On coconuts and literature: Reading books as a discipline
by Patrick Dobson
Graduate work in the humanities ruins a person’s ability to read books. I know. I spent three years writing my dissertation. I walked away from my defense last November with a Ph.D. in history, the esteem of my colleagues, and the inability to read a book.
Historians — this historian, anyway — don’t read books. My dissertation bibliography lists over 200 books as references, and it hides a lie. Through my coursework and research for the dissertation, I handled books but didn’t read them. I split open monographs like coconuts. I rooted around in them. As a parasitic bacterium consumes its host, I sucked the life out of prefaces, forwards, and introductions. I fluttered pages, found juicy citable bits, and took what I needed. I filled notebooks with author arguments. I knew by heart chapter openers and closers. I seized conclusions. I found facts, figures, and quotes . . . whole genera of information I could use to make my historical arguments and build my own narratives.
After the defense, I stood at the entrance to Cockefair Hall at UMKC and thought, “Today I want to read a book.” I missed books, stories, narratives as textured documents. I dreamed of sitting for lonely hours, sunk into fuggy pages. I looked forward to living other people’s lives, sailing for foreign shores, and riding trains through strange lands.
That night, I tried to reread my favorite travel memoir, Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, but failed. I read only five or six pages before I found myself skipping forward, skimming, and reminding myself what I’d read years before. For an hour or so, I fought the compulsion to get the book “over with.” I settled back into reading — Chatwin’s prose is hauntingly spare, his images illuminating — only to find myself again fifty pages ahead, having read only what I needed to understand the course of the narrative.
The discipline of reading, just reading one word and the next as they blend into a series of sentences and images that become a book, escaped me. Reading got lost in research, in all those chapter openers and arguments, in all those coconuts.
I set out, then, to learn how to read again. I have an incredible capacity to form discipline appropriate to my endeavor. If I want to write a book, I get started with 1,000 words a day. If I want to blog (www.patrickdobson.blogspot.com), I spend an hour or two every day writing essays. The problem was that with dissertation writing I fell out of the discipline of writing books and blogs and instead spent seven to eight hours every day in front of a computer screen until I completed my academic project.
Then, when the project was over, I found myself out in the intellectual cold. I didn’t have the discipline of daily reading or writing narrative. I was a fish on dry ground.
I’m good at forming a discipline, and I understand that good disciplines are not crafted overnight. I started rereading In Patagonia in concentrated ways. I determined that I would read ten pages or a half hour each day. That’s not much, but good disciplines start small. Within a month, I picked up Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Stars, then more of Saint-Exupery’s work. I found myself reading an hour a day, then two. Practice increased my reading speed. Within two months, I went from reading twenty pages an hour to thirty. By the end of May, I was reading forty to fifty pages an hour. And I was reading two and three hours a day.
I know people who complain that people don’t read books anymore. The Atlantic reported in January of 2014 that a quarter of Americans did not read a book in the previous year. Another quarter read eleven books in 2013. That’s sounds pretty good. But that also means that a small minority of us is reading the lion’s share of books read in the U.S. every year. These numbers are way down from 1978, when 42 percent of Americans read at least eleven books a year.
I’m not a nostalgic type that looks to any bygone era as one we should recreate. Outside of the euphorically remembered parts, yesteryear was crummy and generally crummier than today. Even when the past was better for one group of people, it was generally screwed up for everyone else. When I heard that people didn’t fornicate, use drugs, or watch television in the 1950s, I can’t help but think that fornication, drug use, and distraction are as old as humanity itself. Plus, the fifties weren’t great for African Americans, immigrants, and Hispanics. Like Black Americans, Asian Americans never experienced a great era.
Sure, in 1978, we read more books. But our food was bad, our clothes were a joke, and our popular music was fantastically rotten.
In my experience, kids read books when their parents read books. When parents make excuses for not reading, kids make those same excuses. When parents don’t shut off the video games, kids don’t read. When parents watch television, kids don’t read. I just had a long conversation with a guy who gave me all the well-worn excuses for not reading books. He didn’t have time. His work demanded too much of his attention. He had kids. He did all kinds of things that benefited his kids’ educations. He didn’t need to read books to get on in life. Etc.
I may not be right on this, but I bet his kids won’t be readers.
In my experience as a teacher, I’ve found that the best writers are those students who read books. My students who don’t read books write essays as they would write texts. Many people don’t know how to put together a sentence not because someone didn’t teach them how to write a sentence but because no one taught them — and they never bothered — to read.
While I was relearning to read, I decided that I’d limit myself to travel memoir and history. I am very democratic in my reading. Left to my own devices, I read short stories, novels, narrative nonfiction, philosophy, religion, and science. My inclination is to read anything that falls into my grasp. But sometimes I know what’s good for me. Since my favorite nonfiction has always been travel, and since I write travel memoir myself, sticking to that genre helps me write good travel memoir. I am a historian and reading history helps me with my academic pursuits.
Once I was able to swallow a book again, in quick succession I read Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Night Flight, and Flight to Arras, Richard White’s Railroaded! The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Steven Diner’s A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild!, Robert Sullivan’s My American Revolution, and Jonathan Spiro’s Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant.
These books represent a small bit of my summer reading. Since the start of the school semester on August 18 — I teach history at Johnson County Community College — I’ve read another six books. I revel in the fact that I can read books again, and I love it. I’m reading at least two books a week. My goal is three — in addition to my duties as a teaching professor, my other writing, and my academic projects.
A discipline starts small, but when I put my mind to something . . .
I don’t watch television at the end of the day anymore. I don’t do much Facebook — just a smart-ass comment two or three time a week. I don’t surf the Internet much. I read. I write. I don’t want to return to the days of splitting coconuts. The world is right again.
Patrick Dobson is the author of Seldom Seen: A Journey into the Great Plains. His second book, Canoeing the Great Plains: A Summer on the Missouri River, will be published by the University of Nebraska Press on May 1, 2015. His history monograph, “More Than a River: Using Nature for Reform in the Progressive Era” is now out for peer-review with the University of Nebraska Press.