Never the same person twice

Musings from the Sofa asks, “does anyone still feel that there are books they ought to read for any reason (beyond work or study)?”  My answer is, well, sort of.  I find the question hard to answer because I get stuck on the word “ought.”  There are multiple senses of the word “ought,” right?  It could mean that I ought to read something, but boy it feels like a chore and I’d rather not.  In that case, I don’t read things I feel I ought to.  But it could also mean there are books I ought to read because they sound like great books and I might like them or I might hate them, but either way they seem worth a try.  These books carry a feeling of obligation too, but also some possibility, and in this case, I do read books I feel I ought to.

But the bigger problem for me with this question is that my feelings about obligation reading and fun reading change, and sometimes they change quickly.  There are books that feel like a fun read one day and an obligation read the next, and they might at some later point feel like a fun read once again.  These shifts don’t always have to do with the book itself, but are sometimes about how I’m feeling about books or life or work or all of them combined.  For example, I like reading multiple books at once — I’m usually in the middle of four or five — and I tend to add to the pile, sometimes getting up to six or seven, during the summer or during winter break.  And then the semester hits, and all that reading that felt like so much fun a while back all the sudden now feels like an obligation.  So that long classic I was enjoying during a more leisurely time all the sudden seems a little too much like work.  I still want to read the book, but it’s become less fun.

Or I’ll pick up a book like Gaddis’s The Recognitions all excited about it and eager to challenge myself with a long difficult novel, and I’ll do fine for a while, and then the sense of newness will wear away and the book will take a turn into some bizarre territory, and I still want to finish the book, but it now requires a little more effort to pick it up than it used to.  It begins to feel a tiny bit like a chore.

The problem is that I love challenges in some moods and don’t in others, and this problem is compounded by the fact that I’m a slow reader (and by the fact that I read multiple books at once so it takes me longer to get through each one) so once I begin something I’ve devoted myself to that book for a decent amount of time.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve developed a strong sense of my own changeability, the way my moods and feelings and desires are constantly in flux, so I have more and more trouble settling on what my actual opinions are.  Ask me a question and the answer you’ll get kind of depends on when you ask.  I don’t mind feeling this way, really; it’s just a little inconvenient at times.  I never know what I’m going to want to read tomorrow, or even an hour from now.


Filed under Books, Reading

11 responses to “Never the same person twice

  1. Well, bravo! I feel this way, too. Often. The feeling of starting books is so very different to the experience of the middle and the anticipation of the end.


  2. Perhaps they met ‘ought to read’, as in ‘if you read this it will change your life indelibly’. Something that will tell us so much about our human experience, that every person should sift through it at least once in their life. But, perhaps that is then ‘studying’.

    It was interesting to see your thoughts progressing.

    I had an interesting experience with both “Remains of the Day” and “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”. In both cases, I picked up the book and read the first chapter, put the book down for a long time, picked it up, put it down; finally, around the fourth or fifth reading of the beginning, I was drawn in and could not easily put it down. I read both of these books around the same time… maybe 1991. My life was extremely busy at that time, which may have contributed, but I think there were other factors.

    “Remains” took awhile to get into because I had to adapt to the style of an Englishman with Japanese sensibilities. Once adjusted, his word smithing was like enjoying a fine meal. “Pilgrim” took awhile to get into because every sentence was packed with at least three things requiring deep thought. It was easy to read a sentence and then stare out the plane window at the tops of clouds and ponder the development process of butterfly wings or some other amazing point.

    Each author really gives their book a spirit of its own and we have to recognize that spirit before we can embrace the reading.


  3. I know just what you mean. For instance, I do NOT want to die without having read Anna Karenina because it really seems like I ought to read it, and last January I was so excited too, but I never completed it and now that excitement has morphed into dread. And I feel like I ought to read Edgar Sawtelle because I am pretty confident I am going to love it, but I haven’t felt like tackling it, and as soon as any sort of “ought to” comes into play, some enthusiasm deteriorates on my end. That said, I do feel I am a lazy enough reader than if i didn’t push myself to the “oughts” sometimes I would spend all my time reading serial mysteries and perhaps it’s horribly snobby or full of myself to say, but I do believe I am smarter than that.


  4. Yes, can definitely relate to this. The ought and the fun keep changing. I’ll be enjoying Pamuk’s The Black Book and then get becalmed and think “well he did win the Nobel prize” and the same is true of Freud. He’s so dry and boring sometimes but then then I think “but so important and I did enjoy him a while ago”. But when I’m really not enjoying a book it’s usually a sign that I’m off-kilter and need to work out what’s bugging me.


