Current life circumstances have allowed for me to do exactly this. For a while I was reading several books simultaneously, but now I try to discipline myself into reading one from start to finish before beginning the next. I prefer to buy books — I have a local thrft store that sells paperbacks for a quarter — so I can write in a highlight passages that I find relevant. I often plan my reading out weeks in advance, but something more interesting always crops up. Reading is truly a natural high.

  25. Recently I’ve been addicted
    Recently I’ve been addicted to audiobooks. I’m wondering what readers think of this appalling new technology. Can one get the same out of a book by listening and not reading? Any thoughts ?

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