All my life, my reading habits have been at the mercy of my surroundings. When I was a kid growing up in Venice, Florida, I read books by lamplight on the lower level of my bunk bed, the only place in my house where I could shut myself away from the sounds of a five-person family (CNN Headline News on the living room TV, oven timers blaring and chili pots bubbling, front door opening/closing, younger brother reciting vocab words aloud). When I traveled the country for my first job after college, I trained myself to read anywhere, so long as I had at least fifteen minutes to kill: I’d read books while waiting for meetings to start, or while holed up in some middle-of-nowhere hotel, or while sitting on a bench in the middle of some unbelievably busy campus (Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Texas Tech), paying no attention to the constant activity around me. I prided myself on being able to read not just during long flights, but during take-offs and landings…I knew the precise time to finish a page and stash the book away, too, so that I could rise with the other passengers and move forward and not regret a single moment of reading time lost.
I think that, when most of us picture the act of “sitting down to read a good book,” we have a warm and idyllic image in mind: we picture a fireplace, a long couch where we can kick our feet up on a coffee table, an endtable upon which we can place our glass of red wine or—if it’s summer and the sun is shining—our tall glass of iced tea or lemonade. We picture uninterrupted intimacy with our “good book,” a feeling of “sinking in” to a novel and “losing ourselves” in its “world.” We picture ultimate relaxation and/or escape, a brain massage for hours and hours, maybe even the sensation of falling asleep with the book spread across our chest.
But the truth for serious readers, I’ve realized, is that reading is far messier than the above fantasy. Most of us do not read in front of fireplaces, do not enjoy every word with a perfectly paired glass of wine. Most of us have to carve out our reading time in chunks: on that flight from Houston to St. Louis, on the subway in the mornings and afternoons, on the toilet in the mornings, on the couch as we wait for company to arrive, on our lunch breaks. Sure, most serious readers can point to a time in our lives and say, “Wow, I had it good. I want to get back to those days!” When I was in grad school and living in my final bachelor’s apartment, for instance, I took my book to the community pool and read every single morning (a real benefit to studying in Florida). I made long and thoughtful reading lists, scratched off books that I never thought I’d ever get to read, plowed through 75 pages in a sitting, two books a week. I was on fire. I was tan, too. Most of us have those memories, and we wonder how much we could read—how many books, how many journals, how many magazines and newspaper articles—if we ever got that time or that environment back again.
But right now, despite still living in Florida, I’ve grown pale, and erratic in my reading habits. Quite simply, I take what I can get.
On January 5th of this year, my wife gave birth to a healthy and beautiful baby boy named Jackson William Holic, and…well, for anyone that’s had children, you understand pretty clearly…it’s a magical event, a magical experience, and your heart pulls a Grinch and grows three sizes overnight, and you wouldn’t trade it for anything…but any control that you once had over your personal schedule—your sleep/wake time, your workouts, your breakfast/lunch/dinner, your reading—slips away so fast that you never even get a chance to say goodbye.
For the past month, I’ve been reading while burping baby Jackson. Before I even sit down to feed him, I arrange the burping cloth on the couch’s arm rest, the bottle on the coffee table, and a book on one couch cushion. Then I give Jackson the bottle, feed him, wipe his face, and bring him up to my shoulder for some hearty back pats. With my free hand, I grab the book, and I get in however many pages I can; one paragraph here, a few sentences there; with any luck, I’m able to lull little Jackson to sleep, and he rests on my chest as I read. That’s how I carve out my reading time. But of course, like a formulaic sitcom, things are bound to go wrong, right? A sudden terrible cry, an unleashing of spit-up (or worse), a quick end to the three-page reading experience. But we’ve been dealing with it, me and Jackson, father and son, burper and burpee, reader and napper.
Even in the hospital, waiting to pack up my wife and son and head home, I was wondering how Jackson’s arrival would affect my overall reading life. (For those who have never had kids: you get a lot of time in that damn hospital to just sit and stare and think.) As 2012 started, I was finishing up The Best American Non-Required Reading 2011, a collection I’d assigned as the textbook for my “Writing For Publication” course, and I was getting anxious that I might not finish before the semester started. No matter what, there was no getting around this book: I had to read it because I’d assigned it. But…hospital…baby…could I do it?
In the early days of Jackson’s life, I found myself reading the shortest articles and stories from Non-Required first. Usually, I read anthologies the way I listen to albums: I just go in order because, hey, someone probably thought that this particular order was important. But now (baby squirming on my stomach, on my shoulder, clawing his way around), I was skipping ahead to page 355 because that story was only nine pages long, and I knew that if I couldn’t get through a story in about fifteen minutes, the page would be dog-eared and the book would be set down and I would go change a diaper and get peed on and scream in terror and then something else would happen, and something else, and then I’d be making bottles of formula and scarfing down a bowl of pasta before the baby woke up but then he’d start to stir and cry and then would need to be rocked and then—hours later—I’d suddenly find myself sitting on a chair with the baby in my arms and wondering about the book I placed on the table. Did I ever finish that story?
Best American Non-Required Reading was indeed finished by early January, and I was able to enjoy it, too. I fell into Anthony Doer’s “The Deep” and J. Robert Lennon’s “Weber’s Head,” and was appropriately absorbed by the nonfiction from Mother Jones and Esquire and Sports Illustrated. So I knew that I could do this. I knew I’d find a way to maintain a strong reading life even while maintaining a writing/ teaching career and caring for a child. But I was still anxious, still curious about how.
And listen, there are thousands of blog entries and academic articles and craft essays in print and online that discuss the “writer’s process,” how we’re able to find the time in our busy schedules to sketch out stories and novels and memoirs, but so few consider the precious time that we devote to our reading lives. This series is my attempt to do that, to track how I read now that I’ve become a father, how the reading habit has changed, how the books themselves (and the selections of books) change now that a baby is grasping at my neck. For the most part, I’ll try to tackle small-press literature and stay positive while also giving the authors the courtesy and respect of delivering honest criticism, but—on the graph of book blogging—this series exists somewhere to the south of “review” but still north of “fawning reader site.” I apologize in advance for any graphic depictions of diaper changings, but I hope that I’ll be able to come to some honest conclusions about why we select books and how we read, and that I’ll also be able to offer some strong recommendations for your own reading lives (baby or no baby).