  5. Oh Dorothy, it is like you have reached into my brain and pulled out my thoughts and wrote them down for me! Ok, maybe that is a bit over dramatic, but I can agree with everything you said.


  6. musingsfromthesofa

    Thanks for answering my question in such thoroughness. To clarify, by ‘ought’ I meant books that of your own volition you would not pick but are driven to do so by some external factor (be it a recommendation, pressure that everyone who you consider literate has read it, or whatever). But I am beginning to see that the little question I threw out so lightly is much more complex because ‘ought’ is so nebulous a word. Everyone’s ‘ought’ is different. I am finding the responses really interesting.
    I hadn’t thought about it but I do sometimes get that feeling where ‘want’ turns into ‘ought’ if I am in the middle of something that is taking a long time. Generally, it takes me a couple of days to read a book so if I’m still going after a week, I get impatient and my enthusiasm tails off.
    I also get ‘ought’ when enough authors that I like cite something as an influence on them. Then it seems that there’s a gap in my reading I should fill; but also by that time, the ‘ought’ has become ‘want’, so compulsion and desire align.


  7. I can certainly relate to being excited about reading something or starting a project but then your reading conditions change and all of a sudden it’s more like work than pleasure. I’ve had that happen to me on books I was excited about but then later became a drag. I’m not sure what to do when that happens–take a break from the book? If I do that I tend not to pick it up again and I hate not completing things. I’m a slow reader, too, and sometimes when it takes forever to finish something it that also puts a strain on reading and enjoying. I usually just end up starting a new book when this sort of thing happens, but that has problems of its own! 🙂


  8. Some of this “ought” problem for me might have to do with the conditions under which the book is read. I get the most pleasure, and feel the least dutiful, when I read on my commute — in thirty minute increments. That’s enough time to get going, not so much time to get bored. Also, you just feel so happy to have something to do other than stare at the people around you that you view your book with gratitude. When I used to read on my commute, I finished so much stuff that now would feel very ought-like, including War & Peace, which turned out to be perfect for the 30 minute slot. The trouble is that I have replaced reading on my commute with writing, and so I no longer have that lovely reading time. And now many books feel like obligations, because they’re so much more difficult to fit into my life. Hmm. Maybe I need to make some changes!


  9. Litlove — yes, and I think it’s worse when one is a slow reading — so much more time for feelings to change! Oh, well — I’m not sure what can be done about this …

    Bikkuri — I think you’re absolutely right. Each author does have a style that takes a little while to adjust to — you have to learn how to read that particular author. Sometimes this is easy and sometimes it’s not. It’s nice when things start to click — it’s a great feeling of accomplishment when a challenging author starts to make sense.

    Everythinginbetween — I think there’s a value to pushing oneself, but it’s hard to balance pushing oneself with not pushing too hard. And I think the time has to be right to try something challenging. I’d bet that your desire to read Anna Karenina will come back sooner or later — maybe somebody will rave about it, and your feeling of dread will disappear. That’s what happens to me now and then, at any rate.

    Pete — when I’m not liking a book, I think about whether it has to do with my circumstances. Sometimes I feel like that can be a cop-out — the book might just not be very good — but often I can find a reason in my life that explains why I’m struggling. It’s even more likely when I’m talking about a very well-respected book — the Pamuk, for example!

    Stefanie — well, how fun that I have such an ability! 🙂 Glad you agree.

    Musings — I see just what you mean about external factors, and it’s very nice when “ought” turns into “want” so the two align. I’ve also had the experience where I’ll read a book I ought to and find something so completely different from what I expected that my initial trepidation or whatever disappears. I suppose there’s a category of “ought” books that I’m willing to pick up just for the sake of giving them a try, but I should be quicker to set them down if they don’t surprise me in a good way.

    Danielle — I’m not sure what to do either when the fun starts to disappear. I suppose if it’s a badly-written or unimportant book I should be better about setting it aside. When it’s a classic-type book, or one that’s highly respected, I usually just stick it out because I want the experience of finishing it or want to be able to say I finished it. A lot of times, I’ll concentrate on the book I’ve lost excitement about, just to get through it sooner. Not much of a solution, though.

    Bloglily — I’ve taken to reading “ought” books in small increments too, and I definitely like it. I read Proust at a 50 pages a week pace, and I’m reading The Recognitions in the same way. I read in the evenings and often will start with a half hour or so of my “challenge” book and then move to something easier. So yeah, the trick is figuring out how to fit that bit of reading time in!


  10. Shortly after writing this, a friend showed me they are reading Remains in the Japanese translation. I wonder how Ishiguro’s English style and sense carry over. Perhaps I need to read it.


  11. Yet again, I’m over here raising my hand, saying, “Me too. Me too!” to everything you wrote.


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