In the Land of the Non-Reader

Jonathan Gourlay stops reading books. This is what happens to him.

Photo by Kim Mason

A few months ago, I stopped reading books.

At night I crawl into bed and thumb my iPhone to life. I watch Star Trek: Voyager on the Netflix app. It’s not a bad show. But somehow it is difficult to compare the weeks it took to complete the seven-season voyage through the Delta Quadrant with Capt. Janeway and the weeks I spent reading my favorite books — thick books by Eliot, Laxness, Dickens, and Pamuk. I know there is an argument that serialized television drama is as complex and soul-nourishing as a good book, but, unfortunately, I don’t care for the shows that are usually held up as modern classics for non-readers: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc. I have never seen an episode of these shows. If you want to reach me, say it with alien explosions and busty cyborgs.

Back when I was a reader, it often troubled me when friends claimed that they had no time to read. Was it possible that their lives were so full of wonders that they could not spend five minutes here or there to read? How was it that my life, in comparison, seemed to offer so many chunks of reading time throughout the day? A train ride, a late-night break, and an office wait. Through marriage, babies, graduate schools, and new jobs, I always found time to read for pleasure.

Alas, dear reader, the term “pleasure” doesn’t capture the mental and physical need for books I once had. Without a book nearby I felt bereft, purposeless, barely human. Once upon a time I lived in a far-flung foreign swamp with an extended family of non-readers. I frightened them one night when I stumbled home drunk and ransacked the house for a lost tome. A nice cousin had cleaned the house and of course she, like most people, would never feel a deep compulsion to read all of Dickens. So my book got cast off or put away or tossed to the silent frogs in the swamp. (Yes, they were silent frogs.) I screamed, “Sid, where are my drugs!” in my best, cackling Nancy Spungen voice and I laughed for being woozily hilarious to myself but could find no rest without a page of my book to send me to sleep. Books were a long-time lover whose steady weight I needed to feel in bed before sleep was possible. It turned out that the swamp heathens had used Bleak House to balance a very wobbly chair.

Books can steady a chair and a soul. The former use is not recommended for Kindle.

The last book I read was Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy. That was months ago. After one day of non-reading I figured, well, perhaps some nights I can I go to sleep with visions of Neelix the Talaxian annoyer on Voyager, rather than Boethius’ prickly and combative angel of philosophy. What’s the harm? After a week of non-reading, I said to myself that I was busy. So busy. Too busy, really, to start a new book. After three weeks of non-reading, my brain felt a bit numb. I told myself that I was working so hard that I couldn’t engage with a book. I fell, instead, into a steady diet of Netlix, Hulu, Skyrim, and the NFL. Like an addict in the early stages of recovery, I felt a euphoric at being released from the bitter yoke of my addiction. As a non-reader I felt free to happily non-think all day. It was delicious. Almost animal. I craved red meat and raw sex and new episodes of Fringe.

Then I opened Skyrim and saw the following message: “48 hours played. Last played today.”

I must have some free time. Perhaps the “I don’t have time to read” line is just a cover. A way that people excuse themselves from the uncomfortable truth that they do, in fact, have time but that they would rather do something other than read with that time (such as pretending to be a wood-elf). We exalt reading as “good” like exercise and vegetables and so we are always making excuses as to why we avoid it.

After I saw that message I knew that I had taken up residence in the swamp of the non-reader. Here is what life is like in that swamp:

  1. The world is flat. Not in the sense of a level economic playing field (an idea I once read about, when I read). No, the world is flat because I see no depth. I make no associations. Life unfolds as a rather dull soap opera with bathroom breaks.
  2. I can no longer reason and cannot be trusted to make a decision. My brain is distracted by second-hand sensations. When the slightest complexity arises in my life, I crave the screen world – the simple goal of building a house in Minecraft or the easily dis-entangled one-hour conundrums that beset the Voyager crew.
  3. I can no longer relax. My Skyrim character now has a longer to-do list than my red-flagged Outlook task-list at work. My days at work and home consist of quests and side-quests leading to more quests and side-quests. I have lost the main narrative.
  4. I am empty, but not in a monkish way. I am just kind of dumb. Also, without the pleasing empathy that comes from engaging with new ideas, places, and characters, I am afraid of foreigners and easily manipulated by politicians and advertisements.
  5. I have the attention span of cocaine-addled four-year old. My mind is an ’80s Scorsese montage on fast-forward. It’s all sound and fury signifying – are you kidding me? Star Wars in 3D? WTF?

My iPhone has uploaded my fiery libido into the cloud, where it is currently carousing with a Beyoncé video. I crave that cloud. The endless gamboling streams of deathless entertainment… Heaven 2.0. Oh, to be formless, streamed, and exciting. To float above the earth in multiple formats. To be downloaded occasionally into the pockets of a soma-hazed populace. To walk a moment upon the warming globe and then ride in the aether of entertainment. Finding a thrill. A thrill. A thrill and no thought. And another thrill. And no thought.

An inner voice vibrates in the addled idle of my non-reading life. Somehow the words wormed through centuries to arrive upon a still-firing synapse and spin these lines:

What win I, if I gain the thing I seek?
A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.
Who buys a minute’s mirth to wail a week?
Or sells eternity to get a toy?

In conclusion: I started reading books again.

Photo by Kim Mason

Jonathan Gourlay is an editor at The Bygone Bureau and author of the ebook Nowhere Slow: Eleven Years on a Micronesian Island. He lives in the quiet corner of Connecticut where he is a vicarious goat herder. Follow him on Twitter.