At some point in high school or college, I remember being assigned some selection from Harold Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence. I can’t, for the life of me, recall what passage we read for class or why, but the title comes to mind every time I get into a reading rut. Today, I am in a serious reading rut. The past few weeks, I haven’t been spending much time with books. I cracked open Murakami’s 1Q84 in mid-October, and though his work is typically something I can’t keep my hands off of, I’ve consumed all of two-hundred pages since then. I’ve also been sitting on Eduardo C. Corral’s brilliant poetry collection, Slow Lightning, unable to push through the last few pages and pass it along to the friend I promised it to. I have a to-read list I’m loathe to record here for posterity, as writing every title I mean to get to sometime soon will betray me as poorly-versed in what plenty of my friends and peers deem essential to a writing identity. I quoted Joan Didion last week, but I’ve only actually read one of her books, The Year of Magical Thinking, in its entirety. When authors mention the writers that shaped their work in interviews, I cringe, knowing I should have gotten around to some Octavia Butler or Edwidge Danticat by now. I’ve not read Vonnegut (tried in high school when everyone was doing it, hated him) or Bukowski (ditto), writers most of the bibliophiles around me agree are the bees knees. I bought a beautiful copy of War and Peaceafter a course in Tolstoy that made me fall in love with Russian fiction five years ago, but I’ve yet to even write my name on the inside cover. All these books are more than worthy of my attention. Much more worthy than all the circuits of internet I’ve been treading and retreading, from blog to email server to Duotrope to Twitter, back and forth until I shut down my laptop for the night and get into bed. I know it’s not the quality of the work that’s holding me back, but something much more nebulous, intangible.
When I can’t get through the books on my plate, I tend not to write much either. I’ve never been able to figure out whether the dearth of writing is the product of the drop of in reading or vice versa. Normally, I’m firmly of the mind that to be a good writer, you must be a voracious reader. I like to think I’m a decent writer. I feel confident workshopping my drafts and reading my work in public, do alright when it comes to publishing. But to call myself a voracious reader in my current state would be self-flagellation; saying such a thing is an invitation to the other party in the conversation to interrogate your taste. ”What are you reading right now?” I dread being asked that question. Not because I have nothing to answer with, but because it invariably leads to the asker telling me what they are reading, then insisting I read it myself. I then have to add the title to my ever ballooning list of books to get too. And my bookcase grows ever-more intimidating.
There are ways around the attitude that a book is an insurmountable task, but you have to start small. Running interference on my brain by taking in some (or any) kind of writing helps–I’ve been picking up back issues of journals lying around my apartment and reading them in fits and starts. The frequent shifts in form, tone, and content in publications like the brilliantly quirky Forklift, Ohio have been a godsend. I read all the articles in every issue of Vanity Fair that arrives in my mailbox; it’s not always a literary experience, but it’s something. And as long as I don’t have any pressing errands to take care of, I spend my lunch hour at the office curled up with a book. Even if I can only manage fifty pages a day, it makes me feel like less of a fraud when anyone asks about my degree in literature.
Bloom’s Anxiety is built around the concept that poets feel oppressed by the generation that came before and that this anxiety is what informs a lot of their work, preventing it from being truly original because of how preoccupied the poet is with her predecessor. Some days, this thesis applies to me. If I’m working on a story or poem, I try to steer clear of work that might pollute my own with borrowed ideas–the last thing I want to do is accidentally regurgitate somebody else’s artistic product and write solely in reaction to what they’ve already said. But I’d be lying if I said that reading doesn’t help me write. The most powerful aspect of reading is how it transports you worlds away without forcing you to leave the comfort of your favorite chair. That transportive quality is invaluable, and it is what I most want my own work to have whenever I start in on a new piece of writing. Instead of being scared of how few of the books on my list of to-reads I’ll actually get to, I have to remind myself of how many people I have met through the pages of a book, how much I’ve learned about myself as a writer (and a person) just by slogging through someone else’s imagined universe a handful of pages at a time.