I stopped reading books.
When I had hour-long commutes, I listened to audiobooks instead. But as their popularity increased, the narrative quality seemed to decrease. Some books sounded as though they’d been read by computers. Or was the narrator simply incorporating the intonations heard in our digital society? Will there come a time when all stories are related in flat monotone?
I once tried using the dictation app on my computer to create documents, but I found accuracy improved when I mimicked computerized enunciation. And it was hard to relay feelings of passion or sorrow when monitoring and equalizing each syllable.
And bound books didn’t fit in with our rush-about world. Instead, I found myself browsing the web. Taking in short snippets at a time; losing patience for anything longer than a few paragraphs.
And there was another reason I’d stopped reading. Over time, I had collected too many books. They seemed interesting at the time, but passions fluctuate, evolving through experience and the acquisition of knowledge. I now had books that might be interesting to someone else, but were of no significance to the person I’d become.
I tried to ignore them. Whenever I glanced their way, they grumbled. “We thought you liked us. What are you going to do? Spend more money – on others? While dust collects on our spines?”
Finally, I tired of their nagging and evicted them from my home. Into a box they went, and off to the thrift store. Someone else might enjoy them or be willing to tolerate their incessant prodding.
I hadn’t relaxed with a book in hand for several years. Where to start? What were my interests anyway? Was there something I wished to learn?
Living relatively close to the ocean, I’d grown fond of watching dolphins and sea turtles. But I didn’t know much about them. The same for octopuses. And jellyfish too! I’d overcome my fears and touched a Cannonball jelly, fingering the dome of one washed ashore. It wasn’t slimy or soft. Instead, it felt like a big, plastic ball, like those caged in the toy aisles of department stores.
Octopus, by Mather, Anderson, and Wood, has given me an even greater appreciation of these intelligent cephalopods. I think it would be hard to find a better book on these secretive animals. Voyage of the Turtle, by Carl Safina, is primarily about Leatherback sea turtles, but includes interesting tidbits about other animals as well. Safina also provides insights into problems faced by commercial fishermen and how these affect sea turtle recovery.
So I bought a book on octopuses, another on sea turtles, and one on dolphins. And soon I was back to reading.
And shift they did. I discovered birding, and soon wanted to know more about the animals I was watching. I found a fantastic textbook, Ornithology by Frank B. Gill, and consumed it in bits over the next four months.
“From now on,” I thought, “I’ll buy one or two books at a time. Then none will be left behind when my interests shift.”
Then came Covid-19, and I found myself grounded more-or-less. I could venture out once in a while, but birding could not be the all-consuming passion it had become. I ordered a keyboard and decided to teach myself the piano.
I also enrolled in a free Music Appreciation course. When the instructor mentioned that Mozart had created inflammatory operas just prior to the storming of the Bastille, a spark was lit. I suddenly wanted to know more about the French Revolution. So I read Jeremy D. Popkin’s, A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution.
There was a time when I’d have thought, “French Revolution. Boring. The 1700s? Isn’t that kind of ancient history?”
So wrong. So pertinent. And now I want to learn more about that entire period, including more about our own revolution here in America. There is so much to know and understand beyond military battles, which is unfortunately what most history lessons concentrate on.
And I want to know more about Mozart, since he lived when the revolution was brewing; and more about Beethoven, who also lived during this time. And about other seemingly obscure personas who are suddenly coming to life.
But I’ll start with Mozart: A Cultural Biography by Robert W. Gutman. I’m on page 34 and it looks promising. And I have a book on Beethoven in reserve. [Update: This book is really several books in one, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. It is a biography about Mozart, a historical overview of Mozart’s time, and an a detailed analysis of each of his works. I read half; then skipped analyses; then gave up finishing altogether.]
But I’ve already broken my own rule. The recent Black Lives Matter protests led me to watch the movie Selma. Which changed the entire context of my early childhood. And after watching Selma, I found myself watching Harriet, about Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad. A famous woman who I’d known nothing about.
And now I have a book on Civil Rights from 1954-1965 on order. And as I searched for a book on Tubman, I stumbled upon books by other famous women I knew nothing about – Virginia Wolf and Gloria Steinem. And discovered one about the first woman to run for president, Victoria Woodhull. And they were used copies that were inexpensive, so what the heck.
As they say, “Old habits die hard.” But when I gave myself permission to discard the debris, I found new energy and new fascinations. And if these become burdensome, Amazon is always bringing household supplies to my door, so there’s always a box to be had.