For someone who has engaged in a writing life his whole adulthood, I’ve had a rather checkered career as a reader. After a precocious outburst in the classics – Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in second- or third- or fourth-grade (not as class assignments, of course – who knows what we were reading there), I found myself largely oblivious to fiction. My attention turned to history and biography (the Landmark series, especially) and then science and politics. Non-fiction, with a sense of content. Fiction came later, in high school, curiously through political fiction – Brave New World, Lord of the Flies, 1984, rather than any of the traditional British canon. Throw a little Shakespeare in, and I was off – into journalism. (Let me mention that Huck Finn was much harder reading in my junior year of high school than it had been when I was younger; as a novice reader, I wasn’t tripped up by the strange spellings of dialect.)
In college, for whatever reason, I developed a passion for Samuel Johnson. Not for his moralizing as much as the sarcasm, I’d say, as well as a fascination with the baroque richness of his style. Maybe it was just the force of personality projecting from the writing. And then came Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac … the widening stream.
Surprisingly, a major turning point occurred in the span when I had the fewest opportunities to read – my years living in the ashram, a monastic community in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania. Out of the practice of meditation and reflection, however, I began to approach literature in a new way. The quietude opened poetry to me, both as a reader and a writer. The experience also introduced me to mythology, with the Hindu stories being more fantastic and meaningful than anything I had encountered in the Greek and Roman stream. Later, I was able to leap from this into the stories of the Bible as well, returning me to my previously unknown roots.
Others have written of being a promiscuous reader. I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to reading that way – at least, not any more. One of the ashram exercises, in fact, was a “reading fast,” meaning written words, rather than food. It’s all a matter of focus. That is, when I’m eating, I want to choose to concentrate on my food rather than a text. When I’m traveling, I want to see where I’m going. (Airport terminals, on the other hand, or stretches before takeoff, are another matter — they are among those place of limbo.) Later, when the newspaper first comes off the press, I found I could no longer focus on the stories – not after a shift of heavy editing. If anything, my head was so full of disjointed stimulation I needed to slow down to savor what I’d already encountered. For that matter, I prefer walking to jogging, with its restoration of a natural pace. I rush too many places and deliver on too many deadlines as it is. When I enter someone’s home for the first time, I must take care to pay attention to them more than the spines on their bookshelves. Now what were you saying?
I read, then, with greater focus these days. More selectively. I can no longer have classical music playing in the background. (It used to provide a barrier for noise from my family or neighbors.) Now, I immerse myself in what is before me. The text, then, as in scripture.
Out of all of this, my own work emerges. As a writer, I strive to create a linear progression. That is, the parts must advance is some sort of logic. Curiously, in my own work, I am often inspired by a Hegelian model – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – as drawn from cinema theory. On a wider scale, my earlier interests surface in new ways, resulting in something more akin to a matrix or spiral or collage than a straight line. I have been called a Mixmaster, with good reason. On top of it all, in my many moves about the continent, I’ve found myself exploring the soul of each place – something wine aficionados consider, in a smaller range, when they discuss terroir.