Due to a scheduling snafu, I had to swap days, and Alexandra graciously obliged. I’m taking her spot today, and she’ll be taking mine next Wednesday. So, if you’re disappointed Alex isn’t here—and how could you not be?—take heart, she’ll be here at the controls this coming Wednesday, February 8th.
John Updike once remarked that he realized early on he couldn’t be both a reader and a writer and he had to choose one or the other. As my career has progressed I’ve increasingly realized the truth of that insight, unpleasantly so.
Writers are readers first and foremost. But recently the onslaught of work has been so overwhelming my reading has come to a virtual standstill. The time it takes to write, pitch, research, keep up with the business of writing (with more research required), prepare for my classes, teach, network, do my volunteer work in the community—I feel like I’m skating across my days like a madman on black ice. More and more often I wake up with a jolt of apprehension clenched in my gut. I know I’m behind, I know I can’t keep up, I know the stakes.
Read? For pleasure? It is to laugh.
One sneaky outlet I always had was the High Crimes book group I lead at my local indie bookstore. I knew that I’d get to read at least one book I wanted to each month. But even that has fallen apart on me. During December I was supposed to be reading Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling. I loved the book, and was really enjoying it, but I got only halfway through by the time the group met to discuss it.
I promised to do better this month with Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, a book I again was loving, but I barely got past page 20. I’m not exaggerating.
This isn’t just irritating, it’s irresponsible. I’m letting my group down. Worse, I feel like I’m letting myself down.
I’m not one of those writers who can’t read fiction when he’s writing. I actually get inspired reading fiction I admire and relish when I’m working on my own book. I take care of the voice-infection problem, the possibility that what I’m reading will seep into my own voice, by going back over what I’ve written the day before as I begin working and tidying it up before moving on to new pages. But now that inspirational fertilization of my imagination, that spur to my creativity, is absent. And I feel it.
I know we all have TBR piles that seem overwhelming. My TBR pile became a box, then several boxes, then a closet, and now pretty much consumes a whole second office. In no particular order (who has time to prioritize what you’ll never get to do?):
The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter
Lucifer at the Starlight by Kim Addonizio
The City The City by China Miéville
The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
Spooner by Pete Dexter
The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell
Nothing to be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes
The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
Dreamland by Newton Thornburg
Murder City by Charles Bowden
2666 by Roberto Bolaño
The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow
The Hidden Assassins by Robert Wilson
The Dead Yard by Adrian McKinty
Body of Lies by David Ignatius
Ash & Bone by John Harvey
The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst
He Kills Coppers by Jake Arnott
Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo
I’m just listing the ones in easy reach. There are so many more—including books written by my friends and my fellow Murderateros. And I have to reread James Crumley’s The Wrong Case for an article I’ve been asked to do, and I should probably reread The Last Good Kiss while I’m at it, and I’m reading a number of writing guides as I conduct my courses and write my own book on character, and and and…
It’s not just that I feel like a slaggard. I feel like I’m letting the most important thing, one of my life’s greatest pleasures, slip away. And in no small way, it’s killing me.
Warren Zevon wrote an anthem to life at full throttle: “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” I’m beginning to think that’s when I’ll get some reading in.
So, Murderateros—what book or books have you been aching to get to but just can’t? What is it that’s swallowing up your days? Is the pace of modern life really accelerating or are we just becoming increasingly scattered and unfocused? And if we don’t read, who will?
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: Take a wild guess.