Reading shouldn't be a chore

on accepting the things that you like, and those that you do

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Happy Friday my bookmarks. I’ve been having a bit of *a time* lately, so today’s newsletter is simple. It’s about letting yourself escape and giving yourself permission to let reading be fun.

Lately, I keep returning to Laurie Colwin’s work. Earlier this year, I set a challenge to read the entire oeuvre of an author and picked Colwin because—at the time— I had read two of her books without coming up for air. I’d simply picked them up and not wanted to put them down. They were strange, fairly basic novels generally about women having affairs and trying to get out of the reduced lives they’d somehow ended up in. It’s easy to identify with that pain now, as we are all now leading extremely reduced lives without much intrigue or enjoyment. I’ve become so acquainted with Colwin’s work that I see her repeated phrases now, her repeated imagery choices. This does not bother me. I love her.

Part of the reason I keep returning to Colwin is that her books are easy for me to read. I want them.

All I think about now is chores. There are so many chores and the addition of tiny chores is grating on me. Washing my mask every time I come back inside from walking the dog is exhausting. Making sure to take my shoes off immediately used to be something I did subconsciously and now annoys me. The dishes in the sink breed like fruit flies. There is always another meal to cook. Staying in our small apartment full time has made it dirtier. In the last week we’ve spilt coffee, wine, and maple syrup on the rug in the living room which is mostly white. Despite changing the sheets at the same rate as before it feels like we’re doing it every day. How is there so much laundry when I wear the same black sweatpants every single day? Things that I could once trick myself into believing were fun —like exercise —now hold no inherent joy. They are chores. Everything is a chore. Even the idea of trying to find something fun to do with this long weekend is a chore: how do you stay safe? what is the morality of renting a car just to drive and see some different trees for one goddamn minute? would we be able to stop for gas? What would we eat?

There has been a lot of rhetoric (content) about how now is the time to tackle a book that you’ve never been able to tackle before. Now, these people say, is the time for Anna Karinina, for War and Peace, for Nabokov and Bronte and Thomas Mann. Now, the content assures is the perfect time to immerse yourself in a big hearty book because you have time for it. What bullshit.

Culture shouldn’t be a chore unless you actively want it to be. But we don’t talk about reading that way. Reading is too often conflated with learning, and while often we do read to learn, that is work. I should read that, we say. But why?

Here’s the thing: unlike other forms of entertainment, we are used to hating reading. We were all assigned books we didn’t like in English class that we were made to read and write a paper on and maybe even underline uses of symbolism in. We are accustomed to reading being difficult and strenuous and annoying, and so we think maybe it has to be that way. Maybe we must read something “hard” in order to read something “good.” Every once in a while someone will do this with another form of culture: they will insist you must watch Mad Men or you’re uncultured. They will demand that if you haven’t seen every Ingrid Bergman film you’re a neophyte. How childish they will perceive you! But in the last few years, there has been a good pushback against that kind of rhetoric as defining of you as a person. Sure, there are television shows that are “high art,” that are beautifully shot and perfectly acted and full of small devastating moments. But (maybe because television isn’t taught in schools) it’s easy to just quit a show you look at your phone during even if the critics said it was great.

Now is not the time to be ambitious in your culture. Now is a time to re-watch a show you love, to download rom-coms to turn on and escape in, to laugh your head of at a dumb comedy. Now isn’t the time to figure out how to love Breaking Bad. Now is the time for season 2 of Grey’s Anatomy, a literally perfect season of television with so much happening during it that you can’t possibly worry about the death count hitting 100k or how all your mugs are dirty again. Now is the time to have some culture that brings you joy, as a little treat. And that includes books.

This isn’t a newsletter that says anything new. I’ve encouraged you all to quit books before. But it is a reminder that just because you have more free time now does not mean that you have to read books that you don’t like. If anything, a terrifying global pandemic is the perfect time to read a book that isn’t difficult, a book that picks you up and transports you out of the world we are terribly stuck in and drops you off somewhere else. Now is the time for stories that are just good no matter how silly they are or how other people might perceive them.

Here are a few books I’ve read in the past few years that I’ve loved and that (though they are beautifully written and well-structured) don’t fit into the mold of books we are being told to read right now because we have time. Grey’s Anatomy Season 2 of books, you might say:

  • Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid —This is the book I’m forcing on people this spring. Reid is a great writer, and this book is a tornado. It’s suspenseful, you hate almost everyone in it, and it’s smart of race and class and internet fame.

  • Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston — I shoved this romance novel about the president's teenage son’s love affair with the prince of England into the hands of everyone I saw last summer and now I bring it to you.

  • There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya —In all honestly this is the book I give to people when I want them to think I am cool. I gave it to a far too cool woman who did my forearm tattoo and she loved it because the thing is everyone loves it. This book is creepy and mystical and absolutely full of weird ass shit that you’ll fall asleep thinking about. It is also gorgeous and inspiring and strange.

  • Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell— This is the only dude book on this list, but it is truly an escape to travel to the suburbs and sit with a 1960s housewife who is bored out of her mind and how that eats at her and her relationships over time.

  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison — I’ve written about this before, but Jemison’s trilogy of science-fiction books about a young girl who can move rocks in a post-apocalyptic world is the only sci-fi book I’ve been able to read maybe ever. I loved it

  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang — extremely short and extremely weird. Kang’s translated novel was the first I read in years that I finished and immediately wanted to start back over again to see how it was pulled off.

Painting is Woman Reading in a Forest, by Gyula Benczur.

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